Driving = Freedom

Getting in the car, putting on some tunes, and just driving… nothing else makes me feel so “free.”

Now, this might be something that’s restricted to those of us that grew up in areas where there was no such thing as “public transit” and the only bus you could catch was the one that took you to school (if you were lucky). So if you’re a city person, or if you grew up with public transit, then this may not make much sense to you.

But when you go for a drive – just to drive, just to get out of the house, just to get somewhere – anywhere – that’s different from where you are – to get away from what’s bothering you – it all just melts away. All your troubles are literally left behind you, and your mind is clear and the freedom of the open road beckons to you – all you have to do is drive

To me, that’s freedom. That’s why I love driving.

Where’s the Stick Shift Gone?

It’s time to revisit a popular topic around here – the old “manual vs. automatic” argument.

If you follow – well, actually, let’s just be honest here and say “obsess” – over cars, you might have noticed a trend in regards to what transmissions are available on new cars these days. And that trend is that traditional, “proper” manual transmissions are increasingly rare – especially in bigger, sportier cars. (Think: BMW, Audi, etc.)

(Just to be clear, I’m not going to talk about “luxury” cars here – those have almost always been exclusively automatic, and with good reason, so let’s just cut them out of the discussion for now, OK?)

What seems to be replacing our beloved manual transmission these days is something that the folks on Top Gear call a “flappy-paddle gearbox.” You’ve probably seen them in car ads by now – those little, well, “flappy” paddles on the steering wheel (or the steering column, if the car is badly designed) that change gears for you. Once only exclusively found on super-expensive “supercars,” you can now find them on things like the Mitsubishi Lancer (or the new Outlander – alas!).

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of transmissions – not the least of which is because the presence of the paddles says absolutely nothing about what type of transmission is really “under the hood.” And that seems kind of… gimmicky to me.

It is worth noting that paddle shifters originally came from the world of high-speed racing – when you’re going 300 MPH and the next driver is 3 inches from your bumper, taking your hand off the wheel to shift can be… problematic. When you’re shifting gears while trying to find a parking space at your local shopping mall it’s… less so. (I’ve heard that paddle shifters, although arguably cool and good for racing on a track, are less than optimal for “around-town” type driving – and can in fact be quite infuriating in those instances!)

To further muddle things, paddle shifters might be connected to a normal automatic gearbox, and might function the same way as the “manu-matic” or “sport-tronic” transmissions that were so popular for a time. The only difference is that instead of shifting the gear lever into a little “gate” and pushing it up or down to change gears, you do it instead with the little paddles on the steering wheel.

On the other hand, those paddle shifters might be connected to a very crazy thing sometimes called a “clutchless manual transmission.” This is almost exactly what it sounds like – a manual transmission that just doesn’t have a clutch… or, well, a clutch pedal, anyway. Internally there is (usually) still a real clutch, which is controlled by the car’s computer, but otherwise it functions just like a normal manual transmission (in theory, anyway).

As you’d expect, these fancy transmissions are (generally) only found on very expensive cars. They may very well be “the way of the future, ” but I don’t think they’re here yet, and I don’t think they will be for some time. These sorts of systems are quite complex, which of course is just a fancy way of saying they have lots of ways to break down. And aside from fact that the car’s computer is capable of shifting gears much faster and very much more consistently, there’s really no advantage to it. I mean, if you’re going to have all that mechanical, technical, and electronic hoo-ha, why not just… get an automatic? Or, better still, just get a traditional manual?

Perhaps it’s because many cars with these sorts of systems are – well, let’s be honest, quite expensive, or at least more “status symbol” than “mode of transportation.” Rather than being for practical purposes, these fancy new transmissions are really just there for show, or at least so that the 60-year old retired CEO or whatever who’s driving the car (with the arthritic leg) can still drive like an idiot (and talk on his – or her, to be fair – cell phone, no doubt) in a $100,000+ car without having to dilly-dally with all the bother of actually controlling the gear change in the car. Because that would be too much like… “driving.” But I digress.

Automatic transmissions are getting much better these days – but until there is a deep, fundamental change in the method that automatic transmissions use to change gear ratios for the car’s drive train, they are still going to have the same fundamental drawbacks (more or less) – sluggish gear changes, less efficiency, and greater costs. Obviously, some automatic transmissions will be better than others on any of these things, but they’ll all suffer them, to a greater or lesser degree.

There is one bright ray of hope, however! With gasoline prices going up like they are, smaller cars – especially fuel-efficient 4-cylinder cars – are becoming quite popular again. And there’s no doubt about it – a manual transmission allows you to make the best use of a smaller, weaker engine. So there’s some good news. Of course, on the other hand, for ultimate fuel efficiency, car makers are turning more and more to something called CVT – that’s Continously Variable Transmission, in case you were wondering. This is actually a really exciting technology – no more gears, just a continous, practically “infinite” range of drive ratios, automatically selectable without any disconnection of the car’s drive train. (The Wikipedia article I’ve linked to is particularly instructive.)

The downside, of course, is that current technology limits the amount of power (torque, in particular) that can be sent through a CVT – making it generally only acceptable for smaller, lower-power cars. And lots of people find the lack of “lurch” – as in when the gears change (automatic or manual) – disconcerning, so some manufacturers actually take steps to make the car still “lurch” preceptively at intervals. Weird, I know. But of course as in all things, technology will improve – so maybe in the future we’ll all be driving cars with CVTs? (Assuming we’re not driving “flying” cars… I’m waiting for that day, but I won’t hold my breath.)

