NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When it comes to discussing automotive matters, CNN/Money readers are a surprisingly polite bunch.
While almost all the e-mails I got regarding a column I wrote on stick shift versus automatic transmissions disagreed with my thesis (that, in all purely practical respects, modern automatics have become the virtual equal of manual shifters) the level of dialog was quite polite and levelheaded.
Except for the guy who simply wrote, "Your article SUX!!"
In all those hundreds of e-mails, just one person came to my support. Michael wrote "Automatics are better because... they leave your gun hand free."
Thanks, Michael. Now just put the gun down. Very slowly.
Other people wrote in with various objections. Some simply complained that my sources were plain wrong. Many brought up objections that weren't even explored in my story. I'll look at some of those responses here.
Stick shifts are more fun
Hey, I conceded that, didn't I? In the right car, a stick is absolutely more fun.
"There is nothing so good as entering a tight turn in your BMW M3 dropping it into 2nd at 5,500 rpm and then banging out of the turn as you shift into third," wrote Jim, who signed his e-mail: "A devout stick man."
|Where it started
But in some cars -- probably most, really -- insisting on a stick is more a matter of automotive snobbery than anything else. For example, I know a certain "stick-man" who drives a full-size pick-up.
So, what do you think of this sentence...?
"There is nothing so good as entering a tight turn in your Toyota Tacoma XTracab, dropping it into 2nd at 5,500 rpm, and then banging out of the turn as you shift into third."
Now that was silly, wasn't it?
You can't push-start an automatic
Just so no one thinks I'm burying my mistakes here, this is one factor I completely overlooked. You really can't push-start an automatic.
Sticks really do save gas and power
I won't repeat myself here, but I never said sticks saved no gas at all.
While I may have overstated it a bit, what I was trying to say was that, as driven by most drivers (see the "devout stick man" above) the gas mileage difference between a stick shift and an automatic isn't going to be much. Certainly not worth worrying about or bragging about. No-one's saving the Earth by driving a stick shift.
Also, there is, obviously, some power cost with an automatic tranny. The amount of the power cost depends on the transmissions involved. All I was saying was that automatic trannies in today's cars no longer leave your car grossly underpowered. The extra power you can get with the stick is more a matter of fun than necessity. And, yes, fun can be a good thing.
Sticks are better in the snow
Many of the writers said that, with a stick shift, it's easier to control wheel spin in snowy conditions. As for me, I've never noticed much of a difference. But about 200 CNN/Money readers did.
Not wanting to rely solely on my own experience, I called the American Automobile Association's Helena, Mont., office (where they see a bit of snow) and talked to Charity Watt Levis, spokeswoman for AAA Mountain West.
"In a stick shift, it's a little bit easier to rock back and forth if you get stuck," she said. Good point. Once you're moving, though, there's no big difference. If your wheels spin in the snow you need to back off on the gas regardless of the type of transmission.
If people notice a difference in wheel spin between one car and another, it most likely has to do with where the driving wheels are located, she said. In other words, is the car front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive? Front-wheel drive is preferable, but all-wheel drive is best. "With rear-wheel drive, you need to just stay home," she said.
Sticks are better going down a steep hill
Some of the writers told stories of chortling with delight at the smoking brake pads of automatic cars as they reached the bottom of a steep mountain road. With a stick shift, keeping the car in a lower gear slows the car against the effects of gravity while leaving the brake pedal untouched.
There aren't a lot of real steep hills where I live, so just to be sure, I checked with Levis in Helena, Mont., on this one, too. They didn't name the state after the Spanish word for "mountain" for nothing.
Those folks with smoking brake pads had probably failed to notice, as many drivers with automatics do, those gear selections below "D" on their gear selectors. You can shift an automatic into a lower gear and keep it there by using the L1 or L2 gear selections. Driving down a long, steep incline is the perfect time to get acquainted with your transmission's nether ratios.
Automatics break down a lot
This was once true, particularly in the mid-1970s. Blame all those "Save the Whales" bumper stickers.
Prior to the 1974 endangered species act, automatic transmissions were filled with fluid that was 95 percent sperm whale oil and it was just the stuff for the job. That oil lasted a long time, said Roger Kwapich, auto mechanic and host of the "Consumer Automotive Repair Show" (The C.A.R. Show) a syndicated radio show. Also, it had just the right properties, allowing transmissions to slip when they needed to slip and grab when they needed to grab, he said.
Ever since it became illegal to kill sperm whales for our motoring pleasure, automotive fluid makers have been trying to "reverse engineer" the stuff that poured out of those whales' heads by the gallon. Early attempts weren't so great and frequent transmission breakdowns were the result. But today's transmissions hold about just about as well as the old whale oil ones.
To find out how modern automatics and sticks stack up on break-down rates, I talked to David Champion, director of automotive testing for consumer reports. It all depends on the car, he says.
There are some awful automatics out there that break down all the time. On the other hand, some car companies just make lousy manuals. Check the history before you buy. (There's a silver lining to getting a bad tranny, though. If it's a transmission that's known to break a lot, repairs can actually be cheap because the jobs are just so commonly done. In other words, it pays to have popular problems.)
Sticks are better because Europeans drive them
The "Appeal to the Europeans" argument is one I've heard used many times in politics, fashion and eating spaghetti, but this is the first I've heard it used in discussions of car options.
In cases where people did include some sort of reasoning behind this -- rather than leaving unstated the conclusion that "If Europeans do it, it must be better" -- it went like this:
a) In Europe, there are a lot of narrow winding roads
b) Europeans drive a lot of stick shift cars
c) Stick shift cars must be better on narrow winding roads
Nick Garton, a spokesman for Britain's Automobile Association thought cost was probably the bigger factor. Automatic transmissions are a mighty costly option in his country, adding 25 percent to the cost of a small car there. He agreed, however, that sheer driving enjoyment on windy and hilly roads was another possible factor. Again, sticks are more fun.
Simple cultural preferences probably also figure in. "There's quite an image thing," he said. The Brits, at least, like the feeling of control. Even as standard shifts are becoming less common, although they're still the majority of cars by far, they are being replaced by semi-automatic Tiptronic and paddle-shifted cars.
Many car thieves can't drive sticks
This idea actually has a lot of appeal for me. I love the idea of someone breaking into my car, jumping into the driver's seat, and saying, "Dang! No, wait... It's clutch, then the brake then you... wait... Aw, man..."
Given that automatic transmissions are common on some types of cars and virtually unseen on others, it would be difficult to figure out if this actually works. I would suspect, though, that car thieves who tend to steal the types of cars that tend to have sticks would know how to drive them. Or they need to find another line of work. (Several people have written in pointing out this Jan. 3, 2003 story from CNN.com: Young pizza bandits fail getaway. Clearly, those are two young men who really do need to find another line of work.)
So, it comes down to emotions. And it seems there's a lot of emotion out there. But I still stand by my original position.
Peter Valdes-Dapena is a CNN/Money producer. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.