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Spoiler alert: Manual transmissions are not ‘100% useless’ as claimed

by | Sep 22, 2022

In the course of creating automotive content, one also must consume some amount of car content, and an article that was published recently made me rub my temples. If you’re curious, this piece is the one that’s got me in a snit. So you don’t have to read it, I’ve chosen a few choice snippets I wanted to hash out a bit because I think the author didn’t give the stick its due.

Manual transmission shifter

This item elicits strong opinions in the enthusiast world, but there are enough of them in the wild that you’ll need to pull one into your bay at some point, so if you’re reading this piece, I’m betting you know how. Photo by galoff.

Let’s start with the obvious thing: Look, I get that this is a hotly debated topic, but sheesh, aren’t car people supposed to enjoy manual trannies? I thought all the car parts in their infinite combos was what makes us tick. I guess I was wrong. On to the article.

“First, there are those who like automatic gearboxes, followed by those that have never really gotten accustomed to one and will often argue in favor of a manual transmission.”

Aren’t there people who like both? Or people who are accustomed to driving a stick and an auto, and just prefer a stick? Or people who don’t have much of an opinion on either? I am at one end of that spectrum or another. They’re both fine. I feel like I know a lot of people for whom either one is perfectly acceptable. Maybe I’m not an exciting guy.

“Now, I understand that if manual transmissions are all you’ve ever known, an automatic will seem somewhat cumbersome to you, even though it makes your job behind the wheel considerably easier.”

Is there a person alive in America today who only has known manual transmissions who has not chosen them very explicitly?  Next, is there any human ever who has found an automatic cumbersome? An automatic transmission, even a total slushbox, is easier to use; even the most diehard gearjammer will allow for this. No one is trying to stop Nana from getting to the bakery, and no one is arguing that rowing your own takes more effort. These are strawmen.

The author goes on to discount the lower cost of a manual-transmission vehicle as a valid arguing point. (Which is silly, especially in the econobox segment. That goes double for other parts of the world where vehicle cost is a really big deal.) But even if we discount that, the author then wrote, “…automatic transmissions have become more efficient than manual ones across the board, meaning in both premium cars as well as budget-friendly ones.”

That’s true if you compare EPA numbers. If you compare real-world driving, though, the manual trans usually bests the economy of a CVT or auto trans, though I will allow that the gap is pretty narrow nowadays.

“But the clutch? You shouldn’t need to worry about that, besides, it’s also bad for your back. Fun fact, driving stick shift will eventually add strain to your lumbar area and lower back.”

Have your eyes ever rolled back into your head so hard you thought you might have done a front flip? Come on, no doctor ever said, “Look, you gotta call it quits on the car. Your left calf is enormous from all that traffic, but we think you might have manual-induced scoliosis.”

“It’s (unfortunately) cool to say you prefer manual gearboxes. I know people who will argue that while they appreciate an automatic, certain cars are simply more engaging to drive with a manual gearbox. Fellas, come on. Look in the mirror and tell me you’re not just riding the same bandwagon as every other car enthusiast out there.”

Is that cool? The current take-rate on manuals is awful; that’s part of why no one in America buys them or can find one for sale. Even if it is cool to say that, why is this problematic? Can’t it be possible that some car enthusiasts feel that some cars are more engaging to drive with a manual gearbox, bandwagon or not? Is anyone who holds a popular opinion on a bandwagon? Should a bandwagon have an automatic transmission? Asking for a friend.

Shifting gears in a Jeep

I suspect it will be a particularly cold day in hell when Wranglers have no option for a stick. Photo by Mike Apice.

“Carmakers who popularized manual transmissions didn’t do so by choice. They were cheaper and easier to build.” And generally more robust, too. Who could possibly want an easier-to-repair, more durable, less expensive vehicle component? Wait. Actually, that sounds really rad.

“Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t hate manual transmissions. I’ve just come to terms with the fact that they’re absolutely, 100% useless nowadays, regardless of what type of car you’re driving or the type of experience you’re looking to have behind the wheel.”

It definitely sounds like this guy hates manual transmissions. Just saying. That in mind, I feel like if you remove a manual transmission from a vehicle, then it’s approaching 100% useless, since ya can’t, ya know, shift the gears. I personally feel shifting manually is vastly preferable to walking.

“I mean, what’s next? You want to go back to starting your car using a hand crank like in the early days of the automobile?” I mean, I start my tractor that way. Most of my motorcycles get goin’ with shoe leather. I still have a Dymo labeler and occasionally I write letters to people on my typewriter. Interacting with bygone items makes you appreciate technological advances, and it also keeps you sharp on our collective progress, too. It’s fine to be an amateur historian just because it’s fun.

Let me put my own spin on this whole transmission thing: both are fine. It’s OK to not care, and it’s fine to vehemently take a side. It’s also fine to have a preference without some logical, rational explanation of whatever it is you fancy. As a guy who gets paid to fix things occasionally, I need to know how things work—and how to work ‘em. On an editorial note, I think it’s just fun to drive stuff that takes some thinking. An M35A2, a RHD vehicle, or a three-on-the-tree cause me to wake up parts of my brain I don’t use a lot. That said, it’s also kind of nice to eat a burrito in the car without making a mess since there’s no gear stick in the mix.

An automatic shifter

A/T vehicles democratize driving for those who might otherwise be too uncoordinated or physically unable to drive—and it’s not as much fun for plenty of people. Happily, you can still like both. Photo by Bizhan33.

So, given the state of the manual transmission (which is basically dead in America), I’m not sure what this article was beyond grist for the clickbait mill. In other news, chocolate and vanilla ice creams are both selling well—and some people buy both.

Technology is cool—old or new. Long live the manual. And the automatic trans. And the CVT, and the semi-auto, and the DCT, and direct drive, and whatever else may come along.

It’s all pretty neat to me.

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