In Defense of Sticks

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Is there any reason to drive a car with a manual transmission today? It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately.stick pic

Most of the cars I’ve owned had sticks. My first new car, which I got when starting college, was a ’79 Plymouth Champ – same as the Dodge Colt back then. What a hoot that little car was! It had something unique at the time (and something I haven’t seen in a car since): a split shifter. There was a separate lever next to the four-speed gearshift, with options for Low and High range (or maybe they called it Power and Economy – I can’t recall). Theoretically, you should shift through eight forward gears! And two reverse gears! It was great fun to play with, and to show to friends I let behind the wheel.  But on a day-to-day basis, I kept the lever in Low when accelerating and just used the High setting as a fifth gear on the highway. It was cool, but not really that useful – a conventional five-speed was simpler and just as effective.

Since then, I’ve owned a mix of manuals and automatics. I stuck to manuals until I had been living in New Jersey for a few years. After getting stuck in snow storms and traffic jams and having my left leg go numb after hours of clutching, I broke down and traded for an automatic. The automatics I had – both Honda-made – were smooth-shifting and trouble-free. I missed “rowing my own” from the start, but traffic became much easier to bear.

A couple years ago, I moved to the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Traffic here is as bad as Jersey, if not worse. But my daily commute is very short and I normally take local roads when doing my errands, so I can usually avoid the worst of it.

This week I traded in my ’05 Honda Accord V6 Coupe for a new Accord Sport. The coupe was an excellent car and I’d had no trouble with it. But it had an automatic, and I’d been getting the itch for a stick shift again. The local dealership offered me a great trade-in value for my ’05, and they negotiated with me to a price on the new one that I was comfortable with.  After trying to convince me to go with a CVT – which I drove, and I was impressed, I admit – they found me a 6-speed manual at a sister dealership. The sale manager said it was the only one in the Southeast, so I guess they’re not much in demand these days.

And it’s a joy to drive a stick again. Honda’s shifters are famously smooth, and this one just snick-snicks from one gear to the next.

But it felt odd the first couple of days – it had been a while since I’d driven anything with a clutch. And the right side of my brain has been telling me at times that I should have gone with the CVT, for purely practical purposes.

I don’t regret my decision, though – not yet, at least. It’s just so much more engaging to drive a manual. I feel more alert behind the wheel. In a world moving quickly to self-driving cars, I’ve taken a step backwards. And I like the results. It feels right.

To the folks here at EPautos.com, this would make sense. But a “normal” person would scratch their head. They’d say to me: So you’re giving up the convenience of not having to shift in traffic? And you’re getting roughly the same acceleration and less MPG than the CVT? And the price of the CVT wasn’t much more than the manual? So how does that add up?

Of course it doesn’t – not at the level of pure reason, anyway. I’m reminded of an episode of “Car Talk” I heard in the early ‘90s. A woman caller was explaining an argument she was having with her boyfriend/husband about getting a car with a manual transmission (he was for it, she was against it). And she was wondering why guys like driving sticks, and what practical reason there could be for going with a manual in this day and age. Click and Clack were typically gracious to the caller (and her gender), and they joked that it was some outdated instinct that men have – a need to feel they’re in control. Just what you’d expect from NPR.

Putting aside the gentle male-bashing, though, there’s probably some truth there. Conventional automatics have improved much over the years, and newer technologies (CVTs and DSGs) are as fuel-efficient and fast as a manual, if not more so. There may still be an advantage of a manual performance-wise in the smallest of cars that are only available with conventional automatics. But once CVTs make their way to these models, even that rationale will disappear.

Some of us, however, like cars, and some of us enjoy driving. Driving a manual is just more fun than driving an automatic, even the best automatic. Practicality be damned!

It reminds me of the transition from vinyl albums to CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was an album junkie, and I was one of the last hold-outs in converting to CDs. Friends would ask me why I didn’t switch over – CDs had no noise, were more convenient and durable, etc. But CDs sounded awful initially. There was no warmth  to music played on a CD player. Most of my friends couldn’t hear what I was talking about, and they probably thought I was being snobbish. But there was something ineffable missing from CD music. Sure, the vinyl had more pops and noise at times, and was harder to handle. But listening to a good-quality vinyl pressing on a good sound system could be a transcendent experience. In comparison, CDs sounded sterile, flat.

