Shifting gears will be an obsolete term long before self-driving cars take over the road
The move to automatic takes the fun and control out of driving
By David Maril
Want to enjoy the ultimate driving experience?
Take a car, truck or SUV with standard shift out for a spin and feel the control of fine-tuning your car’s handling and traction.
There’s only one problem.
If you really want the standard-shift experience, it’s getting harder and harder to find gear-shift vehicles.
And with self-driving vehicles on the fast-track drawing board, manual transmission will soon be as obsolete as politicians with ethics and character.
The so-called premium or luxury cars dropped the shifting option decades ago.
Standard shifts in trucks, buses and heavy SUVs disappeared faster than bottle openers in kitchen drawers.
The car manufacturers will tell you automatic transmissions mean elimination of costly clutch repairs. They also contend that advances made with automatic transmissions make them more fuel efficient than shift.
Some cars even offer a phony manual option, letting you shift into low or second without a clutch. But that’s a far cry from the control of standard transmission. This doesn’t call for the driving skill you need when stopping and starting on a hill, synchronizing clutch and accelerator so you don’t stall out.
IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that you can no longer buy a full-sized Ford or Chevrolet with standard transmission. Who'd have ever thought Jeep, the traditional off-road vehicle, would only offer standard shift on a few of its models?
In the old days, people who bought pickup trucks were looking for durability in carrying heavy material around. Today, most pickup trucks are fashion statements. The flat-bed areas are seldom used and the cabs come equipped with every power accessory and option known to modern man.
Sports cars are on a similar fast-track no-shift route. This seems to defy the whole concept of driving a multi-geared souped-up car that is a challenge to drive. When I was growing up, it was a badge of honor if you could drive a GTO, with its hard, high tension mechanical clutch, and not crunch the gears.
For now, the low to mid-priced “foreign” cars, like Toyota, Honda and Subaru remain the last vestige of standard shift. But the trend is even shifting away to automatics with these fuel efficient vehicles.
A Honda salesman the other day told me that requests for five-speed on Civics have dropped from 40 percent to less then 20. On the Accord, it has fallen even lower.
“Driving habits have changed,” he said. “Today, people are doing a lot more things while they are driving. Most are talking into cell phones, drinking coffee, texting, and other aspects of modern technology They don't have a hand free to do any gear shifting.”
AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION advocates will remind you there are a lot more cars on the road and much denser traffic. These drivers don’t want to deal with a clutch and shifting in stop-and-go traffic.
Even a standard-shift fanatic will admit it’s a chore if you are stuck in four-miles of traffic backups and you end up with a sore left-leg lifting your foot off and on the clutch.
But that’s an extreme case.
The truth is that drivers who have never driven standard don’t know what they are missing.
There’s a feeling of being in control on even the most slippery road surfaces.
In snow, you can down-shift, taking the strain off the brakes, and slow down while minimizing the chances of skidding.
Driving with a shift transmission enhances the overall driving experience by putting you more in synch with your car.
Shifting keeps you alert, in touch with your speed.
“I get bored with an automatic,” one standard shift advocate was saying. “I’m looking for something to do.”
A FEW YEARS AGO I took a Honda Accord with manual transmission into the dealer for a 30,000 service appointment. Before I paid the bill, the service consultant said, “Hey, I have a question for you. Do you ever use your brakes? Over 30,000 miles and they brakes look brand new.”
The answer, of course, is with standard shift, you can downshift when you need to slow down and if you anticipate red lights and stopping situations you don’t always have to rely on burning rubber, using the brakes.
It would be interesting to do a study on whether standard shift drivers or automatic drivers have safer driving records.
My money would go with the standard shift people, who having driving on their mind, over the automatic group sipping their latte and texting away.
David Maril has been a columnist, sports editor and copy editor at three newspapers published in Massachusetts, winning numerous writing and section-design awards. As sports editor of the Milford Daily News, he covered the Boston Red Sox, Celtics and the New England Patriots. At the Brockton Enterprise he served as vice president of the newspaper’s guild, dealing with contract negotiations and workforce issues through difficult economic times. He also served on the board of the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, where he is a lifetime member and voter in Major League Baseball’s annual Cooperstown Hall of Fame balloting. For several years was a columnist for Voice Of Baltimore. The son of the late artist Herman Maril, whose work is included in over 100 museum collections, David splits his time between Cape Cod, MA and Baltimore, MD. He currently serves as president of the Herman Maril Foundation, which supports curatorial projects, art education programs and exhibitions related to the study of his father’s work. The website, featuring his father’s artwork, is hermanmaril.com. A graduate of Park School in Brooklandville, MD, David majored in English at Clark University in Worcester, MA.
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