Manual vs. Automatic

A while back I read a couple of editorials over at The Truth About Cars regarding the “Death of the Stick Shift.” This got me quite worked up, though it took me a while to get my thoughts in order and get motivated to write about it. For reference, here are the articles themselves that spawned this dissertation of mine – including a final editorial in favor of manual transmissions:

So, here goes:

The manual vs. automatic debate has been going on for years, with the commonly accepted “facts” of manual transmissions giving higher gas mileage and better “control.” Some people have said that driving a stick shift requires too much concentration from the driver – in other words, a stick shift is distracting you from driving. Other people say that the torque converter in an automatic “sucks” power away from the engine, giving lackluster performance.

IMHO, in case it wasn’t painfully obvious from my many other posts on the subject, the manual transmission is superior. You just can’t beat the level of control it offers.

In the above articles, it is argued that modern automatics make the manual transmission obsolete. Now, this IS true – to a certain extent. The truly modern automatics are very good – like, say, the ones you can find on your $50,000+ luxury sedans & sports cars. Combined with sophisticated traction control, yaw sensors, and so forth, these systems can provide a superb driving experience.

But let’s face some facts – these systems are EXPENSIVE. And your average car doesn’t have them. At least, not anything I can afford.

So, let’s get to the meat of the argument: control. Does a stick shift really give you more control?

I’d argue yes, of course. You see, I’ve driven a lot of cars in my short 9 years of driving – automatics and stick shifts alike. I learned to drive on an automatic Dodge Omni; owned an automatic K-Car, started to learn stick on a manual Dodge Neon and then a manual Chevy S-10, and finally wrapped everything up with a sport-tronic automatic Mitsubishi Outlander. Along the way I’ve driven a full-sized GMC Seirra 1500 (automatic), a fun & sporty Alpha Romeo (manual), a powerful Pontiac LeMans (automatic), a bulky Ford Explorer (automatic), an even bulkier Lincoln Town Car (automatic), a wimpy Ford Focus (automatic) and even a slightly scary Honda 700cc motorcycle (manual).

The basic premise on which I base my assertions that the manual is better is control – specifically, control of engine power delivery. With a manual, I can keep the engine in it’s “power band,” and ensure that it’s in that power band when I want it to be. For “spirited” driving, there’s no comparison. The manual lets me keep the power of the engine right where I want it, based on the conditions of the road. No matter how sophisticated the electronics, the automatic transmission will never be smarter than the human brain that’s actually driving the car.

There’s also the issue of shift speed to be considered. Every automatic I’ve driven shifts slowly from gear to gear. Even the current Keithmobile – the Outlander, which its “sport-tronic” transmission that lets me shift up & down with the push of a lever – shifts slower from gear to gear than a comparable manual. When you’re doing that “spirited” driving, that delay is definitely No Fun.

In addition, there are other features of the manual that I miss to this day – the ability to rev the engine up for a lightning-quick start; the ability to break the rear wheels loose with a bit of clutch & throttle play around a sharp corner; and the ability to do engine breaking. For example, I used to be able to bring the Keithmobile-C (the S-10) to almost a complete stop – without using my brakes. Come to think of it, in the nearly 100,000 miles I put on that truck, I don’t think I ever replaced the brakes. Every time I had them checked, the people doing the checking would say something like “yeah, your brakes are fine, they look like they’re still being broken in!” Not so in the Keithmobile-D (the Outlander). It’s brakes are due for replacement next month, and I’ve put far fewer miles on it than the Keithmobile-C had.

Now, having been a courier for 2 years, I can appreciate the seductive allure of the automatic transmission to the average commuter. Goodness knows I’ve complained enough about driving in traffic with a manual. And during the time I was a courier with the Keithmobile-D, it was quite a bit nicer to not have to shift – though the constant braking was almost as annoying as the constant down-shifting. Go figure.

