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!!