Thursday, February 1, 2018

Manual Mania: Why I'm a Stick Shift Die-Hard

The car I learned to drive on - a 1979 VW Rabbit diesel
This is the car I learned to drive stick shift on: a diesel-powered 1979 VW Rabbit.
 “Why do you drive a stick-shift (aka: manual-transmission) car? Isn’t it a pain in the butt?” Yes, it's 2018, and some people still do enjoy driving a car with a manual transmission.

People may ponder if it’s the control factor, the fun factor, fuel savings or just simplicity. Perhaps, it's owning the ultimate millennial theft deterrent? To us, it’s all of the above. My humble opinion? Stick shifts are where they’re at.

Toyota Yaris 5-Speed Manual
The shifter on our Yaris
Depending on how old you are, your first car might have had a steering column- or dash-mounted shifter, but in modern cars, the shifter is typically mounted vertically on the center console and is connected to the transmission via a linkage. Three speeds were the norm for years ("three on the tree"), then four ("four on the floor") then five speeds ("five on the hive"), or even six speeds (is there a nickname for these?) became the norm.

Short throws? Long throws? It’s all about “driving dynamics” or engagement for me. It’s the opportunity to drive virtually any type of automobile anywhere in the world—including in countries where renting an automatic is easier said than done. Is there an emergency? No problem. I can hop into just about anything (sans a commercial vehicle legally) and drive it to safety. Driving a manual transmission car, in my opinion, is a critical life skill. One that is quickly dying in the age of the auto transmission.

If you have a “set-it- and-forget- it” type of mind when driving, buying or leasing an automatic or CVT (continuously variable transmission) is perfect for you. If you consider yourself an enthusiast or if your commute isn’t an hour of stop-and- go-driving—a manual-transmission-equipped car is more engaging to drive.

Unfortunately, you’ll have slim pickings to find a manual rig because many new cars offer only one type of transmission: an automatic, whether it's a traditional automatic with a torque converter or a CVT (continuously variable transmission). FYI—in lieu of gears, a CVT relies on a belt and pulley system that provides an infinite number of ratios. In other words, the transmission never shifts. A CVT is smoother to drive than an equivalent model with an automatic transmission. A CVT can improve gas mileage, too, which explains why a lot of hybrid cars are equipped with one. Beware: driving a car with a CVT for the first time may feel a bit bizarre because it doesn’t shift. You’ll hear a continuous hum of the engine as you increase or decrease speed. No normal gear-shifting noises found here. My advice? Try a CVT before you buy one.

Fiat 500c Abarth

If you really have your heart set on the sassy stick-shift way of life, there are still cars, such as the Fiat 500, the Mitsubishi Mirage, or Chevrolet Spark, that can be manually shifted. Sportier small options include the Volkswagen GTI, Subaru Impreza, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the Toyota 86 (formerly known as the Scion FR-S and also still known as the Subaru BRZ). More expensive manufacturers also nod their heads to manual-lovers: Jaguar and BMW are two that come to mind.

You’ll need to hunt and peck your way through new or used car listings, however, to find a manual
automobile. Less than 10% of Americans fancy this kind of transmission.

My first car was a Honda CRX SI just like this, and yes, it was a manual.
Why is it that Americans have fallen out of love with the stick shift? Is it because they’re busy doing other things than driving, like drinking coffee, texting on their phones, or eating McDonald’s breakfast burritos? Maybe they simply don’t want the hassle of automobile engagement or actual “driving.” Is it the convenience factor (not having to engage the clutch and shifting when in traffic or merging onto the highway)? Or, is the change in attitude simply the wave of our country’s future? Have manual transmissions given way to automatic and CVTs, and shortly will be completely forgotten when the era of self-driving autonomous rigs begins? In the past, manual transmissions were undoubtedly faster than their automatic counterparts. But thanks to advancements and innovations in technology, automatic transmissions have become faster shifters and more efficient than many of their manually moved counterparts.

Costs to purchase an automatic vehicle have also come down too. Manuals were almost always cheaper. Regardless, I shudder at the thought of giving up my manual transmission.

I’m a die-hard stick-shift enthusiast and I’ll be that way until I can either no longer drive or live somewhere where I have a three hour 5-mph rush hour commute to head home after work. Then maybe, just maybe, would I reconsider.

Scion FR-S

There are many reasons why I love driving a stick shift:
  • Driving a manual transmission allows you more control of your car. You can slow down without using your brakes much, downshifting and letting the engine slow the car. You can also downshift to accelerate quickly when passing another, or when needing to get out of precarious situations.
  • It's often less expensive to repair a manual transmission-equipped car. Automatic transmissions are more complex; they often cost more to service. However, you may need to replace your car's clutch at some point if you are a “clutch hugger” and ride the clutch or are in constant severe stop-and-go traffic.
  • When you buy a new car, a manual transmission is generally a cheaper nowadays; however, they are usually only offered in base- or mid-trim level packages.
Call me crazy, but I find driving a manual-transmission vehicle much more enjoyable. I’m able to connect with the road, those around me, and focus on travel. I don’t text while I drive, don’t eat while runnin’ errands, or put on mascara when I’m at a stop light. Heck, I don’t even wear mascara. I find a certain connection with my manuals … a happy one. There's a certain level of respect between a driver and their car, one reminiscent of a horseman and his horse. Called me old-fashioned, but I simply prefer stick-shifts. The engagement, simplicity, control, and fun are all I could ever ask for in a four-wheeled best friend.