For the “average” driver, an automatic may be a good choice. And the automatic has its place in other circumstances as well – for example: plowing. As you’re probably aware, it’s snowed quite a bit around here lately, and I can tell you there are very few people out there doing professional snow plowing with manual transmissions. It’s just not practical – you’d burn out your clutch. The torque converter in an automatic takes the abuse of pushing tons of snow around at slow speeds much better than a manual would – mostly because of the wider gear range in an automatic. And for taxi drivers and limo drivers, there’s not even any realistic choice – it’s an automatic all the way. And big trucks, that is, big diesel trucks (and buses) need an automatic to handle the job of moving a huge mass of metal (although many of these big automatic systems are “sport-tronic” in the same way as my Outlander). UPDATE: I should correct myself somewhat here – most buses are automatic, due to the constant stop & go factor, “tractor-trailer” trucks that haul large, heavy loads still tend to have manuals – although this is changing in many areas as automatics are built that can take the load and provide the necessary gear reduction – which is the primary reason big trucks have been manual in the past.

The argument of economy often enters into this debate – some say one system is more economical than the other. IMHO (again), a stick, driven properly, delivers better economy than an automatic. I point to my truck (the Keithmobile-C, the S-10) as a prime example. I got great gas mileage from that thing, no doubt about it. And let’s not discount the savings from brake wear – something I didn’t have to worry about much. And a friend of mine had a Neon that was an automatic – having ridden (not driven, alas!) in it, and having driven a manual Neon, I can say the manual was far more “peppy” and it was without a doubt more fuel efficient. Of course, other people driving differently than me might find an automatic to give better economy.

The argument of safety also comes into this debate fairly often. While it’s true that driving stick requires more involvement from the driver – hell, you even have to take one hand off of the wheel to shift – I don’t think that’s a truly terrible thing. Unless you SUCK at driving stick, the shifting process is as natural and automatic as turning the wheel or using your directional signals or windshield wiper controls. It’s just not a big deal. Conversely, of course, the automatic lets the driver focus on other cars & whatnot, while keeping both hands planted firmly on the wheel. Still, I think it’s valid to say that this kind of ease of driving can, let’s say “encourage” the driver to engage in other activities not conducive to safe driving. Such as talking on a cell phone, among many others. As a courier, I had to use my cell phone from time to time, and I can tell you, it’s hard to do while driving stick in traffic or around a city. In many cases I just had to wait until I stopped to use the phone – which is arguably the right thing to do. When I had the Keithmobile-D and it’s automatic, I found it easier to use the phone (naturally), and honestly – I did tend to use it a bit more. Now, of course, it IS hard to dial a phone while driving stick, and anyone who attempts to do so is putting themselves in more danger than the automatic driver doing the same thing, but the argument here is that a driver with an ounce of common sense will just leave the damn cell phone alone while driving stick, since it is so obviously just an accident waiting to happen. The automatic driver might be lulled into thinking the cell phone (or double mocha latte, or MP3 player, or makeup, or cheeseburger, etc) is quite safe, since they can still “drive” while doing whatever it is they are doing. Which they are clearly not. (Think about this the next time you see an accident.)

So, both systems have their place – an automatic is easier & often more economical (for the circumstances), but a manual is more controllable and certainly more desirable for the driving enthusiast. (As a side note: try rocking your car back & forth to get it un-stuck from snow with an automatic. Now, try it with a manual. You’ll appreciate the stick shift almost immediately. Now that’s control.) In the end, though, you just can’t beat a manual for driving control – and since that’s what rates highest in my book, I put a manual above an automatic. But of course anyone who has different expectations from their car may disagree – and be perfectly justified in doing so. The fact that many cars these days don’t even offer a manual transmissions speaks volumes as to what “most” people “want.”

But I’ll never get over the joy of shifting. Long live the stick shift!!

Off-Roading in New England

Current mood: Determined

Currently listening to: The fan

I’m on a mission.

Go google for off road trails in Massachusetts (or any other state) and you’ll find lots of hits, and you’ll even find quite a few clubs.

But there’s one thing you’ll notice as you browse them – they’re all generally “hardcore” clubs that drive on “hardcore” trails. (See my classification of trails; most of these clubs use the top 3 types.) And they all generally drive modified vehicles – they call them “rigs.” Jeeps, old Blazers and Broncos, old Toyotas and highly modified pickup trucks.

And that’s all fine & dandy, except for one thing: I don’t own such a vehicle. And frankly, nobody I know does either.

