The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

22 September 2006

Downright shifty

I learned to drive in a VW Microbus, which, if nothing else, instilled within me a level of respect for simple mechanical devices. And for twenty years I stirred my own gears. Even lost a gear once: one day I was pulling out of the parking lot, shoved the lever into first, pulled back into second, and then — "Hey, where the hell did third go?"

Actually, it was still there, but out of position, and I'd toasted the synchros somewhere along the way, which has something to do with how I learned to double-clutch. Not that I'm particularly good at it, especially now, having lived with automatics for a decade and bad knees for the last few of those years.

Still, I think I could get used to one of the newer manumatics. When Gwendolyn gets time off for maintenance, the shop sends me off in a G35 so equipped, and while it doesn't have quite the tactile thrill or the speed of a proper stick shift, having the right hand working something other than the radio buttons is good for the soul.

On the other hand, you can't do a 4-2 or 5-2 downshift with a manumatic to save your life: you have to go one step at a time. The same is true of the new sequentials, though they're decidedly faster. No trick with a stick, so long as you keep your revs within reason. (Dymphna, my ancient Toyota, had ratios spaced closely enough to enable a 5-2 at any speed up to 70 or so without hitting the redline. Before you ask, I replaced three clutches over 195,000 miles.) And even the lowly Ford CD4E slushbox in my most recent Mazda was amenable to 4-2 if you stomped the loud pedal hard enough without actually hitting the rev limiter.

Some hyperexpensive luxosleds come with automatics that supposedly do exactly the driver's bidding, due to really clever mapping or elaborate control systems or an enormous number of gears. (The new Lexus LS 460 has an eight-speed. Yikes.) I've never driven a CVT, so I have no idea what it's like to have infinite gears, but I suspect the driving feel might be a trifle off-putting. Maybe my best bet would be to save up for the G35 with the six-speed stick — and for a pair of knee replacements.

And it would probably help my state of mind if I quit coming across ridiculous Google searches like what does gear 2 and L do in auto transmission. For God's sake, man, RTFM.

Posted at 7:15 AM to Driver's Seat

About 1984, I drove a 1969 VW Beetle that had something like a manumatic transmission -- no clutch pedal, but you had a traditional stick shift and had to shift up through the gears (only three forward gears). I had driven nothing but automatics until then, and you're right, there's something about working the gear shift that you miss in an automatic -- keeps you more in tune with the car.

Posted by: Michael Bates at 9:14 AM on 22 September 2006

VW promoted that as the Automatic Stick Shift. Its neither-fish-nor-fowl nature probably kept sales low.

One problem with conventional automatics, as I see it, is that their programming tends to favor gas mileage over performance: Gwendolyn demands that you prove you really, really want this downshift before she'll deign to unlock her torque converter. On the other hand, you don't want the thing downshifting on a 1-percent grade either.

Posted by: CGHill at 9:34 AM on 22 September 2006

Double-clutching is not a bad skill to have, but you have to know when to use it. I used to work for a former racecar driver. He was once driving someone's Ferrari, back when they had non-synchro transmissions, and mistakenly double-clutched into reverse instead of 5th at 120 mph. Right in front of the grandstand.

Posted by: triticale at 7:01 PM on 22 September 2006

Even though I live in flat Florida and driven automatics, I've always knows what gears 2 and L do. We do have our curved bridges where 2 is a help getting up them, and I found L very helpful in getting through those school area 15-mph stretches.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 10:04 AM on 24 September 2006