Two cars, 12 gears and still shifting for myself
I own two vehicles, which have between them 12 forward gears.
Not so long ago you needed three or four rigs to get that many transmission cogs, but such is progress.
The unusual thing about my modest fleet, though, isn’t the gearbox tally — showrooms abound these days with 7-, 8- and 9-speed transmissions — but rather the type.
Both are manuals, which is to say stickshifts.
It used to be you could tell oftentimes what kind of transmission a car had without wriggling onto the floor to count the pedals, which can give you a crick in the neck. Or worse, if you rise up too fast and whack your forehead on the fuse block.
If the shift lever poked out from the floor, the transmission almost certainly was a manual.
But if the lever jutted from the right side of the steering column, the odds were better than even that it was an automatic.
(There were, to be sure, manual transmission-equipped cars with column-mounted shifters — the colloquial “three on the tree.” But as a general rule the position of the shifter was compelling evidence.)
Over the past 30 years or so the manual transmission has fallen out of favor, and the automatic transmission shift lever’s migration to the floor is nearly complete.
But unless the shift pattern is printed prominently on the top of the lever, it’s awfully hard to distinguish between an automatic and a manual based solely on the lever’s location.
Judging by a variety of estimates I’ve read, something between 4 percent and 7 percent of the new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. have manual transmissions. After searching in vain for more than a month earlier this spring to find a manual-equipped Mazda 6 sedan, the newer of our two cars, these paltry figures don’t surprise me.
What does surprise me is how relatively rapid the progress was toward our current disdain for the hassle of pushing a clutch pedal.
In 1987, which seems to me not so terribly distant, about 30 percent of cars rolling out of American showrooms were stickshifts.
The subsequent predominance of the automatic transmission is but one measure of drivers’ increasing annoyance at being bothered with details such as selecting gears while they’re driving.
When you’re simultaneously texting and shuffling through Pandora channels and sipping an iced latte, you can’t be expected to decide whether second gear or third is more appropriate for the approaching curve.
Simply steering keeps most drivers occupied; and even that task is too much for some, judging by the police blotter.
I don’t mean to suggest there’s a conspiracy at work here. The demise of the stickshift doesn’t derive from a corporate cabal aimed at denying drivers the pleasure of executing a perfectly rev-matched downshift.
The manual transmission has had a fair chance in the marketplace, I believe, but the truth is the engineers, with the aid of ever-improving computer controls, have devised automatic transmissions that pretty much negate the stickshift’s traditional advantages.
To return briefly to 1987 (and having perused that year’s hairstyles, who wants to stay any longer?), that year’s Honda Accord was rated at 31 mpg when equipped with a stickshift, and 27 mpg with an automatic.
The manual version also accelerated faster.
Those advantages, combined with manuals being cheaper, made for a strong argument in favor of a stickshift.
Today, by contrast, an Accord with an automatic tops the stickshift by 2 mpg — 30 vs. 28. And the automatic is a tad quicker getting to 60 mph.
The most compelling reason to buy a car with a stickshift now, it seems to me, is that it’s simply more fun.
That’s what motivated my wife and I, anyway — we both enjoy the mechanical precision of guiding a gear-lever through its gates, of deciding whether to downshift when taking a corner instead of letting a microchip choose for us.
I’ll concede, though, that this preference is a decidedly personal matter.
The benefits of a modern automatic, by contrast, are numerical and thus beyond debate. If you can go two miles more on each gallon of gas you’ll save money — maybe even enough, over the life of the car, to offset the higher initial cost of the automatic (one aspect of the automatic vs. manual comparison that hasn’t changed since 1987).
Mechanically speaking, a manual transmission is a simpler device than an automatic, and generally is less likely to require expensive repairs or maintenance such as fluid replacement.
But though the engineers haven’t completely erased that difference, they’ve come awfully close. Modern automatic transmissions, like most of the other major mechanical components of today’s cars, typically perform flawlessly for at least 100,000 miles in exchange for little more than an occasional look at the dipstick.
In general I endorse the technological evolution of the automobile.
I much prefer flipping a switch to raise and lower the windows as opposed to spinning a handle (although I notice that the term “rolling down the windows” seems destined to live on despite its increasing inaccuracy).
But I still believe that cars, for all their utility, are far more than appliances, and that driving can be, and should be, fun.
And executing a fast, smooth 1-2 shift, a feat which requires simultaneous dexterity with both feet and your right hand, is a lot more fun than pulling a lever back to the “D” detent and leaving it there until you park.
Jayson Jacoby is editor