Eventually the CD technology got much better, the sound quality improved tremendously, and I was won over. But I think history bears me out. Vinyl is back, especially among the hipsters. Even today, several decades after the advent of digital music, this antiquated analog technology still has its enthusiasts. Here’s one recent story saying that vinyl sales are at a 10-year high:

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/music/news/vinyl-record-sales-at-10year-high-29668762.html

It’s like that for sticks. For the average Clover, who thinks of a car as merely an appliance, automatics are the only option. The less involved he (or she) is in driving, and the more he can focus on his smartphone, the better. Automatic braking and steering – bring ‘em on! Self-driving cars can’t get here fast enough for these people.

But for those of us who like cars, who like driving, “rowing your own” is going to continue to have its appeal. And who knows? Maybe the percentage of manuals will start increasing again. After all, the car companies have to give us some reason not to just take the bus.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. I have a coworker who drives a Subaru Legacy 2.5 with the manual transmission. He states that he gets 34 mpg on the freeway at around 80 mph, which is more than what I get at the same speed. He states that his mileage in the city is around 28-30.

    While I have my doubts, the manual version likely gets the same mileage as mine given the way I drive. I have the CVT version because of the traffic here. It gets about 24-26 city and 28-30 highway (80 mph). It probably does that because I drive harder than a cop.

    • Interesting, SR. I’d think a manual would generally get as good or better mileage on the highway as a CVT, whereas the CVT probably would have the edge in city driving. Maybe Eric will weigh in.

  2. Sticks–for enjoyment. Nothing better than winding through the gears on a curvy road.

    One downside I’m seeing now, however, is the lack of mechanics who know how to work on one or other folks at the shop, like the “car mover” that don’t know how to drive a stick.

    • Damon, I have tried to drive to the limit with an AT but there aren’t enough gears and even if the gears are close enough, shifting to a lower gear to stay in the power band and deliver that just right amount of power to the wheels with an AT is too abrupt and will cause a loss of control. Staying right at the edge of adhesion is the fastest way to get around a curve, just watch any race, just a slight amount of power more, you spin but just a slight amount less and someone passes you. I love holding one right on the ragged edge. Some dirt racers use AT’s but they have a lot more slip and the edge is not nearly as thin as pavement. That’s a different style of driving.

    • Good points, Damon. A lot of young people — including young men— would just scratch their heads if you put them behind the wheel of a stick. It can making valet parking complicated.

      And finding a mechanic to work on a MT is probably going to get harder and harder. I’m reminded of the VW Beetle thread we had going here a week or so ago, and the ’73 Beetle I owned in ’98. When that car was built, finding a mechanic for it would have been a piece of cake. But by’98, you might as well have driven a flying saucer into a typical garage as a Beetle — you’d get the same perplexed reaction. I had to drive 45 minutes to a shady section of Elizabeth, NJ, to get any work done, at a little garage that specialized in old Bugs. Those guys are long gone.

    • I must be funny, I guess – I bought a WRX with a manual so I’d learn how to drive stick.
      Figured it was an essential skill.

      NO ONE should have that hole in their knowledge – just in case.
      Same with a motorcycle, know how to ride.
      If possible get some flight lessons.

      changes your perspective, gives you more abilities that might prove useful – but could be fatal if you don’t have them…

      • Yeah, it’s a good skill to have, Jean — especially in a SHTF scenario. The vehicle available to you in an emergency may not have an AT — not to mention lane departure warning or adaptive cruise control! 🙂

        • Robert, in a SHTF situation, knowing how to operate medium and heavy trucks is a big plus. Who knows what vehicle will be available. Maybe the one that’s ready to go has 18 wheels and 8,000 gallons of fuel in it. What an ace in the hole back at the Ponderosa so to speak. Or that big OTR tractor and 53′ box van is full of food, the non-refrigerated kind or maybe it’s a reefer and then that load of fuel with be doubly good, esp. if you have a diesel vehicle, but not to worry, steal the gasoline vehicle you need if it’s full of gas….or that Propane delivery truck. Can you fire up a dozer, load it and haul ass with it? Talk about making some emergencies preparations in a hurry, might dig a trench to hide that tanker in. Let your imagination run wild.

          • Hey Eight. That’s my thinking too. I’ve driven backhoes, tractors, dump trucks, motorcycles, ATVs, and just about everything else with wheels in my day. So I’m ready, in that respect. (Although I could use some experience pulling trailers …)

          • Know anyone with a dozer? Get hired to operate one part time. Trailers are easy, just keep eyes on mirrors and make sure you can swing around things, no sudden moves and it’s all following you. Can you operate a rig up truck? Very handy and often times part of moving a dozer, think oil field type trailer. Know where the lock is on a front-end loader? Little things make the difference. Dump truck, air start? Compression release handle and spin the starter while slowly engaging release handle. Dual gearbox. Which is main and aux.?

