August 24, 2012

Car Talk

Dispelling myths about manual transmissions

Syndicated columnists

Dear Tom and Ray:
When I first learned to drive, a million years ago, my father (who knew nothing about cars) advised me to always drive a manual transmission because they handle better, are easier to repair, are cheaper, get better mileage, etc. Being an obedient daughter, I have owned and driven only manual-transmission cars all these years. Also, I needed the boost I got from the cool factor of a woman driving a stick shift (men are so transparent). But now I'm older and am tired of all that shifting. I'm getting ready to trade in my 2003 Subaru Forester for a new one, and I want an automatic — but will I be losing out on all the good things, like control and economy? Or does that no longer really apply, with today's car engineering? I don't want to do anything that might make me any less cool than I already am. Can I make the switch? My father isn't around any longer to advise me, but I know he would trust the opinions of his favorite car guys. — Nina

Tom: Get the automatic, Nina. You have our blessing.

Ray: The things your father cites, while true in his day, are either no longer true or are not compelling arguments anymore. Let's take them one at a time.

Tom: Myth 1: Manual transmissions get better mileage. While this certainly was true for a long time, today's automatic transmissions pretty much match the mileage you can get with manual transmissions.

Ray: Older automatics had a lot of "slippage," or inefficiency, built into them. But much of that is gone since there are now computer controls, lock-up torque converters and things like dual clutches. Some automatics now have six, seven, eight or even infinitely variable speeds, giving them an advantage in mileage over their manual counterparts.

Tom: Myth 2: A manual transmission gives you more control over your car. This usually refers to being able to employ engine braking by downshifting or delaying an upshift. But you know what? You can do those things with an automatic transmission, too. And many computer-controlled automatics now have a "manual mode" that allows you to shift up and down through the gears manually anyway. So, if you want to, you can still drive to Duluth in second gear and get seven miles per gallon.

Ray: Plus, with the widespread adoption of computerized safety enhancements such as stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes, new cars are very well-controlled these days, no matter what kind of transmission you're using.

Tom: Myth 3: Manual transmissions are cheaper and easier to repair. Well, that one's true. On cars that offer you a manual transmission option, it's often $1,000 less than the automatic. And should your automatic need a rebuild, it's expensive, because it's like doing one of those 14,000-piece jigsaw puzzles without the box-top picture.

Ray: However, many automatic transmissions last for the life of the vehicle, whereas a manual transmission will require at least one, if not more, $1,000 clutch replacements during a car's life. So the costs really are about the same.

Tom: Myth 4: Manual transmissions are more fun. That's probably the strongest argument for getting a manual transmission. And if you feel that way, you should get one and enjoy it.

Ray: But for some people, they're not more fun — people who live in cities, for instance, and have to creep along in traffic every day. Or people who'd rather have their right hand free to change the radio station or administer a dope slap to a recalcitrant preteen in a passenger seat.

Tom: But it's really a matter of personal preference now. There are no good economic or mechanical reasons to choose a manual over an automatic anymore, Nina. So be as shiftless as you like. Dad would approve.

(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)

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