To Shift For Oneself?

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Leaving aside the fun, is there a stronger argument to be made for the manual transmission vs. the automatic?

It depends on your perspective.

There is inherent simplicity, certainly.

A modern manual transmission isn’t much different than the ones made decades ago.  It is still almost entirely a mechanical thing – and entirely controlled by you.

The main change has been the addition of a slave cylinder, to make pushing in the clutch easier. It works like a brake master cylinder, using fluid to give you more leverage with less effort.

That plus more gears inside the transmission – five or six now vs. three or four before.

Otherwise, the manual of today is pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago. Your right hand is still physically connected to the transmission via rods and cables – physical parts.

And you have complete physical control over the shifting.

If you want third – or fifth or sixth – that’s up to you. There is no countermanding computer. The shifting isn’t dependent on sensors connected to wiring connected to other things.

When a problem develops, it is almost necessarily mechanical, too – because that’s almost all there is to go wrong. The only non-mechanical thing is the hydraulically assisted clutch – via the slave cylinder.

This can be a pain to deal with if the manual you’ve got is one that has its slave cylinder mounted inside the transmission – a vicious thing to do – because it can mean having to remove the transmission in order to get at this otherwise minor and inexpensive part. But even in that case, it’s all stuff you can see and get your hands on – things like physical gears/synchros and the clutch and pressure plate and pilot bearing – as opposed to code, which you can’t.

This makes figuring out what’s wrong easier.

Also fixing it.

Modern automatics, on the other hand, are inherently more complex. And they are very different now vs. what they were.

40 years ago they were hydraulic things. Fluid pressure rather than direct mechanical interface transferred the engine’s power through a hydraulic circuit (the valve body) and – ultimately – turned the wheels.

There were no wires.

They are now electronic things – the hydraulics and mechanics controlled by a computer and coding that determines when and how the shifts happen. Your right hand does not even engage Park or Drive anymore. Instead, you turn a knob or tap a button that sends a signal to a computer that tells the transmission to move into Park or Drive.

When the computer goes to sleep – or gets senile – it may not put the transmission into Drive. Or let it shift out of second.

Or some other thing. They can be extremely inscrutable.

There are also more things that could potentially go wrong with a modern automatic – and figuring out the what and why is inherently more difficult and expensive – because you probably can’t.

If a modern automatic fails, the cost to replace it – many aren’t rebuildable – can be as high as three or four thousand dollars, which may make it not worth replacing if the car itself isn’t worth much more than that.

Manuals sometimes fail too, of course – but their failure rate (barring abuse, which doesn’t count) is lower. The clutch will eventually have to be replaced, but that is a relatively minor maintenance item – like changing brake pads – vs. replacing an entire transmission.

Having a manual-equipped car is also an effective anti-theft device because probably two-thirds or more of the population currently under the age of 30 never learned to drive a manual-equipped car.

If you have a teenager, a manual-equipped car also probably decreases the chances he’ll wreck his car – because paying attention to driving – which you kind of have to in a manual-equipped car – naturally decreases the risk of driving.

Automatics practically encourage inattention – because it isn’t necessary to pay attention – because there’s less driving to do.

So what are the automatic’s advantages, if any?

The obvious one is that an automatic makes driving easier – because anyone can rotate a knob from Park to Drive or push a button to the same effect.

They also make driving faster easier – in a straight line, at least. The skill required to launch the car without just frying the tires (or driving through a chain link fence) is programmed in and handled . . . automatically. It takes no more skill than engaging the launch control many modern performance cars equipped with automatics come with as part of their programming. Just push the button – and then the accelerator.

Of course, it takes the fun out of it when anyone can do it.

Allegedly, automatics are more efficient – because they can be programmed to shift at precisely the optimum moment for best-case mileage. And this is true . . . with an asterisk. The kind you see adjacent to diet pills that promise you will lose “up to” 20 pounds in a week.

The asterisk leads to fine print at the bottom of the page.

Which reads – or would, if they actually published it: The advertised mileage was achieved on a test track and may not reflect your actual mileage.

Indeed.

In order to achieve the mileage touted, modern automatics are programmed to shift into the highest gear possible as quickly as possible, which is good for gas mileage but not-so-good for driving feel. A too-soon upshift can make a car feel sluggish. This can be overcome by a forced downshift – via pushing down harder on the gas pedal – but that increases gas consumption.

In real-world driving, the automatic-equipped car’s mileage is often less-than-advertised for just this reason.

