If you were to sit down with a group of new drivers and ask them what type of transmission they preferred, odds are good that you would be greeted by confused silence. This is because, to the average American driver, the automatic transmission is the only logical option. On the surface of things, this makes sense. It’s very difficult, for example, to enjoy a morning cup of coffee on your way to work if you have to continually shift gears. It can be quite trying to master things like hill starts and very few people want to take the time to learn to operate what they view as a piece of machinery that was last relevant during the Dust Bowl (give or take a few years). All of these are perfectly reasonable thoughts and make plenty of sense, but they ignore one simple fact: manuals are simply better.
To be sure, many of the traditionally practical benefits of a manual transmission have been negated. Gone are the days when automatic transmissions were hard-shifting, gas-guzzling, mechanically unreliable contrivances. Now, automatic transmissions shift smoothly and quietly and they allow the driver to devote their maximum attention to the road. And yet, if you ask any serious driver, they’ll tell you that a manual is the only way to go.
Studies have shown that manuals, when shifted judiciously, can provide an increase of up to 3 to 5 MPG in fuel economy. When shifted with a bit more reckless abandon, a manual transmission can provide a substantial boost in acceleration as well. Finally, a manual provides a boon when it comes to braking in hilly terrain. Citizens of mountainous states like Colorado and Utah are well aware of this phenomenon, referred to as engine braking. Instead of using external brakes to retard acceleration, which can easily wear them out after miles of steep descents, a manual driver can simply downshift, using the lower gears to prevent runaway acceleration and preserving the brakes to be used in the event of an emergency stop.
These benefits of a manual transmission represent the obvious, practical reasons for drivers to continue using a stick shift. But the benefits aren’t the real reason why so many drivers cling to, and continue to, refine the art of driving a stick shift. The bottom line is that manuals are just more fun. There’s nothing quite like the feel of winding through the turns of a back road, snapping off gear changes and sawing at the wheel. A manual not only provides more technical ability for an experienced driver, but it also allows for a whole new level of synthesis between man and machine. A manual makes driving come alive.
And that’s why it’s incredibly sad that manuals are dying out. Sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, manuals have been relegated to less than 10 percent of the market share of newly purchased automobiles. The percentage has been on a steady decline over the past few years, and although some slight aberrations, such as the massive uptick in sales in the first quarter of 2012, may say otherwise, manuals are on their way out. There are better options available with automatic transmissions when it comes to comfort and efficiency, and for many drivers, that’s enough. For these people, driving is about getting to their destinations as quickly as possible. But for other drivers, it’s all about the driving experience getting there, and that’s why we have manuals.