I miss my stick shift, I really do. I miss being able to row through the gears on a twisty country road. You can approximate a stick shift with a manu-matic (as I have in my Outlander), but it’s not quite the same. In fact, there are some serious shortcomings with automatics of any type, but you can boil it all down to one thing: the ability to select a gear before you need it.
Let me explain. (First, though, a disclaimer – what I’m about to talk about applies largely to small-engine vehicles; i.e. 4-cylinder engines. With bigger engines, the power band is different, so some of the values I’m about to talk about will be different, although much of the same principle applies, it just applies at different speeds and engine RPMs.)
Let’s say you’re cruising around at about 35 MPH. In most cars, this is a gray area for the transmission – you could be in 3rd or 4th gear, depending on certain factors. If you’re cruising along a flat road, your automatic transmission will probably have you in 4th gear – the top gear in many cars – like mine. But let’s say you need to accelerate quickly, maybe to take a corner or zip past someone.
In an automatic, all you can do it put your foot down on the gas to get going. The car will detect the increased throttle and try to respond. Since you are in 4th gear, and probably running around 2,000 RPMs, this is too low for the gear ratio, so the automatic transmission will have to down shift into 3rd, or maybe even into 2nd, depending on how hard you mash the throttle.
Sounds well and good, but what you have to keep in mind is that you’ve already put your foot down – you need to go now. But your car has to wait a moment while it realizes that it can’t go, and then you’ve got all sorts of hydraulic (or, depending on your car, electronic) systems that need to adjust their settings so that the car can shift gears. This takes time – and that is the problem. There’s always a lag with automatic transmissions from when you mash the gas down, to when the car actually responds by shifting gears. Now you’ve wasted a second (or two, if your transmission is sluggish) just sitting there, hardly accelerating at all. This may be fine for around-town driving, but if you like spirited driving, it is no fun at all.
With a manual transmission, you know that you’re going to want to accelerate in a moment – because you are the one who’s going to do it. So you pop the clutch and shift gears, and then, when you mash on the throttle, the car is already in 3rd, and you zoom away – keeping the car’s engine in the “power band” for your engine, with the RPMs tuned just right. Zoom-zoom, baby!
Now, some of the more astute readers out there might think “but you still have a time delay – you have to shift gears yourself, mash the clutch in, move the gear shift lever, and that takes time too!” And you’d be right. But the important thing to remember is that YOU moved the gears BEFORE you needed them (mechanically speaking). With an automatic, the gear change happens AFTER you need it. That difference is what makes an automatic feel sluggish, while the same car with a manual transmission (and a competent driver, of course) feels “sporty” and responsive.
So what about a manual-automatic hybrid, what some people call a “sport-tronic” or “manu-matic” transmission? Just pop the lever over to “manual” and down-shift, right? Well, not quite.
You see, unlike a manual transmission, an automatic transmission is always “in gear,” so to speak. I’ll spare you the technical details of planetary gear assemblies and so forth, but suffice to say that in automatic transmissions, the engine is always connected to the drive shaft. In a manual transmission, by definition, when you push the clutch in, you are disconnecting the engine from the drive shaft. The engine is spinning freely, with no load on it. Because of this, you can use the accelerator to bring the engine up to the right speed (RPM) before you re-engage the drive shaft. Thus, when you let out the clutch, the engine is already at the speed (RPM) you need for the most power. An automatic has to struggle through a (very brief) period of going either too fast or too slow for the gear you are in, before things get back “in synch,” so to speak. (The more technical readers out there are going to take me to task over this simplification – bear with me here guys, I know the details and I know this isn’t exact, but I’m trying to make a point here.)
So there you have it – even with a “manu-matic” transmission, there will always be a delay in power delivery when shifting gears, while a manual gives you the ability to anticipate power needs and shift gears accordingly. When someone invents an automatic transmission that can read your mind, maybe this won’t be a problem anymore, but until then… a manual will always win.
(p.s. Let’s leave out of this discussion the “flappy-paddle” shifting cars that actually do have a clutch, but the car controls it, rather than the driver controlling it via a pedal. These sorts of systems are popular on high-performance – and expensive – sports cars, and they work surprisingly well, but the computer is still in control – not you – even though you can force gear changes with the paddles and get the same benefits described above to having a clutch. Such systems don’t exist in the “average” car yet, and I don’t know if they ever will, due to their complexity. And even if they do work their way down to everyday cars, as I said, the computer is still controlling the clutch, and it will never be as “smart” as you – the driver – nor will it be able to anticipate your intentions the way you, with full manual control over the gear changes, could do.)