So there’s the problem. These clubs cater to the hardcore off-roaders, while people with “regular” or “stock” SUVs and trucks are left without an option. (Many of the clubs are Jeep only, and even those have requirements like big, BIG tires & whatnot.) Let’s consider the types of vehicles I’m talking about:

Subaru Forester

Mitsubishi Outlander

Toyota RAV4

Honda CR-V

Honda Element

Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy

Chevy S-10/GMC Sonoma

Chevy Trailblazer

Chevy Equinox

Chevy Tracker

Toyota Highlander

Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon

Ford Explorer

Ford Escape

Suzuki XL-7

And that’s just a sample. Almost anything with 4WD or AWD as it comes “stock” from the factory is not qualified for those “hardcore” trails, but they are still quite capable dirt-roaders. People with these kinds of vehicles have no club of their own, no place to go off-road. (The reason for this is, for example, in Massachusetts, no vehicle over 1000 lbs is permitted on any state land – i.e. state parks. There are trails for small 4-wheelers across the state, but current laws forbid any cars, trucks, or SUVs on these trails.)

My goal is to create a club – with FREE membership, mind you – so that we have someplace to go. Hopefully members will own land that we can use, and people will know of trails or old dirt roads that we can use – not “hardcore” off-road trails, but moderate trails that, while they don’t require high ground clearance, still require 4WD or AWD and some skilled driving. I mean, we’re just trying to have some fun here after all.

I really want this to become reality, if for no other reason than I want someplace to go off-roading in safety. Trying to find trails on your own is hard, you never know whether the land is public or private, and if the trail has unexpected surprises waiting for you (like big rocks or a deep, muddy stream). Those kinds of things would stop most of the vehicles I mentioned above dead in their tracks (unless you modify them by spending thousands of dollars on big tires and possibly a lift kit).

So dear readers, let’s give this a go, okay? If you know of trails, please post them here. If you drive a small truck or SUV, let me know! Let’s band together & have some fun, okay?

See y’all on the trails (hopefully)…

-Keithius

Snow & Stuff

Current mood: Caffinated

Currently listening to: Super Metroid ‘All the World in One Girl’ OC Remix

Wow. What a week it’s been since I last wrote here!

Anyway, the obvious stuff: it snowed. It snowed A LOT. I drove in the snow. It was fun! AWD is such a cool thing, there was literally NOWHERE I couldn’t go. I went up Mt. Vernon St, up all the hills I could find in fact; none of them could hold me back, even when they were compacted snow with no sand AT ALL. Ice? Whatever – I drove on. I even got to do some radical donuts down in the Civic Center – with the hand brake, whee! I think I got close to a true axial 360 – but I’m not sure. On Sunday, when the storm was over, there was a LOT of snow down in the Civic Center, and I took Amanda there to teach her the finer points of snow driving, and to have her get used to how the car feels in the snow. However, there was so much snow that it actually came up higher than the front fenders on the car! So, I drove into it anyway, and didn’t get stuck at all (although turning was a bit tough). Isn’t AWD sweet? Amanda praticed on the better-plowed portion of the lot, and then I had her go out onto the roads (which were pretty good by this point, but still slippery – and this is Fitchburg after all, which isn’t renowned for its plowing abilities). She did VERY well, I must say, which is a relief to me. All in all, the snow storm was fun, fun, and more fun. The car preformed impecably – which is what I was hoping for.

I’ve been very zombie-like lately; work is really doing a number on my conciousness. Long days of driving (snow doesn’t do much for traffic I’m afraid), and long days of support (which is down a bit, thanks to my MAD PR0GR4MM1NG SK1LLZ) followed by long nights of programming (hax0ring).

Something tells me I had a lot more on my mind this morning, but I tend to forget all of that by the time I actually have a free minute to write my thoughts down. Oh well.

-Keithius

MOST AWFUL COMMUTE EVER

Current mood: Tired

Currently listening to: Nothing

Today was the worst commute I’ve ever had.

At 5:30am, it started to snow. No big deal, right? “Just a flurry” I thought to myself. But lo and behold, when I went out to the car a few minutes later (6am), there was nearly a quarter of an inch of snow on the ground. ARGH. So, being lazy (and late) I just started the car and let the snow blow off – which was fine, it was just that light, dusty stuff. Well, apparently it snowed all over the place, very quickly and very suddenly, because all the roads were covered in a thin layer of snow-turned-ice, and since nobody expected it, there was no sand or salt on the roads at all. Which means that they were like ice. No big deal for my AWD Keithmobile, but for many other people (most other people, really) it was hell.

