You might think manual transmissions are unwanted, given that few new cars – including a number of high-performance cars, such as the new Corvette – even offer them.
Isn’t that a reflection of the market?
It’s more a reflection of the government – which has, in its usual oily way, imposed a de facto ban on manual transmission by imposing regulations that are harder to comply with if a given car hasn’t got an automatic (and increasingly, a CVT automatic) transmission. Readers of this column already know why that is, but for those not yet hip:
Manuals – being controlled by the driver – cannot be programmed to shift through the gears in a way best matched to passing the tests that grade compliance with government regulations, especially those having to do with mandatory MPG minimums. This is why – if you’ve driven a new or new-ish car with an automatic – you may have noticed the transmission tries to upshift to the next-highest gear sooner than you probably would have if you were controlling the shifts via a manual gearbox. It is why the latest/newest automatics have eight, nine and even ten speeds. The last several of these being “stepped” overdrive gears that are there to cut engine revs as much (and as soon) as possible, so as to eke out an extra 2-3 MPGs on the government’s “fuel efficiency” tests.
Out in the real world, those gains are often lost – because out in the real world, upshifting too soon and too deep (into overdrive) results in sluggish acceleration and drivers will compensate for that by pushing down harder on the accelerator pedal, forcing a downshift. This of course results in more fuel being used.
But hey, the car advertises higher gas mileage!
And – of course – the car company has made the government happy.
One of the few that still does – for now – is Subaru’s Crosstrek, which is the only Subaru other than the high-performance WRX and BRZ sports car that still does offer it. And – lookee here! – the sales of Crosstreks are through the roof. They are up almost 40 percent. A record, for Subaru.
Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that the Crosstrek is the last practical car that Subaru offers with a manual? That it costs less with the manual than with the optional (and CVT) automatic?
Once-upon-a-time, around a decade ago, you could save money by not opting for the then-optional automatic. Manual-equipped versions of a given vehicle typically cost about $1,000-$1,500 less than the same thing with an automatic. They also saved you money over the duration of ownership, too – especially if you kept the car for the duration of its lifetime, say 15-20 years or so. During that time, you might perhaps have to pay for a clutch replacement – but the cost of that is about a fourth what it costs to replace a modern, electronically controlled automatic transmission when it fails.
And the newer automatics – with eight, nine and event ten speeds – and especially CVT automatics – tend to not last the lifetime of the vehicle. (A family member recently had to replace the automatic in an older Lexus RX; it cost her $5,000. This is pretty typical. The cost to replace a clutch typically runs $800-$1,200 or so.)
Plus, they also save gas – even if the test doesn’t say so.
Properly driven, a car with a manual will usually at least match – if not exceed – the mileage numbers advertised by the same car with an automatic. If the driver – the variable – knows how (and when) to shift. The manual, itself, is inherently more efficient because it is a direct manual interface between the spinning crankshaft inside the engine (that spins the flywheel at the back of the engine) and the spinning wheels. With an automatic, some of the engine’s power is lost-in-transmission, through the fluid coupling (the torque converter) that allows the automatic to be kept in Drive when the car isn’t moving.
This slippage (through the converter) continues as the car begins to move. Once it has reached light-load/cruising speed, the torque converter “locks up” (via a clutch-type mechanism) and a mechanical connection is established. But there is nevertheless some slippage and that results in an efficiency loss. This can be made up for – on paper – by programming the automatic to upshift as soon as possible – and as often as possible.
But out in the real world . . .
There is another factor that may be driving up sales of the Crosstrek with the manual. It is that manual-equipped versions of this small Soobie wagon do not have the “advanced driver assistance technologies” (e.g., Subaru’s EyeSight system) that are standard equipment with automatic-equipped versions of the Crosstrek.
Could it be that people have heard – and that they also know that 2023 is the last year Subaru will offer a manual in the Crosstrek? And are getting while the getting’s good?
It would be interesting to see what the market would have to say about all this.
And we could find out – were it not for all this government distorting what the market wants.
. . .
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