Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The shift to automatics and why I love manual transmissions

It's no secret that the U.S. is becoming a shiftless society. More and more vehicles are coming equipped with automatics and CVTs, and the manual transmission is becoming harder and harder to find. According to a 2008 article on Progressive Insurance's Web site, only 8–10 percent of new cars are equipped with a manual transmission. As a die-hard shift-it-yourselfer, that's disappointing, and I'm sure the 2010 numbers are probably even lower.

It used to be that the manual transmission's benefit was fuel economy. However, with advances in technology, many automatics and most CVTs yield the same or better mileage than the shift-it-yourself trans. So if you're simply looking to get the best mileage out there, fine. But when it comes to the driving experience, I want a manual transmission.

Like many other enthusiasts, I prefer driving a car with a manual transmission. It's more engaging. It's more fun to drive—you typically get better performance from a manual. You become increasingly involved in the overall driving experience. To me, coming into a corner and making that perfect downshift is a great feeling. It's simply more rewarding to change gears myself rather than simply mashing the throttle and hanging on. I'll leave "point-and-shoot" operation to cameras, thank you.

Fortunately, the small car world seems to be one of the last bastions of manual shifting. Nearly all b-segment cars and most c-segment cars have a choice in transmission. But although the five- or six-speed may be available, it can be nearly impossible to actually find one. (Try finding a '10 Toyota Yaris five-door liftback with a five-speed, for example.)

Some of the latest crop of small cars, however, don't even offer a manual trans—a possible scary signs of things to come for us die-hards. For example, the aforementioned Yaris five door didn't offer a manual trans in 2009. The 2011 Scion iQ is not going to be offered with a manual for '11, either. Of course the Smart—the iQ's closest competitor—doesn't have a true manual transmission. Want the top-of-the-line Nissa Cube (the Krom)? Hope you want an automatic. And the list goes on ...

There are the "manumatics," of course; automatics you can shift yourself. For me, they don't cut it, and the performance is nearly the same as a traditional auto. There's also the dual-clutch gearboxes (e.g. Volkswagen's DSG, or the transmission in the Nissan GT-R). Performance is good (if not better) as a stick shift, but it operates like an automatic or a manumatic. What's lacking in my opinion, however, is the driving experience.

I know some people want an automatic, especially for stop-and-go driving, and that's fine. I know some people don't care what transmission the car comes with, either. Personally, I want my stick shift and clutch pedal damn it. I won't buy a car without them, and I hope I'll always have that option.

Take the poll below and tell us what you drive, then use the comments section to sound off!

Which transmission do you have?


Unknown said...

All too true. I tried to find a 5-speed Honda Fit Sport, without navigation, with less than 3 days left of C4C. All the local dealers had were slushboxes, and they were so overwhelmed with customers I was literally told that unless I was going to buy a car that day, they did not have time to help me.

I ended up in a 5 speed Hyundai Accent SE, which they still had to truck in from a different dealership, after flat out refusing their offers to get me into an auto since they had like 20 of them on their lots.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Yeah, I can totally believe that.

I was looking online yesterday for a five-speed five-door Toyota Yaris. I couldn't find a single one in Oregon at any Toyota dealership. I searched the Seattle area, too and couldn't find one.

I went to Wisconsin (where I bought a 2005 Scion xB), and they did list having one on their lot.

I'm guessing its a regional thing, actually. In my ZIP code here in Portland, OR Toyota's Web site tells me a five-speed five-door Yaris isn't available (I'll have to select a three-door or sedan). However, if I enter in the ZIP for Milwaukee, WI it tells me the manual is available with the five-door. That is rather interesting.

rubicon4wheeler said...

I refuse to buy a car or truck with an automatic transmission. My 5-speed 2008 SX4 is wonderful, but I'm sure annoyed that for 2010 you can't get the new 6-speed in the higher trim levels. What's up with that? When the day comes that I cannot buy a new car with a manual transmission, I'll just look to buy an older used car; car manufacturers will not force me to drive an automatic!

murphyseanm said...

First off I would love to own a manual as a 3rd car for me to work on and drive to enjoy. My body has other plans for me as it physically hurts to use a clutch for an extended period of time. Normal driving is a pain after so many miles and minutes but I still love to do it.

Now I don't understand the "IT HAS TO BE MANUAL" puritan view. A dual clutch will work just like a manual but you just lose the 3rd pedal. My next car will have one for sure so I can hit the perfect down shift on a turn or hit the red line just right to stay in the best power band. My wife will most likely get a CVT as she will get a hybrid and most of them come that way. I am fine with it as it will work for her.

This is just how the market is going. Change sucks but it happens.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Sean, I totally understand your view. However, for me, there's almost an automotive romanticism (TMI? LOL) about a manual transmission. You become part of the car. You have control.

Now, I understand the dual-clutch perspective, but it takes another human element out of the equation. You don't have to worry about matching revs. You don't push in a clutch. You just simply tap a lever. I understand the performance advantage; I suppose the same things could be said about traction control, stability control, and ABS. Although, those are "safety" features.

Anonymous said...

I loved my manual 2 door Tracker! I love my warmed up, defrosted, automatic SX4 more.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I have an autotragic. My car, a Scion xD, was a gift, so I had no say in it.

Give me stickshift, or give me death! The only way I'd ever pay for an automatic would be for a cult classic car that never came in stick.

Henry said...

I have a auto honda fit only because my parents bought it that way. When i buy my next car it will be manual.

burnitwithfire said...

I've always owned manuals and so have my parents (except when they had an auto minivan to take my bother, my sister and I out) but they always had a second car with a manual tranny. Although I must says that here in Quebec it is easy to find any model with a stick shihft (provided it's available with one). I didn't have to shop around to get my 2010 Accent with a stick. Some cars, especially small ones, are more fun with a do-it-yourself transmission.

D2M said...

Oooh, I know I'm gonna tick some people off by saying this, but I just don't like manuals. If they disappeared I would not miss them one bit. I hate driving manuals--one more distraction to get me killed on the road--and they make driving WORK. I like things that make my life easier. Autos and CVTs (which I hope get more popular) do that.

I know car enthusists love the things but since I'm only enthusiastic about cars in the sense that they are quiet, efficient, and comfortable... well... I just don't see the point in it.

I don't have a problem with other people liking manuals. It's just not my cup of tea.

Andy Lilienthal said...

There's nothing wrong with that D2M. And frankly, I think you represent 90% of the driving public.

AccentPlanetDotOrg said...

Im not an Manual guy, but Im trying to find ways to make Autos more fun for the hardcore enthusiast, as Manuals will proabably be extinct along with the dinosaurs by 2018 at the latest.

By then only Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian cars will have manuals, but by then brands from all 4 countries will be here.

However, in 6-10 years the only way you're going to get a traditional manual is you have to buy Chinese, etc... or buy used.

The Korean cars are very repsonsive when you manually shift the Autoboxes.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Wow, that's quite a prediction; 2018, eh? I hope you're wrong! Then again, I can always buy used.

I think the dual clutch gearboxes will be the way of the future (whether I like it or not). It's still more engaging than a traditional automatic, I guess.