Route 2, just in Leominster: big accident, traffic is crawling along at 5mph. A Toyota Tacoma had crashed head-on (well, almost) into the barrier on the left of the highway. Police, ambulance, etc. After getting by that, things smoothed out. 190 was a breeze – but then I got into Worcester.

Route 290, in Worcester: spin-outs galore. One happened just feet before my exit. Crawled off the highway nearly a half-hour behind my normal schedule. My mood was NOT GOOD at this point. But, I was pleased with my driving so far, so I did some experiments on the freshly-iced (yes, iced, the snow was fresh in Worcester and had only been packed down a bit by passing cars, it was like driving on sheer ice) roads; fish-tailed almost out of control, but recovered easily thanks to AWD. Locked up my brakes (the only down side to my new car, no ABS :-( what an oversight, Mitsubishi… tsk tsk tsk) and slid around a bit, but nothing too bad. I’m actually glad I had the time to get to know the new car’s handling in snow – goodness knows I’ll need it soon.

ANYWAY… moving along a bit in time in my story, I hear that 290 and 495 are messed up and traffic is at a standstill. So, I try the back-roads. BIG MISTAKE. 122 through Worcester is GRIDLOCKED. It took me over an hour to get just a few miles to the pike. I’m never going that way again (it didn’t help that there were like 3 different schools along that road).

Route 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike in Milbury/Worcester: moved along quite nicely for a bit, even got past 495… but then, the gridlock began. For the next 3 hours I sat on the pike, moving a little bit here and there, trying to keep sane. My leg was sore from braking & accelerating … mostly braking, because we were moving so slow that even the engine’s idle speed was too fast for traffic. I arrived at the Natick rest area to stretch my legs, take a piss and get some breakfast, hoping that the worst traffic might move along while I was inside (hey, it’s happened before!). No such luck though; things were just as bad when I got out. Thankfully, just after the on-ramp for 128 in Weston, the pike suddenly cleared up (everyone must’ve been going onto 128) and I made it the rest of the way without incident. Of course, by this point it was 11am, and I’m usually home by that time. Overall, it took me 4 1/2 hours to get into Boston from Worcester today. My average speed was 6 MPH, along a distance of 44 miles. Apparently, it was the same story on EVERY road leading into or out of Boston today; 95, 93, 128, etc. At one point, the Pike was apparently backed up ALL THE WAY TO ROUTE 84.

I think everyone here has just forgotten how to drive in the snow. From the radio reports, there were accidents literally everywhere – in a 10 mile stretch of highway (which might take you over an hour to pass) one reporter saw 10 accidents – one every mile. Spinouts, jack-knifed trailers, roll-overs, the works. I mean, PLEASE people, remember how to drive!!! And it wasn’t even a lot of snow or anything, just a little dusting, but since it came so suddenly, and since there was no sand on the road, you’d expect people to be a little careful – but NO… that’s asking too much from your average commuter, it seems.

So, I arrived home at around 2:30pm today, in a very “homicidal” mood… and of course had my work cut out for me. Not as bad as some days, though. Thankfully, I’m good at what I do (hey, I wrote the program I should know how it works) so I answered 6 support voice mail messages in under an hour, taking care of the entire backlog for the day. Ahhh, peace at last.

On another topic, my PHP sticker arrived over Thanksgiving, and is now proudly attached to my new car, so that anyone can know:

1) That I use PHP

2) That they are seeing my car

3) That I am a geek

Unfortunately, I cannot say (as I did with my old C++ sticker, which is no longer available for ordering, alas!) that my car is the only car in New England with a PHP sticker. Just a day or two before I got my sticker, I saw a Jeep Wrangler at the Framingham rest area on the Mass Pike with a PHP sticker on it’s bumper. *sigh* Well, I CAN say that I’m probably the only SUV (a Wrangler is NOT an SUV; it’s a Jeep… end of story) with a PHP sticker on the back. And besides, the Outlander is so… distinctive… that if you see it, and the PHP sticker, you’ll know it’s me. Here’s a picture!

My New Sticker!

So, now you know how to find me. Honk if you see me!!

Okay, I think that’s all for now. I’ll try to keep this blog updated a bit more often this month, I know I’ve been falling behind.

Peace out, y’all.