UPDATE: If you missed it, we’ve got the entire list of 2016 and 2017 models available with a manual transmission.
As automatic transmissions improve, why bother with a manual? Here are 10 reasons to mix your own gears.
This week, we just updated our Buyer’s Guide of the 79 cars left with a manual transmission.
Manuals were once the default choice. There was a time when if you wanted to operate an automobile, you had to know how to drive a manual transmission, because that was your only option.
But beginning in 1939 for the 1940 model year, Cadillac introduced the Hydramatic automatic transmissions, and every year after that, more and more US drivers wanted to end the drudgery of moving their right arm six inches forward and back.
Since the 1970s, the automatic transmission has dominated the marketplace. Today, only five percent of Americans choose a manual transmission, and only 10 percent of all the cars sold here even offer one, sometimes only on the cheapest trim levels.
But manuals are still around, they’re still viable, and there’s still a reason to own one. Consider the following to help you decide whether or not to row your own.
10. Fuel economy
In the days before electronically-controlled transmissions, the easiest way to get better fuel economy was to opt for a manual transmission.
Back then, manuals were the alternative to the Slip-O-Matic power hogs that contemporary automatics were, and even way back in the mid-1970s, manuals had five gears to optimize the engine’s torque, rather than the previous three or even two in the case of a handful of automatics.
If you’re driving an older car — say, prior to 2000 — chances are pretty good that you can still wring better gas mileage out of a manual transmission than out of an automatic. Most automatics up until that point were only four-speeds, versus five or six in the manuals, and these automatics were still largely uninfluenced by modern technology.
A modern automatic transmission, though, will typically get better fuel economy than the manual, and that gap widens with the availability of a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Take the Nissan Sentra as an example. The six-speed manual gearbox on the Sentra S delivers 36 mpg highway and 27 in the city. The Xtronic CVT equipped Sentra FE+ S ups those numbers to 40 highway/30 city. The rubber-band effect of a CVT can nip away a car’s fun factor, but the CVT’s gearless operation can be a notable fuel economy improvement.
9. Driving pleasure
You can argue that when you’re stuck in Los Angeles traffic at 5:00 that a manual transmission isn’t pleasurable, which is why a lot of people have opted for automatics instead. But if the manual transmission provides anything more consistently, it’s the joy of shifting through the gears.
It’s enjoyable for some of us in the same way making your own bread is. Yes, you can go to any supermarket and get a decent crusty bâtard, but there’s a sensory experience that you can’t equal unless you’re doing it yourself.
Modern automatic transmissions have vestigial gear shift levers. They’re connected to the transmission by nothing but wires. It’s why manufacturers like Lincoln and Chrysler are moving their gear controllers to buttons on the dash and wheels in the console instead.
But a manual transmission’s gearshift is mechanically linked to the transmission itself and you can feel it working in your hand. There’s a benefit to that, even if it’s just psychological.
8. Service life
Especially if you’re considering a used car, the automatic transmission is the weakest link in the reliability chain. In the era of the GM Turbo-Hydramatic 350 and 400 transmission, filters and fluids were easy to check and change.
But today, many automatic transmissions have fluid change intervals in the 100,000 mile range, and many don’t even offer a way to check the fluid periodically. “Lifetime” transmission fluid intervals don’t mean “for the lifetime of the car,” but “for the lifetime of the transmission” or “the lifetime of the first owner’s period of ownership.”
Electronic transmission control means that your transmission ekes out higher fuel economy than an older automatic ever could, but it also means an array of sensors and control units that fail long before the usable lifetime of the car is finished.
CVTs are even less suited for the long haul. They’re built to be in a perpetual state of slippage, so the “belt” — really more of a chain — wears to the point of failure in a finite number of miles.
A manual transmission, on the other hand, is a precision mechanical device. Sensors don’t shift gears, your arm does, and you’re connected mechanically to a series of forks and gears. Bearings eventually wear out, but provided the gear oil inside is changed on schedule and the transmission isn’t abused, that bearing life could be as long as your adult life.