  3. “Some of us, however, like cars, and some of us enjoy driving. Driving a manual is just more fun than driving an automatic, even the best automatic. Practicality be damned!”

    That’s me. I love cars and driving them. There’s just no driving involved with an AT. Someone asked me how I could stand driving in traffic with my 5 speed. Shit, in traffic is where I need it most. Dickheads sitting there texting after the light turns green give me the opening I need to jump over into their lane by dropping to 2nd and running WOT for 100 feet without getting past 5 mph over the speed limit.

    I drive an old PT cruiser, a Limited Edition model with all the comforts, but which also has a 5 speed. The original purchaser was in LA and he must have been a driver to get the 5 speed in one of the upper end models. PTs are notoriously sluggish with ATs, but with a 5 speed, it’s a peppy little car. For me, this is THE car to have in Richmond traffic, loaded as the streets are with retired bureaucrats from DC who can’t fuckin drive a lick.

    I noticed the sloppy shifting when I first got the PT, and simply installed a set of Booger Bushings in the shifter and at the trans fork. It shifts like a Shelby now. Boogers are solid polypropylene and you grease the pins when you put them on. Marvelous modification. try them if you have an old Neon or PT with the GT350 or the Getrag they put in the turbo GTs.

    • Me too, Ed. I had a PT Cruiser Turbo for a while, and the Getrag was SWEET. I didn’t keep the car long, though. Too many problems. Like the gas tank breaking off and falling down into the side of the car! Until I could get it fixed, I had to make a lasso with a cable tie to loop around the neck of the nozzle, then use a pair of needle-nose pliers to hold the tank up while I filled it.

      And that was the last “American” car I bought. 🙂 But to be fair, some people have had good luck with the PTs — and sounds like you have too. I bought the Turbo the first year it was offered, and it seemed there were a lot of problems particular to the ’03 Turbo model.

      • I’ll remember that about the ’03 GTs when I look for a turbo model. That’s what I’ll probably buy next, as PTs are becoming a hobby for me.

        About autos, I drove my wife’s ’13 Dodge Avenger today. The auto shifts very smoothly, and whatever speed I set the cruise control for, it settled at a little under 2000 rpm. That impressed me.

        • Ed, no doubt I’m totally getting this wrong but if you used the cruise at 60 or 80 the rpm would be the same? On another note, do you ever get down dirt roads with your C products?

          • 8, The fastest I went was 65 and the slowest was 35 using the cruise control. I’d expect higher revs at higher speeds, but haven’t checked it out yet, I was just picking the car up from the dealer.

            We do have dirt roads here and the PT is great on them. Not quite as much fun as my caddy on a dirt road, but still entertaining.

  4. We had the Colt with the economy and POWER! shift lever. Dad even figured out the ratios so that if you could manage to shift using both levers you could run all 8 gears in order. It was wrecked (icy road) before I could drive, so I never got to try it out.

    I begged the dealer to outfit my A3 TDI with a real stick shift, like what you can get in the EU version. Instead I have to make due with the tiptronic “flappy paddle” gearbox. It’s not bad, but there’s no way it come close to a real manual tranmission. You can never really tell what gear you’re in, for one thing (there’s a display on the dash, but nothing beats muscle memory). And you can’t skip gears, like 5th to 3rd when you’re decelerating into a sharp corner. On the plus side, in sport mode it will run through the gears in order much faster than I ever could (but then again I used to be able to skip gears going up, too).

    The thing I don’t understand is why the EPA says manual transmissions get worse mileage than automatics. It’s something I noticed when car shopping and it doesn’t make sense, since I know I always got better mileage from a stick than a slushbox.

    • Eric_G,

      I think it might be from three parts:

      The AT will sometimes have a taller final drive (top gear) compared to the MT.
      Some AT will have more forward gears than your typical MT.
      Some AT do not use a torque converter.

      These things help improve the efficiency of the AT to the point that it has similar to slightly better fuel economy compared to the MT.

    • Eric_G;

      Basically the EPA are a bunch of liars and yet another arm of the law under Obummer. They’ll tell you what’s good for you and there’s no other choice.