And meanwhile, the manual-equipped car’s actual mileage is often better than advertised, if the person driving knows how to. As “advanced” as automatic transmission programming has become, no programming yet available can foresee that curve or downhill or uphill ahead and choose a gear in anticipation of them.

They are fundamentally reactive things.

But the driver of a manual-equipped car who knows his business can gear down – or up – more intelligently – which is another way of saying more efficiently – than an automatic and that plus the manual’s being a purely mechanical interface between the engine and the drive wheels (automatics lose some of the engine’s potential energy in translation; through the slippage inherent in a hydraulic circuit) means a manual-equipped car can equal or surpass the touted mileage of the automatic-equipped car.

Besides all that, it’s just more fun!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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30 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve always driven a manual, and I enjoy it, and feel more connected to the car. I can enjoy driving a pretty basic car if I get to stir the box; one that I might not enjoy if it didn’t have the manual.

    I wanted to drive a manual from the beginning, but we didn’t have one in the family, so after reading about how to drive one, I created a driving simulator (it was a stick and two toilet plunger heads (we trombone players tend to have a couple of those around – look it up :)). I practiced the sequence on the pedals (plungers) and moving the shifter (stick). I bought my first car by having someone else test drive it for me. Then I picked it up on my own. It worked great, except for launches. I shifted like a pro, but all that I had found in reading was simultaneously applying the gas while engaging the clutch to start. That’s not untrue, but you have to develop the feel and work up to it (they teach it correctly in the motorcycle training I’ve taken – use the friction zone). But I got the car home, and then got some additional training from a buddy to address the launches. From my 2nd day on (in June of 1974), I’ve driven manuals happily.

    I ran across this article which I think does correctly identify the factors that are leading to the end of the manual transmission. But the part about people who drive manuals being stressed struck me as funny. It’s the opposite for me. Manuals allow me to get in the groove and enjoy the drive. Automatics mostly irritate me, never quite doing what I want them to do.

    https://www.topspeed.com/cars/why-is-the-manual-transmission-living-on-borrowed-time-ar182081.html

  2. After study I found that the nervous gal should have left her brassiere in the back seat before trying that stunt driving. She likely would have had a better experience. Viewing unconfined breasts in slalom events would be a good video to try for these guys.

  3. After being out of work, I had to resort to an overseas position out here in the Caribbean. Have only been here a week, but only seeing diesels with manual transmissions so far. No masks, one of the lowest covid rates in the world. Yep, it’s paradise.

  4. This can be a pain to deal with if the manual you’ve got is one that has its slave cylinder mounted inside the transmission . Good point as that is expensive.
    I did the caddy with the foot shift as it seemed more natural in keeping without shifting when one does not care to. I’d rather cut the top off and add a roll bar but the wife wants comfort of cooled seats and A/C even if I always hang my felt arm out of the window. I would much rather have a car with a lower door sill.

  5. I have a 2020 F150 with the 10speed. Since it’s brand new, it’s great. It is electronically controlled like Eric says. I live on a mountain and the difference between it and the old 4R70W in my Ford van is that the 10 speed keeps a lower gear going down the mountain. So less brake usage. In my old 98 Econoline, I had to put it in “Drive 2” to get the same effect. So, that part is neat on the new truck, with software control and everything.

    Like Eric says, the sweet spot for automatic trannies is early to mid 90’s to mid 2000’s. Had no problems with my 4R70W, but I changed the fluid every 50k. Maybe 50 bucks. My 05 Subaru has a drain plug and a spin on oil filter for the transmission! Sweet. In general, I think automatics (at least the fully hydraulic ones) are cheaper maintenance long term vs putting in a clutch. YMMV

  6. I was weaned on an old Ford pickup with a 4-speed crashbox and have always preferred manuals. For a while, I had a Subaru Forester XT CVT and WRX manual (same engine) at the same time. I could get the Forester down my favorite curvy mountain road faster than I could get the WRX down it. When it comes to performance, the bottom line is the bottom line.

    • I have an ’05 GTO with a 6 speed manual. I was able to squeeze about 22K miles out of the car but due to previous owner abuse, the entire transmission and clutch required replacement, at 138K, for $3,750 in 2017!! it’s a fortunate thing I knew the shop owner personally who cut me a big price break, or it would have been closer to $5K!! I don’t know if an auto would have been less to fix it not, but it was the worst repair bill I’ve ever had. Almost sold the car over it, but the 400 horsepower is too addictive!!!

