A goodbye to the manual transmission

There’s a movement among automotive enthusiasts. In recent years, fewer models have offered manual transmissions. These folks, who are rather passionate, insist the manual transmission is one of the golden elements of any true, thoroughbred car. They lament this decline in the manual transmission. Some, even, with the passion of losing a cherished item. Many old school car enthusiasts argue that a true driving machine puts the power through the rear wheels, and gets transferred through some form of manual gear box. Personally, however, I’m more than happy to watch them relegated to museum pieces. I’m also of the opinion that all-wheel-drive is the platform of choice for any track car, though wrestling a rear wheel drive car through a road course is gobs of fun.

Perhaps now is a good time to provide some full disclosure: I plead no ignorance on the subject of a manual transmission. I’m one of a few people I know who can competently drive stick. It’s a dying skill, and that part of me is sad to see it go. I learned to drive on both automatic and manual drive cars. My first driving car was a 2001 Saturn sedan – stick shift of course. My father, for as long as I can remember, only drove stick shift cars. His current car, by the way, is a Chevy Cruz. With an automatic. My first car was a 1996 jet black Saturn SC1, five speeds on the knob. We had a lot of Saturns in those days. It was a great car. It had an indestructible engine, amazing mileage and enough horsepower to adequately move two, maybe three people around. So, as you can see, I’m well acquainted with a manual transmission.

It’s this acquaintance, however, that pushed me into my current preference for automatic transmissions. Fact is automatic transmissions today just aren’t the clunky, power hogging pigs of the past. Perhaps an emotional reaction to moving away from manual transmissions is essentially a bigger emotional reaction to simply losing control. Traditionalists who prefer manuals also tend to frown upon things like key fobs and driving aids. There are arguments to be made for both sides, certainly, and the ever increasing complexity only creates more things to break down the road. All these things take the power a driver has over their mechanical beasts, and puts them under control of a computer. That could be for the best.

But I digress. There are some good reasons why the modern automatic has become so popular and cause the decline of the manual transmission. Let’s take a look.

Efficiency

In days of yore, if you wanted to maximize the fuel economy of your car, you bought a manual transmission. The old four or five speed sticks had more gears than their automatic counterparts. It took manufacturers many decades to break the five forward speed barrier. Until that point, the simple fact that a stick shift had five gears made it more efficient. Now, however, many cars come equipped with eight speed transmissions. Six speed gearboxes are commonplace, even among trucks. In fact, the folks over at GM and Ford have announced the release of a transmission with twice as many gears as the old five speed. These transmissions offer economy improvements even the best manual transmission driver has a hard time keeping up with. Take the Subaru BRZ for example. The automatic gets 4MPG on the highway better than manual, despite having just as many gears.

Computer smarts

There’s more to an automatic than added gears. With fuel economy requirements looming, car companies have used technology to increase their miles per gallon. Modern automatic transmissions use software to intelligently modify shift points, change how the engine revs, even dampen fuel pedal responsiveness. All this combines to further improve the performance automatic transmissions provide. A well designed automatic transmission, and this is an important qualifier, often knows better than the average driver what gear is appropriate for the situation.

Save the clutch

Drivers of manual transmissions know the smell well: ye old burned clutch. For the unfamiliar among us, a clutch is the metal plate which separates the gears from the driveshaft. They can be subject to some incredible forces, and really shouldn’t be connected to the rotating drive shaft for extended times. This is called riding the clutch, and every decent manual driver cringes at those very words. Problem is rookie manual drivers, and some experienced, ride the clutch like a free carnival ride. Clutches aren’t cheap, and need to be replaced at a certain mileage interval, regardless of driver skill. Automatics all have the same mechanical bits, but their actions are carefully controlled by the engineers that design them. This ensures the mechanical motions all work in sync, at (nearly) maximum optimization. The human variable is gone.

Oh the aching calves

Someone who’s never driven a standard has never experienced the pain that is traffic. Oh, we’ve all experienced the preverbal pain of a traffic jam. But manual drivers have experienced the physical pain in traffic. Stop and go traffic is murder on the left leg. Constantly having to push, release, hold and feather the clutch gets tiring very fast. Sitting in my automatic, my left foot firmly at rest, I don’t miss those days at all. One may argue that eliminating work is a bad thing, leading to laziness. But not all work is necessary. In today’s modern world, working a clutch isn’t necessary. That’s for your car to do.

Choose your own adventure

One of the most common advantages sited for a manual transmission is the ability to select your gear. Automatic transmissions have a funny way of picking awkward gears at the worst moments. For performance driving, the automatic is so economy tuned, it’s almost never in the right gear. Not so with a manual transmission: your gear is your choice. But, for almost two decades now, automatics give you that choice, too. The first car I bought, a 2000 Chrysler 300M, featured a select shift transmission. This meant I could manually chose which one of the four gears I wanted, when I wanted it. Modern race cars all use a much more complex version of this. With technology like tiptronic or select shift, car manufacturers give drivers the control they want, without sacrificing any of the mechanical or economic advantages of the automatic.

Speed

And finally; their speed. In the early days of motoring automatic transmissions were slow. You could get through more gears in an manual, faster. Racing teams always used manuals for their speed advantage. Good speed shifters embarrassed people driving their automatic counterparts. Since 2000, that has changed. Modern racing cars have dropped manual transmissions in favour of automatic clutches. Why? Speed, of course. This technology has filtered down over the years into the everyday person’s car. The same transmissions which give us the freedom of choice also clamber through those gears faster than any human powered manual can. Even the fastest stick shift can’t achieve the microsecond speed a performance automatic transmission accomplishes.

And so, with some sadness in my heart, I’m OK with saying goodbye to manual transmissions.


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