    • Hi Eric,

      The engineers have greatly reduced the efficiency losses through the torque converter (in a conventional hydraulic automatic) and also added gears (eight speed automatics are becoming common), often with very favorable OD ratios, which has further improved their operating efficiency. CVTs and DSGs are even more efficient. Thus, it has become common for the automatic-equipped version of a given vehicle to achieve better EPA numbers than the same car with a conventional manual transmission.

    • I loved that split-shifter thing Mitsubishi was offering back then, Eric. At the time, the the Mitsu cars were built as well as Hondas or Toyotas, and (at least compared to Toyotas) much more fun to drive. No longer true, unfortunately.

      The paddle shifters are a nice feature, but as I was discussing with a friend yesterday, it’s not the same as a manual. When I’ve used them, I’ve tended to try it a few times, then I put the lever back in D. It’s just not as pleasant to shift that way, IMHO.

  5. I currently have a MT and I drive often in NJ and NYC. It is very rare for me to drive in bumper to bumper traffic. (I would estimate < 5% of my driving time and even smaller % of total miles driven)

    One benefit of MT in heavy traffic is the ability for me to put car into 1st gear and move slowly forward (maintaining space between me and vehicle ahead) to minimize my brake usage. (Engine braking keeps the car from picking up speed without gas input.) An AT up-shifts automatically and forces me to use the brakes.

    Another plus of MT if the ability to downshift to slow speed without using the brakes. This is useful at times.

    • Mith, how do you maintain a distance to use in first gear? That’s every truckers dream but some fool always slides in and slams on their brakes and then you nearly run over their sorry asses. I never considered an AT with something that had enough power I could actually use a heel and toe situation, enough power to use the rear to control direction too but I guess those days are over for non-exotic type cars and FWD negates that advantage out and out. I’d rather use and AT almost all the time but when I’m driving a heavy pickup it just seems right to have a MT although there’s probably not any advantage, most of the AT are stronger for diesel light trucks. Still, I do like to stir a stick, been doing it so long when I”m not thinking about it(almost all the time)I’ll reach over even in an AT car as I come up on a grade and start reaching for a shifter. If the wife is along, she slaps my hand and reminds me there’s nothing to grab, claims my hand rowing around in the air is distracting and I can see her point but it’s nice when she’s asleep and I can just row and row but frustrating when I realize there’s nothing there. And then there’s the fact that I have never had a light truck with enough OD gears that I didn’t reach over, and quite often actually, take the shifter out of OD and try to get another OD, frustrating as hell since I can look at the tach and think, yep, I need another OD. When you get on some interstates in Tx you could shift into another OD and when the revs build, be ready for another gear. How else to drive over 100mph and not turn over 1800-1900 rpm? I’m a triple digit man. Bwwwwaaaaaaaaa

  6. Eric;

    “And the right side of my brain has been telling me at times that I should have gone with the CVT”

    That would be the left side of your brain if you’re using your right hand, including logic. That’s enough poking from me 😉

    I still prefer the stick, but heavy traffic for long periods of stop-go sometimes I crave for an auto. Still, whenever I plan a trip into such traffic and I don’t need the car, I take the bike instead. Makes for even better control of my traffic environment.

    You’re right about the clovers. I think that’s how auto boxes got invented. Lazy feckers.

    • You’re right about the brain side, Rev — thanks. I couldn’t remember which was which, so I looked it up on Yahoo Answers yesterday, and their posting said right side = logic. Shows how much you can trust them! 🙂

    • I actually like clutches in traffic… ummm, strange, yes. But they allow some things that a continuously coupled car do not, like coasting. Is that weird? Maybe.

      I also do not like having a car that is not idling like it should that must be dragged down by an A/T…. Yah, you say, but cars today always run well. True to a degree. Nevertheless, there will always be exceptions even with newer cars. Whne a car is not acting like it should, an A/T is a Godsend. You have control of hool-up and you can jump the clutch at any time. If you don’t know what I am tallking about, forget it. You are just too young or unconnected to know the truth.

      Give me a nice Miata 6 speed… now there is a great shifting ride that just seems to shift itself when you are not thinking about it, but lets you do it all when you want to.

      • James, guess I drove a truck and big pickups with manuals too long. I detest manuals in traffic. I use neutral in an auto quite a bit. I like electric fans MOST of the time but not in traffic. In bad heat you can rev an engine with a belt driven fan and increase cooling…..and that goes for the auto trans too. But I love a manual when not in traffic or parking lots or places the speed changes often. I just never had a manual with enough OD’s.

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