So what’s a tripedalist to do? Well, I think it is safe to say that the stick shift will never completely dissapear – after all, there will always be a place for a simple, efficient, manual transmission in cars of many different types (sports cars, small cars, and certain types of big trucks). But things like “flappy paddle” shifters are more likely to show up – and to be the only available option – on more and more cars. So the best thing we can do is vote with our wallets – if you like driving a stick shift (and why wouldn’t you?), buy a stick shift, even if it’s not quite the car you’d like. (Or use your own discretion – after all, you’re the one driving it!)

If you’re one of those people who’s not lamenting the gradual dissapearance of the stick shift in today’s cars, well, I guess you can break out the cake and celebrate. If a car to you is just a “thing” to get you from point A to point B, where there’s a lot of traffic in between (or long stretches of open highway with no curves/stops), all I can say is… enjoy your automatic.

As for me – I’ll be driving stick, and I’ll be quite happy with it, thank you very much! Long live the stick shift!

Great Driving Roads

Recently I’ve found some absolutely wonderful driving roads here in NJ – in Morris and Union Counties, actually.

The first is a series of roads that winds their way through (and around) the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately they are often clogged by cyclists, and of course there’s probably a lot of animals around (turtles, deer, that sort of thing). And the speed limit is rather low, but even still, they are very nice twisty roads – and they just re-paved them the other day, so they are quite smooth & well graded. A really nice drive, whether you go fast or slow.

The second is the roads through and around Watchung Reservation – again, some very fun and curvy roads that are just a blast to… well, blast through. Again, of course, watch out for cyclists, animals, and of course the speed limits. But most fun roads have that speed limit problem… just use your own best judgment when traversing these roads.

That’s all I have for now, but rest assured I will let you know if I find any other great driving roads (and I am always looking). If you know of any great driving roads around here, or around where you are, or even just wherever, feel free to post them in the comments.

Have fun driving!

On the Road: New York

New York drivers are much like their New Jersey neighbors, except without the strange phobia of left turns.

Actually that’s not entirely fair – as you get further away from New Jersey, New York drivers take on a style all their own.

And it’s a fast style.

Although they retain the irritating habit of slowing down for no reason, by and large you are more likely to find New York drivers doing 120% of the posted speed limit on the Interstate – if not more. They do also tend to fall into “lemming” mode and do whatever the person in front of them / around them is doing, regardless of why (which irritates me to no end), but all in all they aren’t bad drivers at all. Though I’ve never driven in New York City… but that’s really a whole different world and doesn’t count.

New York drivers are also less likely to cut you off than a driver from New Jersey, they are more likely to tailgate very, very close to you if you don’t get out of their way.

Still, as I said, not bad drivers at all (all things considered).

Next time: Connecticut!

Behind the Wheel: 2007 Suzuki Forenza

Before I even begin, let me just say I’m not really a car person anymore. I mean, they’re fine and all, but they’re just not what I would choose.

So with that out of the way, let me tell you about my recent experiences with a Suzuki Forenza. I had to rent this car to drive to Laconia, New Hampshire from New Jersey – a drive of about 6 hours (each way). So I had plenty of time to get to know the car.

First, some pros: the car’s ride is very comfortable – both the suspension and the seats themselves. I’d even say that the seats are more comfortable than in my own car, and the suspension is definitely better at soaking up bumps. At least – as long as there’s not 4 people in the car.

This leads directly into the cons: When it was just me riding, the car was nimble, maneuverable, and the suspension saved me from having a sore rear end on the highways and side-roads I traveled (this last winter in New England has not been kind to the Interstate highway system, nor to the roads in general in New Hampshire). The car turns quite nicely (as you would expect) and all in all it was a pretty quiet ride (although there was a bit of wind noise at highway speed).

BUT… when there were 4 people in the car, the suspension was seriously taxed. Bumps that I had driven over by myself and hardly noticed now thrashed the car so roughly that I was worried my passengers would hit their heads on the roof!

Of course, this is what happens when you design a suspension like that – it really can’t be helped that much, but it’s something to be aware of.

Another downside of this car is that the engine is very, very weak. Seriously. I would go to merge onto highway traffic, put the gas right down to the floor (literally) and the car would putter along at its own pace until it was happy. It wouldn’t down-shift like I expected when I stomped on the gas – and even when it did (or when I did, by manually moving the automatic shift lever), it didn’t make much difference. The car was trying very hard to stay in its “power band,” but quite honestly it just didn’t have one. Given that the engine is rated at 127 HP, I found it surprisingly sluggish for what must’ve been a very light car. I suspect that the engine and transmission were engineered more for fuel efficiency instead of power.

Speaking of which, the car did quite well on the fuel consumption scale – averaging about 33 miles per gallon at highway speeds. I was able to make the entire 350 mile trip on just under a tank of gas (about 12 gallons). So no complaints there.

The other side of the coin, however, is that the car is a bit tricky to handle on the Interstate highways. It is a light car, and it gets blown around easily from the turbulence in the wake of a big truck, and going around a bend in the highway at speed, and hitting a joint (such as from a bridge or from road work) can make the car feel like it’s just done a little jump – which is unnerving at 65 MPH!!

So in the end, a nice enough little car, and probably quite suitable if you do a lot of in-city driving, where it’s small size and lack of acceleration wouldn’t be much of a concern. But if you do any serious amount of driving on big highways, or if you need to carry more than 2 people, I’d look elsewhere. Though for such an inexpensive car, you can’t blame it. Still, I wouldn’t drive it and I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone else.