June 15, 2004
A friend of mine recently asked me what the advantages were of driving a standard car when it’s so much easier to drive an automatic. That’s a good question. I didn’t really know the answer myself until several years ago when I was fortunate enough to buy my first car — a Toyota MR2 — and learn the difference first-hand. But is the constant work of shifting gears really worth all the effort? Let’s see.
One of the biggest advantages of a manual transmission is that it does a better job of translating power from the engine to the wheels. Automatic transmissions use a completely different mechanism for automating the shifting of gears, and this generally results in a small sacrifice in horsepower. If you’re driving a car with an abundance of horsepower then perhaps this is not as much of an issue, but most cars under $40,000 have considerably more punch when hooked up to a manual transmission.
When slowing down to enter a turn, a manual transmission enables the driver to downshift earlier and put the engine in the optimum gear for exiting the turn, which effectively makes power from the engine available sooner. In contrast, automatic transmissions can’t tell whether you are slowing down to a stop or if you intend to speed back up again, and only when you floor the accelerator on your way out of a turn does the transmission wake up and realise that it needs to shift to a lower gear. It might take a second to select a gear, then the car will finally lurch forward, screaminng the engine at a high RPM and inevitably wasting a bit more fuel. It really takes all the fun out of driving!
Okay, so driving a standard car gives you much better performance and it’s more fun to drive, but isn’t it tedious to shift gears all the time? Well…yes. Even though shifting gears eventually becomes second nature, you’ll find it can get a bit difficult to use a cell phone or put on lipstick while driving in traffic (not that you’re supposed to be doing those things anyway). But there is an upside to shifting gears. Every car’s gearbox has a different personality, and you’ll eventually find that punching through the gears is a wonderfully intimate and tactile experience — it’s like learning a new language that lets you bond with your car. When you get back behind the wheel of an automatic, you may find that the absence of a manual gearbox makes you feel more like a passenger and not a driver.
A manual transmission doesn’t guarantee that a car will be more fun to drive. If you have something like a Toyota Tercel for example, get yourself an automatic. A Tercel equipped with a manual transmission won’t offer benefits to the same degree as a high-quality transmission from an MR2 or Celica; it’ll just end up being a pain in the wrist. At the other end of the spectrum, sports cars from Porsche and Ferrari have very sophisticated automatic transmissions and offer the best of both worlds, making them potentially more fun to drive than their manual counterparts. For most cars though, you’ll have way more fun driving a stick.
There’s a fantastic Web site called ”How Stuff Works“ which talks a lot about transmissions, gears, clutches, and other aspects of how cars work. The illustrations are really well done and I’m very impressed with the quality of this free resource. They’ve got a wide range of articles on other topics (not just cars), so it’s a good place to go whenever you want to know how stuff works.