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Personal Finance > Autos
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Killing the stick-shift dinosaur
Manual transmissions still have their fans, but are they really better? Not anymore. Not really.
December 18, 2002: 11:10 AM EST
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It was my father, an avid sports car enthusiast, who made sure his kids got the "automatics are for weenies" gospel. And I believed.

Then I began to stray. A few years ago, I got my first car with an automatic transmission.

And I liked it.

So I wondered: Are there really any good arguments for driving a stick shift anymore? I thought there probably weren't. Automatic transmissions are far more sophisticated today than in decades past and the drawbacks that once came with automatics have largely been eliminated. To confirm my suspicions I put in a call to Roger Kwapich, who hosts a syndicated radio program called Consumer Automotive Repair show, better know as the C.A.R. Show.

Taking it one-by-one, let's look at the arguments for sticking with stick-shift driving.

Stick shift saves gas!

Sure, if you drive the way they do in gas mileage tests. Now, let's be really honest with ourselves here. Do you drive that way in real life? If you wanted to drive like your grandmother, you'd have gotten the automatic to begin with. The way people drive in the real world, stick shift saves you nary a drop. In fact, you may actually be getting worse mileage than you would have with the car doing the shifts for you.

With the advent of computer chips, automatics are much better at timing those shifts than they used to be, says Kwapich, Just as with a manual shift, if you don't drive like a fuel-hogging freak your transmission won't either.

It gives me more power!
Opposing viewpoint
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Allen Wastler: The stick-shift riff

Once upon time, this was true. But two things have changed: Engines and transmissions. "Cars just aren't underpowered anymore," says Kwapich.

Not too long ago, if your car had an automatic and fewer than eight cylinders -- certainly fewer than six -- your biggest driving thrill was trying to merge onto a highway without getting squashed like a bug on the front bumper of an eighteen-wheeler. These days, having been through energy squeezes and tough competition from the Japanese, even once-wasteful American car makers have learned to wring every pony out of the daintiest little engines.

About the transmissions, see above. Increased efficiency means more engine power goes to moving the car rather than getting sucked away by slow or badly timed shifts. Today's automatic transmissions also offer more flexibility in shift styles. Often, if you want a more power-oriented shifting style you can just press a button.

It's cheaper!

Maybe, but probably not in the long run. If the car you want even comes with a standard transmission the automatic will probably cost you $800 to $900 more, says Joe Cashen, director of pricing for Carsdirect.com. In most cases, you'll get that back when you go to sell the car. The exception, he adds, might be for those cars in which stick-shift is de rigueur, for example a sporty little Mazda Miata.

If you have to look hard for the car you want in stick form, it's probably going to actually cost you money in the long run, he says. If a car company doesn't make many cars of a particular model with a standard transmission it's probably because they know they can't sell them that way. And if very few people want to buy that new family sedan or SUV with stick-shift, you think you're going to do better finding a buyer when you need to sell it? Good luck.

It saves wear on my brakes!

Some stick-shift drivers including CNN/Money's Allen Wastler, insist that stick shifts save them money by allowing them to downshift -- that is, shift into a lower gear to slow the car, something mechanics call "engine braking" -- and save wear on their brakes.

So, let's think this through: We want to save wear on brake shoes, cheap and easily replaceable parts, by transferring that wear and stress to the clutch and the engine. Brake pads are much easier and cheaper to replace than clutches and the added stress on your engine can shorten its life. At best, you're not saving anything. At worst, you could actually be inviting expensive repairs.

It focuses the attention!

Someone driving a stick-shift car is really thinking about driving, the argument goes. He is part of a true man-machine union and is, therefore, more attuned to all aspects of driving, including those aspects involved in not hitting other cars, trees or light posts.

Not having to shift gears certainly does not cause me to forget the fact that I'm driving. There are these aspects called "steering," "accelerating" and "braking" with which I remain intimately involved. And, in a good car, feedback through the steering wheel, pedals and seat remain undiminished. I am no less aware of my vehicle's behavior in any important respect with an automatic transmission.

Then there are those hazards caused by the average person's limited number of arms. Between changing CDs, answering the cell phone, drinking coffee and gesturing out the window at "that moron," do you really need something else that occupies one hand and a leg? Two hands on the wheel may be asking a bit much, but most safety experts do recommend at least one, pretty much at all times.

It's just more fun!

You might have me there. These days there are plenty of cars, more expensive ones mostly, that offer automatics with "clutchless" shifting to give you that heady feeling of gear selection when you want it. But without the clutch, half the fun is gone.

So there really is no easy answer. With modern automotive technology, there's just no good reason to keep shifting gears yourself. But maybe you don't need a good reason. Maybe you just like knowing that you can pick your own gears.  Top of page




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