      • Hi Saxon,

        Of course, abuse doesn’t count! Power-braking an automatic all the time will have the same general effect as hard-launching a car with a manual all the time. But, sans the abuse, most manuals – the ones that aren’t defective/shoddy designs – will almost always last 30-plus years and longer. Automatics can be very reliable, too. But not that reliable!

  7. About shift programming and inefficiency – I recently acquired a 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo, and so far I love it. Anything which can get 200 crank horsepower out of a 1600cc engine and still average 32 MPG in my relatively highway-heavy driving, all on 87 octane, is a marvel, even if impure, heretical, and probably in desperate need of an intake valve cleaning. It’s not dramatic about its speed the way some older, more powerful turbos were, so you don’t really realize how fast it is… until you realize that operations like passing slowpokes on two-lane roads and exploiting gaps in traffic have become perfectly trivial. In my old Escort, such things required careful planning and a lot of clear road ahead; in the Veloster, you just take a deep breath, let the boost flow through your veins, and vanish before the slowpoke even realizes you’re trying to pass them.

    The one thing, above all else, that I absolutely insisted on when searching for a car was a manual gearbox; I’ve heard all the statistics about “ACKSHUHALLY you could accelerate to 60 miles per hour zero point two seconds faster in an automatic blah blah blah” but I just plain don’t care. Driving stick is a part of my identity at this point, and it really is more fun.

    To get to the point of all this rambling, I’ve done a little (highly unscientific) testing of my own and I’ve come to the conclusion that the way my instincts tell me to accelerate and shift is probably more efficient than the stupidly short shifts recommended by the car’s upshift indicator. Shift when the light tells you to and you’re spending way too much time below 2000RPM threshold where (despite the 1750RPM torque peak alleged by the spec sheet) the car seems to start making power; acceleration becomes excruciatingly slow and fuel economy suffers too. If you shift normally, everything is fine; you have plenty of acceleration available to you and it seems to use less fuel at the same time.

    If I’d got stuck with an auto I’d probably have it in manual mode everywhere I went anyway. That’s what I did when I had a rental car in Juneau last spring.

    • A welcome comment, I like manuals as I learned how to drive on them. I have found that there is nothing better than a manual to concentrate the memory when one is old. If pounding one through a right hand, the wife keeps her hands in her lap or on some handhold away from the shift unknowable thingy.
      I can see why Clovers are the way that they are. We must have compassion for the afflicted.

  8. When I was able to purchase my own car with my own money, I’ve been buying manuals ever since, with just one exception (a screaming deal on a brand new leftover 2001 Prelude that I could not pass up). Driving automatics are boring and take away from the driving experience. We are, however, not the norm…sadly. The sheeple want convenience out of pure laziness, incompetence, and in general due to a loathsome attitude towards cars (which is why brands like Toyota and Lexus are so succesfull I might add.)

  9. Eric, you’re complaining about no more gears and the impact on driver ability – have you seen the new electric cars – have one pedal driving !! BIL just got a new Model 3. It has a mode in which you can drive the whole thing without having to use the brake pedal!! (releasing the accelerator will automatically apply max regenerative braking, which is quite strong in the thing, bringing it to a stop at a reasonably quick pace, and then holding it there, even on a hill).

    Now most people today have learnt on a car in which you have to actively use the brake while driving, and the minute something happens (like some idiot pulls into your lane) we know the drill to slam the brakes as hard. But if someone learns with the 1 pedal system, they will never develop the natural reflex – and only god knows what will happen when someone swerves into their lane, or the deer jumps out in front…. Another excuse to declare human drivers unsafe I suspect….

  10. basically autos are just gay. part of the feminization of our culture. an incremental step to our pod self driving cars I suppose

  11. 1. Way, way back in time … My Dad taught me to drive in a manual transmission car. In fact, we didn’t have, any automatic transmission vehicles. Then when I was finally old enough to go to driver’s ed, I was momentarily stymied the first time I got behind the wheel. The car had an automatic! Took about 30 seconds to figure it out though. Btw, soon after getting my license, I taught myself to float shifts without using the clutch.

    2. Always knew the crap about automatics being more efficient than a manual was just that – crap.

    3. Drove trucks for a while after retiring from the military. At first, pretty much all of them were manual transmission equipped. Now the trend is much more in favor of automatics. They’re all crap and then some. Contrary to claims, they are not more fuel efficient and I would even say that in many instances they are dangerous. When the truck is light, you usually can not force the computer to start out in a gear higher that third. I’ve also had issues when, for example, i was trying to scoot through a intersection and the automatic tranny would refuse to upshift when I really need to keep going on the top of the power curve. Not a problem with a manual transmission. Also, backing can be quite a thrill. The trans will not engage until you add lots of power. Not fun if you are trying to finesse the last couple of feet to a loading dock.

