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March 2011 Column Shift

Posted in Features on March 1, 2011
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I was driving down the freeway the other day when a black Ferrari passed me. What a shame, a black Ferrari. This clearly was not a real Ferrari, because real Ferraris are red, just like the poster of the F40 many of us grew up with on our bedroom walls. This got me thinking about other automotive injustices, such as the near-extinction of manual transmissions.

It is a sad fact that the ability to drive a manual transmission is a dying art form as the manual has disappeared from options sheets across the industry. With low take-rates, and more and more manufacturers trying to simplify production complexities and lower R&D costs, offering a manual is no longer a priority.

When I look around, I see many things that may have contributed to the slow demise of the manual transmission. Perhaps in this fast-paced world of multitasking and with more and more people conducting life in their vehicles, shifting is one less thing to worry about. Possibly it is laziness or even the poison of stop-and-go commuting that has made driving a manual less enjoyable for more and more of the population. And with fewer vehicles out there equipped with manual transmissions, the ability for exposure is more limited.

So who cares whether or not there are any manual transmissions left? Well, for one, you can't call yourself a gearhead if you can't drive stick-it just isn't possible. For this very reason, at age 17, I lied to the local Honda dealership to get a part-time parts driver job. The question I fibbed about: "Do you know how to drive stick?"

That first Saturday on the job, I buckled up into the base-model white '90 Toyota pickup with no A/C, no radio, no right-hand mirror, no tach, and acquainted myself with the clutch and the sound of the engine under load. With a smoky one-wheeled burnout out of the dealership lot (I was trying not to stall it), I was on my way. I rowed through the gears all day and after countless stalls, I taught myself all about clutch application. To this day, that bare-bones truck is still one of the most fun vehicles I have ever driven. It was invisible enough for around-town hoonage and tough enough for a new driver.

I personally think everyone should learn how to drive a manual transmission before graduating to an automatic. It teaches responsibility, vehicle control, and respect for the machine that you just don't get when the car shifts for itself. If new licensees had to be more involved while operating a vehicle, we would have better drivers. We'd also have a population that wouldn't look at cars as another plug-in appliance. We would be cultivating enthusiasts.

I recently read an article about a study that found fewer teens were driving at age 16. Something that used to be a rite of passage and a tangible feeling of freedom is now an afterthought as social networking and the proliferation of communication makes the need to go and be with friends in person less important. Add in graduated driver's licenses, parents who chauffeur, increased costs of insurance, and vanishing driver's ed classes, and you can see why enthusiasm for driving is less important in the life of many young people.

But for those people who do drive for the pure enjoyment of it want to be engaged on a whole different level and there is no greater feeling in Autodom as the mastery of your machine. Besides, manuals offer several benefits, such as lower crawl ratios, increased control, and the ability to get unstuck by rocking. Did I mention that I fell for my wife when I found out she drove stick?

Fortunately for those of us who consider ourselves shifting aficionados, there are a few holdouts out there such as the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Tacoma, Nissan's Frontier and Xterra, Jeep's Wrangler, and Ram's heavy-duty trucks with the Cummins diesel engine, among others. But as time marches on and the waves of redesigns come, there is no guarantee that these rigs will continue to offer a manual.

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