Automatic versus Manual

Flipping through various blogs my eye was caught by one touting the virtues of manual transmissions in vehicles. I didn’t read it all the way through because the first few lines were enough to tell me it was an opinion piece, not an evaluation. But herewith my own opinion, based on the fact I’m a very clever person. Or I’m magical. Whichever. We won’t mention the engineering stuff, okay?

First of all it is true that a manual has advantages over automatic. No matter how you slice it, standards are lighter weight and more efficient. They simply have fewer parts, and therefor greater potential for giving more miles per gallon (never mind the metric measurement system for fuel consumption; it’s awkward and clumsy and shouldn’t be used).

Notice the keyword here is potential, because realization of that potential depends on the driver’s ability to properly use the stick. Sure, everyone who can operate one without jerky starts and smoking disks and grinding gears thinks they know how. But merely being able to shift without damaging anything is not the same as knowing how to drive a manual transmission. Now it’s anecdote time (for demonstration purposes only).

I know a person who has a four cylinder, standard shift vehicle. They complain frequently about how poor the fuel economy is, and it numbers terms it doesn’t even come close to my six cylinder automatic vehicle (both are 4×4, by the way). How could this be? Well I had the opportunity to ride with this person and found out. They do not know how to drive a manual transmission. Really don’t. No clue as to when to pick up or drop a gear. Whereas there is no immediate danger of damage, in the long term that poor little runabout is going to be run into the ground prematurely because of the misuse.

Now automatic also have certain other advantages over standard, and in some odd applications you may not think of. It’s not just a matter of compensating for a lack of driving skill. For one thing the torque converter gives a distinct advantage over a clutch in getting going on grades or when pulling a load. Yes, automatic is better in most small to standard truck applications – if it’s actually being used as a truck. Toting a trailer? Auto is your best friend. You can ease things back and forth much more subtly when you don’t have to slip a clutch to do it, and that is an action which is hard on clutches. The torque multiplication of the converter can also be a bonus in towing situations. The major downside is the manufacturer not installing a heavy enough transmission to take the duty. Most auto overdrive units in trucks, no matter who made it, end up junked out all too quickly because they’re meant for light use – as in a passenger car or unladen truck. Even then they are prone to premature failure. Too often the cheapskates don’t even bother to put a fluid cooler on the rig, but they’ll still claim it can pull 5,000 lbs. Sure it can. On a flat level surface during a mild Spring day.

So you see both types of transmissions have their advantages, and faults. Much of it depends on who is doing the driving and what driving they are doing. But even the best operator can’t make up for tightwad manufacturers scrimping on design. Before you buy any vehicle research the used market for whatever type you’re looking at, and see how many references there are to major problems of the same type indicating an inherent design failure. In other words if you keep see “rebuilt engine/transmission/whatever” coming up over and over for the same model (especially newer years and lower mileage) it’s probably one to stay away from.

Oh and don’t blame me for any of them. I haven’t done that stuff since the 1970s.

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