Five Myths About Stick Shifts: Manual vs Automatic Transmissions
Manual Transmissions Aren't Always Cheaper, More Fuel-Efficient
The stick shift hasn't yet gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo, but it's definitely an endangered species, present in less than 7 percent of the new cars sold through the end of May 2012. Manual-transmission cars have their ardent defenders, but some of the reasons they cite for their superiority and desirability aren't supported by facts. Here are five myths about stick shifts:
1. Cars with manual transmission always get better fuel economy than cars with automatics.
It might have been true once, but it's not true for all cars anymore. Vehicles with manual transmissions generally are more fuel-efficient than their automatic counterparts, but not always, and not by much. Take as an example the fuel-sipping 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco. Its manual version gets 28 mpg in the city, 42 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg in combined driving. The automatic gets 26 city/39 highway/31 combined. The manual will cost you about $100 less per year in fuel, according to fueleconomy.gov.
With the 2012 Ford Focus, it's the six-speed automatic version that performs better. It gets 28 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 31 mpg combined. If you spring for the Super Fuel Economy option package, which also uses the six-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy rises to 28 city/40 highway and 33 mpg combined. When equipped with a conventional manual transmission, the Focus can't match the automatic: 26 city/36 highway and 30 mpg combined. The 2012 Honda Fit with a manual transmission gets 27 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg combined. The automatic, by contrast, gets 28 city/35 highway and 31 mpg combined.
In Edmunds' recent 40 MPG Challenge, manual-transmission cars didn't beat out automatics as expected. A Mazda 3 with an automatic transmission did better than a Hyundai Veloster with a manual. This is a reminder that many factors influence great mpg, and a manual transmission is only one piece of the puzzle.
2. A car with a manual transmission costs less than the same model with an automatic.
In most cases, the manual version of a car will indeed cost less, but in many instances, it will be the same price as an automatic. Some examples include such GM vehicles as the 2012 Buick Regal GS, 2012 Cadillac CTS, 2012 Chevrolet Cruze and several trim levels of the Chevrolet Camaro. Among BMWs, the manual is often the same price as the automatic. Further, you can't always get the car you want with a manual transmission. More than 64 percent of 2012 models for sale come as automatics only.
3. The coolest sports cars only come with manual transmissions.
This depends on your definition of "cool sports car." Some carmakers, such as Porsche and Lamborghini, offer a choice of a manual or automatic transmission in their product line. But if your choice is a new Ferrari 458 Italia, California or FF, you can only get those with a seven-speed automated manual transmission. No clutch-shifter ballet for you.
It's no loss, says Ken Hill, vice president of operations for Automotive Adventures in Bellevue, Washington, and a professional racer and driving educator. "Some people are stuck on the mindset that a driver is faster with a manual box," Hill says. But there's a reason why some major performance-car manufacturers, including Ferrari and Jaguar, no longer offer traditional manual transmissions, he says. "They just aren't as good."
4. If your dream car comes with a standard manual transmission, you can always get an automatic as an option.
Like the previous assumption, this one isn't true either. A small group of cars — mostly sport vehicles — only come with manuals. In 2012, the list includes the Audi TT RS, Aston Martin V12 Vantage, Fiat 500 Abarth, Ford Shelby GT500, Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen Golf R.
5. Teenagers really, really want to learn to drive stick shifts.
Not so, says Hill, who teaches teen driving programs. Because there are so few manuals out there, young people don't get exposed to them, and so they have little interest in learning how to drive them, he says.
"It's a complication they don't need," Hill says. "Kids have the advantage of not being burdened with nostalgia." And as a result, he adds, "Ninety-plus percent are perfectly happy with the automatic they have access to."
The Theft-Deterrent Theory: Myth or Reality?
There's one argument in favor of stick-shift cars that doesn't have a ready true-or-false answer. The theory is that because fewer people know how to drive stick shifts these days, cars equipped with them are less likely to be stolen.
Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks car-theft trends, says he's not aware of any data to support or refute that idea.
"Some thieves might be thwarted in their attempt to steal a car with a manual transmission, since many thieves possess varying levels of intellect," Scafidi says. "That very personal element is also a factor in the degree of expertise necessary to overcome some of the more sophisticated security systems.
"Most car thieves are just not that swift and therefore resort to stealing older, easier targets," Scafidi says. "But there are those in the car-thief ranks who are quite capable of making off with anything that they intend to steal."
When the argument in favor of the stick shift is based on how much fun it is, it's undeniable. Stick-shift savvy also comes in handy if you're a passenger in a manual-transmission car and the driver is incapacitated in some way. And it's helpful if you're stuck somewhere and the only car available is one with a stick.
If you want to learn this skill, our story and video, "How to Drive a Stick Shift," is a good place to start. And that's a fact.