Tomorrow’s 8-Track Player?

There are two things pushing the manual transmission off the stage — or at least, off to the sidelines:

First, there is government pressure — lots of it — that’s got the car companies sweating nights to figure out ways to make what they make use less gas while still delivering what car buyers (most of them) expect in terms of power/performance.

This is no easy trick.

De-powering the engine (or making smaller engines) is problematic because cars have become heavy, in order to qualify as “safe” per Uncle’s edicts… but making them lighter — so they could get by with less engine — and use less gas — would make them less “safe”…

Round and round we go.

So, what to do?

One way to squeeze an extra 3-4 or so MPG out of a given car without hurting its performance is to get rid of the manual transmission.

The same car with the same engine but with an automatic — a modern automatic — will usually deliver better EPA numbers than the same car with a manual because modern computer-controlled automatics can be programmed to shift gears “just right” (and at just the right time) for optimum mileage while a manual under the control of a human driver is inevitably less precise.

Especially as far as the EPA’s tests — the ones they use to determine the city/highway mileage numbers touted by a given car and which are used for purposes of determining compliance with federal fuel efficiency (CAFE) edicts.

This latter business (CAFE) is crucial.

Huge money at stake. If an automaker doesn’t meet its CAFE target — currently 35.5 MPG (average) it gets hit with fines, which are then folded into the price of cars, which makes those cars a harder sell vs. competitor cars that did make the CAFE cut. And so we get more automatics.

And with them, some other things.

You may have noticed, if you’ve driven a new or recent model year car with an automatic, that they are in a hurry to shift up to the highest gear they can short of lugging the engine (sometimes, they actually do lug the engine). Sometimes, they will shift up to a higher gear when the car is going downhill — which makes the car feel as though you’re stepping on the gas.

And pretty much forces you to ride the brakes.

Not good for the pads — but better for the MPGs.

This is the computer programming — which is programmed for maximum fuel efficiency.

If the car has a manual, the driver’s tendency is to not move up to the next-highest gear until the car feels ready for it — which may be less than optimum, mileage-wise. As when the car is going downhill and the driver keeps it in fourth rather than fifth to take advantage of the engine-braking effect ) instead of riding the brakes) to keep the car from over-speeding.

Modern automatics also have a leverage advantage because they have more gears, so each “step” up requires less of the engine (which means less fuel used, at least potentially). For example, almost all the manual transmissions in service today are five and six-speed transmissions while many of the newest automatics have seven or eight forward speeds.

Some have nine — and they are working on ten speed automatics.

In some of these, the top two or three gears are overdrives — each a bit “deeper” than the preceding. The idea being to cut engine revs at cruising speeds to idle, basically.

It’s possible the same could be done with a manual, but the problem is expecting the driver to deal with that much shifting. Rowing an eight-speed would be … busy. Big rig truckers do it (with more than eight speeds) but that’s a different animal.

It would also require a very complex transmission — as automatic transmissions have already become. The replacement costs for some of these boxes are not spoken of outside of closed doors because they are stroke-inducing. In some cases $5,000 or more — just for the transmission. Not including the labor to remove the croaked one and install the new one. If you knew this going in… would you buy in?

Most don’t know.

But then, probably nine out of ten people under 30 today also don’t know how to drive a car equipped with what was once called a standard transmission… and so they have little interest in buying a car with a manual transmission.

Plus, traffic sucks.

A stick-shift car is great fun … if (cue Sammy Hagar) you can get out of second gear. Aren’t constantly doing leg-presses (though modern manuals have hydraulic assist clutches and are easier to shift than ever).

But it gets old when you can’t… and are.

Which is a major driver behind the marginalization of the manual. Something like 94 percent of all new vehicles sold in recent years have automatics. The less of something people buy, the rarer it tends to become.

The final nail in the coffin, though may be the performance advantage of modern automatics. This is a recent development.

Observe — with gimlet eye — the baleful fact that most exotic supercars are automated. And even the lesser exotics (for example, the current Corvette) tend to be quicker with the automatic. Zero to 60 — and around a race track. They launch perfectly, the shifts are spot-on — and more consistently executed — because the compudah is inhuman and does not suffer from the less-than-perfect reflexes and timing of even the most skilled human driver, who will eventually make a mistake. Lap after lap, launch after launch, the automatic is always on the money while the human driver sometimes is.

Usually, if he’s really good.

But never always.

Of course, fractions of a second differences in 0-60 and lap times only matter when you’re racing for money. No human can feel the difference between a 5.4 second 0-60 run and a 5.3 second run.

The trouble is the car companies — some of them — have forgotten that fun matters more in a street car than fractions of a seconds difference in instrumented testing stats. That the whole point of the exercise is to break traction on the 1-2 upshift and let the rear end skitter around until it hooks up again. That, no matter how perfectly timed a modern automatic’s shifts may be, shifting for yourself — even when you miss one — is all the difference.

Of course, some of us still have 8-tracks in ours cars, too… .


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