NPF: ROW YOUR OWN

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 15th, 2016 by Ed

I really like cars. Sorry if this makes me Dumb and destroys your perception of me. As a regular consumer of things related to car types of which I am especially fond and more general Car Guy Stuff like Regular Car Reviews, Autoblog, and Jalopnik, I am well aware that no one is allowed to be a Car Bro without having a borderline obsession with manual transmissions. Shift gate tattooed on your forearm or GTFO, brah! Three pedals or it doesn't even count as a car, brah! Automatics are so gay, brah! Despite the cogency and persuasiveness of such arguments, stick shifts are fast disappearing in the United States. They now account for almost no new truck sales and something like 1% of new car sales. More tellingly, they are no longer available on many performance models aimed explicitly at Car Enthusiasts.

There are practical reasons for the decline. Most drivers see cars simply as appliances and they want whatever is most convenient and whatever makes driving easiest. Americans also sit in a lot of stop-and-go traffic, which is the environment in which driving stick is most annoying. But I think that the biggest problem – Unpopular Message Board Car Bro Opinion warning – is that modern no-clutch-pedal transmissions are just so goddamn good.

Automatic transmissions suffered until the last 10-15 yearrs from two drawbacks. One was poorer fuel economy; prior to 2000 most cars gave up two or three mpg on their automatic version when compared to the manual one. Most automatics were 4 speeds, which made it difficult to gear for fuel economy without sacrificing performance. And on that note, the second drawback was performance. They were slower and the rudimentary transmissions basically had three gears plus an overdrive, and most cars aimed at the mass car buying public didn't have the horsepower to pull them effectively. They didn't shift particularly crisply either. GM's ubiquitous 4L60-E, which I experienced in numerous vehicles, shifted as though it was filled with pudding. I remain unconvinced that it wasn't.

So, for years manual transmissions had two big bragging points: better mpg, better acceleration. Combine those with lower price – automatics tend to be a $1000 option even today – and you had an airtight argument. The problem is that now 6-plus speed automatics and dual clutch (DCT) boxes have better fuel economy, provide quicker acceleration, and shift more quickly. The only remaining practical argument is based on style.

I had a BMW that I truly loved driving, and it had a DCT/automatic. Like most DCTs, it had "paddle shifters" on the steering wheel for manual shifting. When I sold the car, the young man who bought it asked about the paddle functions. I told him that they worked just fine but that I determined fairly quickly that I could not shift better than the software controlling it. And that's the thing: nobody can. It might make you feel better to shift your own gears, but the days of manual shifting outperforming sluggish 80s style automatics (the true "slushbox" automatics that are no longer used) are gone. Long gone. Performance cars like Corvettes, Porsches, BMWs, and Italian exotics now have dual-clutch automatic or robotic manual (BMW's SMG or the Porsche PDK) boxes that can execute shifts in milliseconds. Literally milliseconds. They are designed and programmed to outperform the human clutch foot and right arm (left in the UK and Japan, I guess) and they do exactly that.

Getting a manual transmission on a new 2016 vehicle strikes me more as a badge one wears to establish Car Guy cred than something that makes sense. Manuals no longer outperform their self-shifting counterparts in any area. The historical advantage they had in fuel economy is gone along with any performance advantages. If you think manual transmissions are more fun, by all means go for it. Do what you enjoy. But they are in no way empirically "better," and in fact by any performance or economy measure they are now worse than modern self-shifting units. Manual gearboxes are now to cars what Amtrak is to long distance travel. You can take Amtrak from Chicago to LA if you like being on trains, but in practical terms it makes no sense at all. Flights are cheaper and infinitely faster. Your choice, then, is one based solely on personal preference at the expense of logic, which is your prerogative. The attitude of superiority is pretty tiresome, though, especially when attached to a technology that is demonstrably inferior now.