The only real wear item in the entire chain is the clutch, and even those can last for decades if treated with care.
7. Job prospects
“Right now, the number one reason for disqualifying a new candidate is that they cannot drive a manual,” says Tom Bernhardt, who is a driver and on the District Safety Committee for UPS in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
“The process at UPS to drive full time is [to] sign a bid, win the bid, then pass a road test.
“The road test is given with the oldest package car in the building. If you can pass with a 4.3-liter [with a] GM 4-speed, [and] no power steering, you will do fine in [a truck with] an automatic.”
[Editor’s note: UPS calls their trucks “package cars”]
“The ability to drive a manual transmission is one of several requirements for the UPS driver job,” says Rick Bittner, Public Relations/Employee Communications representative for UPS. “At UPS, we have high standards and hire only the best.”
UPS employs 240,000 drivers in the United States alone, each making an average of $30 per hour.
6. A cure for dead batteries
When you have an automatic transmission, your only solution to a dead battery is to wait for help. Unless you carry a booster pack, even if you have jumper cables, you need another car to boost your battery enough to start your car.
As long as the charging system is in good health, with a manual transmission, you can get your car started without anyone’s help, provided you can get it rolling. With the ignition on, the gear shift in second gear and a gradual downslope, you can let the clutch out quickly enough to turn the engine over and fire.
You can employ the same tactic if your starter goes bad, too.
5. More power
Your 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat doesn’t put 707 horses to the rear wheels. On a dyno, which measures horsepower at the rear wheels, not at the crankshaft, the editors at Hot Rod magazine were able to wring 620hp out of a Hellcat with an eight-speed automatic. That’s still impressive, but it’s a 12.3-percent decrease.
It’s called parasitic loss, and it’s typically more prevalent in cars with automatic transmissions than it is in cars with manuals. The reason is that there are simply more things moving around in an automatic than there are in a manual. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s definitely more common the older the car is.
4. Built-in anti-theft
More than once in the last couple of years, thieves have bailed out of theft and carjacking attempts because their targeted car has a manual transmission. For example, the Northern California East Bay Times has reported that “a man who allegedly tried to steal another man’s vehicle at gunpoint early Sunday morning eventually gave up the attempt because he couldn’t drive a stick shift.”
Concord police Lt. Tim Runyon reported that after demanding the car owner’s money, he forced him out of the car. But when he tried to escape, he eventually abandoned the car, because he could not operate the manual transmission.
3. Engine braking
You use the engine to brake in an automatic, too, but unless you’re in a Sport mode, the effect is a lot less pronounced. Engine braking in a manual, especially when hauling trailers down long grades, will preserve your brakes and prevent them from overheating to the point where the brake fluid will actually boil.
Modern pickup trucks have automatic transmissions with tow and haul modes that will engine brake similar to the way you would with a manual, but with a manual, that’s a built-in feature that’s always been an advantage.
2. Lower purchase price
As we found in the list we put together for Car Talk, it’s still about $1,000 less expensive to purchase a manual transmission than it is an automatic, in most cases.
Trade-in value may offset that, though. Depending on the car, a manual transmission can be harder to sell than an automatic. That’s probably true for a Honda Fit, and probably less true for a Subaru WRX STi.
1. Cheaper maintenance
Along with the longer life of a manual transmission, a manual is also cheaper to maintain in the long run. A manual is simply filled with gear oil. Drain it out, refill it and you’re done.
An automatic transmission is filled with automatic transmission fluid, which can be much more expensive than gear oil. It also requires a filter and a gasket set.
An automatic transmission fluid and filter change can range between $150 and $210, depending on the car. Changing gear oil on a manual runs between $50 and $75, and it’s a lot easier to do it yourself.
So while it’s easy to choose an automatic, it’s still worthwhile to check out the manual option.
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