Mazda MX-5 Miata is a ton of fun to drive with a stick shift


Dee Paolina said...

I'm with you. I learned on a 1974 VW Beetle (yes, I'm old). My first new car was a '92 Mazda Protege (5 speeds!). And I currently drive a 6-speed MINI Cooper. I love the feel of a manual (what we called "straight drive" back then). It's WAY better on hills here in WV. And it's simply more fun, IMO. My wife's cars have always been automatics and, while easy, are boring. Long live the manual transmission!

Brian Driggs said...

I agree. Grew up on 5-speeds and miss having one around.

Admittedly, the slushbox is convenient. It can certainly make primitive roads less so, but it comes with a trade-off. That long stretch of altitude-gaining tarmac is probably going to mean quite a bit of irritating downshifts into less than ideal gears, resulting in brief jumps to almost redline before upshifting back into a gear it can't maintain speed in. Ugh. I hate that so much.

And I'd offer a CVT can be a lot of fun—but only if you've got a turbocharger. It's the difference between feeling like you're about to take off in a jet (think: the noise and acceleration just before takeoff) and riding a shitty, Walmart vacuum cleaner down the street.

Give a shift!

Anime Gee said...

Ther mere thought of not being able to buy car with a manual transmission is very stressful for me to even think about. I drive a little 1995 Mazda Miata. I commute about +-80 round trip in it. It's a 5-speed manual. I do have the opportunity to go through some twisty canyon roads on the way to work if I want to. I feel sorry for the poor saps in their SUVs, luxury cars, regular cars that go bored to work. Sometimes I have to deal with traffic, but the shifting does not bother me. In fact, I get more irritated driving an automatic in traffic. My wife's Ford Escape has an automatic & I feel that it's more of a chore to drive than anything else.

But yeah. Long live the stick shift. I'm gonna drive that little NA until it gets wrecked, stolen, or it can no longer be repaired. By the way, I commuted that little Mazda about +-160 miles round trip for about 4 years in a row. I got to commute on a backroad just about every day when I did. I don't know what I'm going to do when I can no longer drive that car for whatever reason. I'm not a big fan of the newer ND. In fact, I'm not a big fan of most recent cars. Too many electrical nannies & future electrical problems. That will be a subject for another time. ('o' )

Scott Harvey said...

I always preferred the manual gearbox, I do not know, I do not have any conviction for these machines, I had the opportunity to ride but did not impress me. Everyone who likes more fans is known for the machines.

Unknown said...

I had a 2006 VW Jetta 5 speed TDI, aka diesel, until October 2015 when our family decided we could do without a pickup no longer. I gave the great little diesel away to the dealer as a trade in on the truck. I also had a motorcycle that I had bought for personal transportation, mostly commuting with great mpg (not an enthsiast) that was a straight shift, so my manual shift fix would still be covered.

The pickup was cheap as new pickups go, as I paid less than half what some do for a full size pick up but with fewer doors, fewer drives, less bling, and smaller wheels but with a lit of the same great engineering found in $60K+ pickup trucks. And with respect to engineering, my truck is an engineering marvel with 325 peak horsepower and 375 ft-lb torque at only 3000 RPM and I'm averaging 24 mpg lifetime, albeit hardly ever tapping in to those peak numbers at the expense of mpg. The pickup also is an automatic and that sucks, but I couldn't go for one of those stripped mid size trucks with a straight shift and NA 4 cylinder with sub 200 ft- lbs torque for a pickup. The value is just so much better for a base full size model, especially with F150 and that amazing little turbo charged engine for a mere $800 premium over the base engine power.

The motorcycle had to go. I had not thought through the impracticality of motorcycles for commuting; especially for a 58 mile round trip commute, so I sold it.

My wife had been asking for a used Fiat 500 six speed automatic with a 1.4l MultiAir for over a year, and so I finally broke down and bought her one that was 3 years old for $8000.

That Fiat has brought back my small car fevor, but I hate an automatic, especially in a small car with 100 horsepower. Now we have a 2007 Saturn Aura, a 2015 F150 regular cab, and a 2007 Saturn Aura that we bought new eleven years ago. The Saturn has been a great car (think Chevy Malibu) but we have both learned to hate it, because neither of us have much use or any enthusiasm for a bulky mid sized sedan these days. It's also notable that the Saturn has almost no KBB or NADA value, but I also learned during the Fiat 500 shopping process that there are three great little subcompacts, available in stick shift that have very little value. Mitsubishi Mirage, Chevy Spark, and Fiat 500. I want one real badly, but the manuals are pretty rare and I've got to give up a beautiful Saturn for next to nothing to get one.

So I'm leaning towards a 2016 Chevy Spark if I can find one that's not flourescent, because reviews give it some real good driving composure ratings for it's price since the 2016 update. It's got 98 horsepower and 94 ft lbs and weighs just over 2200 pounds with the stick. The automatic is CVT and weighs 100 more. The Mirage has horrible ratings, but looking closely in to what makes it bad only concerns me in so far as how poorly the vehicle tracks on the road, and I'd mostly be driving state routes at or about 60 mph and not running about in the city. So handling is very important. The Fiat has only 2 doors and we're thinking 4 would be better for our second car. My preference, with money as no object would be a Fiesta with the 1.0L Ecoboost 3 cylinder that was available 2014-2016 and was only available with a 5 speed, but the small Ecoboost is hard to find and used Fiestas are way pricier than their worth.