Last-Century Gear Tech Brings Driving Back to Basics
Why, when auto manufacturers across the globe have mastered building reliable, economical, and convenient automatic transmissions, do standard transmissions with their stick shifts still have a place on the road in the 21st century? After all, driving an automatic is so easy, and learning to drive a stick is so hard.
You could ask similar questions to music lovers who like to listen to vinyl LPs instead of digital files, to backyard BBQers who choose charcoal grills over gas burners, and to food lovers who grow their own vegetables. The answers all have to do with the qualities that outweigh the convenience.
So too, with driving enthusiasts who count economy, fun, and greater safety among their reasons for driving a stick. The reasons are enough for world automakers to field dozens of standard-transmission models in 2018, and for you to consider learning to drive a stick shift and choosing the stick option when you buy your next vehicle.
Stick Shift Puts the Driver in Control
Stick drivers will tell you that when approaching an intersection they’re already thinking about depressing the clutch to coast to a stop or to shift into second gear to make a turn. Until you tap the brakes, an automatic transmission has no idea you want to stop or slow down.
Standard gives drivers full control, writes Cole Quinnell, blogger for transmission distributor Tremec.com.
There’s “no computer that thinks it knows better than you about driving and shifting,” Quinnell says. There’s no wondering when the transmission will shift into a higher gear because the driver decides. Even while set in a “manual mode”, automatic transmissions will upshift when RPMs get too high, but not true manuals. They leave drivers with the prerogative of revving their engines as high as they want to rev them.
“Control” in this sense means more than just the driver’s reins on a gearbox, it means control of the vehicle in which you and your passengers are traveling, how fast it’s going, how fast it’s going to go and the relative power turning those wheels. Without an automatic always pushing the car forward, drivers can anticipate stop signs, slow down, and brake more easily. Just press the clutch and coast to a gentle stop.
If you need a little more deceleration without brakes at all, you can downshift and feel like you’re a NASCAR driver on his or her day off: Nudge the gas a little, shift into a lower gear, and then take that foot off of the gas. Your engine becomes your brake as your RPMs reduce to match your car’s momentum.
A Deterrent to Distracted Driving
Manual transmissions not only give you greater control of your car but also pressure you to be in greater control of yourself. You can debate whether automatic transmissions help promote distracted driving, which public safety officials have identified as one of the four most-common contributors to serious and deadly auto accidents. But if you can drive with only one hand then it’s easier to eat, drink, text, or talk on your cell phone while driving. Only professional jugglers can attempt the same feats while driving through the city with a manual transmission.
Between surveying the road ahead, thinking about shifting, operating the clutch and gas pedals, then shifting with your right hand, the activity requires your whole body and attention. You’ll have to pull over to take that call, eat that cheeseburger, or slurp your slushy. Side benefits? While driving a stick, you can avoid those fast-food calories and get a great workout.
You can also intuit that because it takes longer to learn to drive a manual transmission, most drivers have spent more time with an instructor to teach them, whether it’s a family member or a professional. Resultantly, standard drivers spend more time learning the rules of the road and you could hope, become better, safer drivers.
Downshifting For Uphill Power
Coloradans, who are no stranger to steep inclining roadways like Pike’s Peak lane, can appreciate one of standard transmissions’ greatest benefits: shifting into low gear while driving uphill. It allows motorists to drive uphill without pushing their engines to the limit, even when fully loaded or towing a trailer.
Low gears, such as second or even first gear, convert engine revolutions into fewer turns of your wheels. Just as when you pedal a 10-speed bike in low gear, your engine just doesn’t have to push as hard to power you forward while in first or second. That kind of slow, steady, and strong traction can be a safety benefit in winter months.
While automatic transmissions also give low-gear options, they don’t give drivers the same degree of control. Furthermore, drivers used to letting the car think for them seldom think about using the option.
Downshifting to Avoid Brake Failure
Now that you’ve seen the sights atop Pike’s Peak, getting down is a different story. When traveling downhill, standard transmissions give drivers an important advantage: Saving your brakes from complete failure. Drivers will instinctively brake more as gravity pulls them downhill faster and faster. Overuse, though, can cause your brakes to glaze over and become nearly useless. Even in “L” for low gear, automatic transmissions will push downhill at unrestrained and unsafe speeds. Using a soft touch on the gas pedal in second or first gear, you can travel downhill at a continuous, safe speed, slowed by your engine’s inertia.
Economy in Old-School Driving
Choosing a standard in the car dealer’s showroom undoubtedly saved you a few thousand dollars off of the sticker price. Automatics are finely tuned and much more sophisticated pieces of machinery than standards, which amount to a simple gearbox and clutch. The savings continue after you’ve hit the road.
Generally speaking, manual transmissions have substantially lower maintenance and repair costs, according to Trafficschoolonline.com, which provides online driver’s education classes across the country. That advantage might be reduced somewhat in mountainous Colorado, as you could expect to replace manual transmission clutches more frequently.
Trafficschoolonline.com reports that vehicles with standard transmissions have about 15 percent more power than their automatic counterparts because the engines don’t waste power pumping automatic transmission fluid and turning the complicated workings inside the big gearboxes. That’s why most high-performance cars have only manual transmissions: More power equals quicker acceleration and better performance. Furthermore, the greater control the manuals offer is essential for quick-shifting rally car and race car drivers.
In 2013, a New York Daily News automotive writer reported that a mere 6.5 percent of cars sold in the United States have manual transmissions, whereas the old-way-is-better philosophy has an enormous market in Europe. Manual transmissions, though, seemed to be becoming more popular in the U.S. because of their fuel economy.
Elite and the Down-to-Earth on Reviewer’s List
In January 2018, Popular Mechanics automotive columnist Ben Stewart ranked what he calls the top-20 stick shift vehicles available for 2018. Although he relied on a variety of criteria, including his personal taste, one thing is clear: Economical cars with manual transmissions seem right at home with the elite supercars of the road.
- 2018 Mazda Miata — Base price: $26,185
- 2018 Subaru BRZ (and Toyota 86) Base Price: $25,595
- 2018 Ford Mustang GT — Base price: $35,095
- 2018 Fiat 500 Abarth — Base price: $19,995
- 2018 Mini Cooper Works Hardtop — Base price: $33,650