    3. To add insult to injury, I drove a tanker for one company. All of their trucks were automatic transmission equipped. My truck had a glitch where the transmission would not go into gear no matter what was selected on the controls. Spent over six hours stranded at a fuel island once because the damn thing would not go into gear. The mechanics were never able to trace the problem. POS.

    4. The girl in the video and steering… It’d blow her mind if I told her I can steer my manual transmission car with the throttle.

  12. “Do I have to steer it?”
    “Yes Tammy, that might be important for us.”

    — from “Best GTR Launch Control Reaction” video

    For people who have no mental map of what an automated system does, the extent of its capabilities remains fuzzy.

    Thus Tesla’s misnamed Autopilot, which innocent victims confuse for a jet airplane that can fly itself, continues to maim and kill.

    Yesterday a hip young dude from southern Kali, after possibly enjoying a tequila sunrise (or three) plowed his Tesla into a state trooper vehicle on I-10 in Benson, Arizona. The trooper’s vehicle in turn rammed an ambulance. The Tesla ‘driver’ admitted that the Autopilot was engaged.

    Today a German court ruled that Tesla cannot market its misleadingly named Autopilot there. When will the notoriously saaaaaaaaaaaafety-obsessed US force Tesla to shut down its lethal Autopilot menace via an over-the-air update?

    Sure, Tesla fanbois will sue. Is that our problem? Suck it up, losers …

  13. I see what you did there. LOL Maybe you could lead the way in changing the names of the hydraulic clutch parts. A few suggestions from the world of Woke Linux:

    Going forward, Linux developers have been asked to use new terms for the master/slave and blacklist/whitelist terminologies.

    Proposed alternatives for master/slave include:

    primary/secondary
    main/replica or subordinate
    initiator/target
    requester/responder
    controller/device
    host/worker or proxy
    leader/follower
    director/performer

    https://www.zdnet.com/article/linux-team-approves-new-terminology-bans-terms-like-blacklist-and-slave/

    • In the spirit of voluntary compliance, every offensive reference to a “slave cylinder” in my old shop manuals and engineering texts has been respectfully upgraded to “cylinder of color.”

  14. Aside from far less expensive repairs, manual transmissions need repair FAR less often, if ever. Automatics, at least from most manufacturers, have a shelf life. They simply will not last past a particular number of miles driven. Not to mention the common manufacturer’s stipulation that their fluids “never need to be checked or changed”, which is a bald faced lie, and actually means “never needs changing for the length of the warranty”. Indeed, it is a good antitheft device. My former (praise God she no longer lives here) brother in law, who is a couple of years older than I am, making him about 69 or so now, never learned to drive a manual. Too bad the Psychopaths In Charge that wish to make it as hard as possible to drive haven’t figured out that outlawing auto transmission would achieve their ends immediately.

    • If you really want to thin the herd, outlaw syncronizers too.

      I do get tired of driving stick in city traffic, too many MFers drive slower than my pos will idle in 1st gear for the first 100 feet. Makes me stabby.

      • Don’t think I want to go THAT far. Don’t really want to double clutch ALL the time. Indeed, what probably pisses me off the most is the automatic driver who stops 30-40 feet behind the one in front of them at a traffic light, and then creeps up to where they should have stopped. I usually just stay where I am, unless doing so obstructs somebody else.

        • I suppose that I am an annoyance to you. I try to time the lights in order to roll them. I get good mileage and someone who stays with me saves on gas and brakes.

          • There is a minor pleasure in choosing the correct lane to roll past the dope that goes fast up to a red light and jams the brakes.

            • Hi Erie,

              I practice the same technique – to reduce wear and tear on my clutch! Timing the ebb and flow of traffic is its own reward – and I often find I make better time than the people you describe who barrel full-tilt to the light, then have to stop sooner. I often have a running start on them when the light goes green!

  15. That is a fact that a manual makes drivers more involved with their auto. My first car was a 1975 Olds Omega with a three on the tree and a stiff ass clutch pedal that almost required two feet to push. My “run around car”now is Ford Focus with a 5-speed manual that gets excellent mpg’s and has now 120,000 miles and trouble free since new. But as an aside, when I tell someone to hop in my ‘84 H/O and take it for a spin, they take one look at the Lightning Rods and first thing out their mouth is “what the hell”!

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