The Manual Transmission Is Dead

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If you’re like me, you love yourself a good old fashioned stick shift. There’s something about banging from one gear to the next that makes driving just a little more enjoyable.

However, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve noticed that manuals are getting harder and harder to find on new car lots. There are three key reasons for this:

  1. Emissions and fuel economy regulations have forced automakers to implement complicated electronic controls that are incompatible with manual transmissions.
  2. Automatic transmission efficiency has dramatically improved in the last decade or so.
  3. The operating costs of a modern automatic are lower than ever.

Am I glad to pronounce the death of the manual transmission? Not at all. Yet the fact is, the manual transmission is dead.

Here’s how it happened.

Computers Are Smarter Than Us

Terminator Tundra

Remember the old Terminator Tundra? It’s ba-ack.

Skynet jokes aside, computers are better at controlling engines than humans. Therefore, we empower our vehicle’s computer system to ignore – or perhaps just moderate – throttle inputs to suit conditions. This, in turn, means that we get better fuel economy and reduced emissions.

However, all the fancy computer programming in the world can’t maximize efficiency if the loose nut behind the steering wheel is cruising in the wrong gear. Therefore, automatic transmissions and sophisticated engine management systems go hand-in-hand. While some stick shift fans argue that they’re better at maximizing efficiency than a computer, the evidence says that’s debatable (more on that evidence in a minute).

“Slush Box” is A Derogatory Term

Up until the mid 1980′s, calling an automatic transmission a “slush box” was an accurate statement. You could say that automatics were inherently less efficient than manuals because all the engine’s power was transmitted through the fluid inside the transmission housing, as there was no direct connection between the engine and the driveline.

However, with the advent of lockup clutch in the 80′s, transmissions have become a lot less “slushy.” Once your vehicle reaches a comfortable cruising speed, your vehicle computer will tell your transmission to lockup the torque converter. This forms a direct connection between the engine and the rest of the driveline…which means that the slushing stops until you change speed.

As computer controls have become more sophisticated, automatics are able to spend more time in lockup. This has raised the efficiency of automatic transmissions to the point where automatics are every bit as efficient as manuals. In the Edmunds.com 40mpg challenge from June of this year, two automatics finished 2nd and 3rd in fuel efficiency, ahead of 3 stick shifts…all of which were driven by experienced automotive journalists.

Which brings me back to an earlier point: Maybe you can drive a stick more efficiently than a computer can drive an automatic, but if you can’t, you’re in good company.

one-upsmanship

Do you think you can get drive better than a computer? How are you at building sandcastles?

Automatics Have Lower Operating Costs Than Sticks

If you have a stick shift, at some point you will have to replace a clutch. It’s a fact of life. The only question is when. (NOTE: 100k miles is a good rule of thumb.) While the clutch itself is relatively cheap (a couple hundred bucks, give or take), the labor required to replace a clutch is often expensive. Unless you’re going to do this work yourself, you can expect to spend at least $1,000 on a clutch replacement.

Contrast that with the maintenance costs of a typical automatic transmission, which requires new fluid every 60k miles or so. Transmission service costs can range, but if we assume that they cost $200, than we can drive 300k miles before we’ve spent $1,000 maintaining our automatic. That means the auto is about one-third as expensive to maintain.

Operating costs clutch vs automatic

Granted, automatic transmissions aren’t perfect. When they suffer a full failure, they’re expensive to fix. But the odds of suffering a failure are generally very low. Compared with the cost certainty of clutch replacement, the average overall costs of automatic transmission ownership are lower (only that’s little consolation to folks who’ve had to pay for a major automatic transmission repair).

Spirax synthetic ATF

Spirax synthetic ATF promises 300k miles of use

What’s more, new synthetic transmission fluids promise to eliminate the need for replacement. Shell’s synthetic Spirax automatic transmission fluid is designed for heavy-duty use and promises to last as much as 300k miles before requiring replacement (see article on SAE.org).

Sidebar: Have you ever heard of a sealed automatic transmission? A LOT of new cars and SUVs have them, and they don’t have any defined maintenance interval. Most of the time, there’s mention of replacing the fluid on the very last page of the scheduled maintenance book that comes with the car, but that’s it.

Bottom Line: Compared to a stick-shift, the modern automatic transmission offers comparable fuel economy, reduced emissions, and lower operating costs. It’s also easier to drive. Therefore, the time of the stick-shift is at an end.

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  1. Brian J says:

    I have 38k miles on my ’10 Tundra with the 5.7, and my transmission is ‘sealed’. I can’t even check the fluid on the thing. I had intended on having it flushed by my local dealership at 60k miles. Needed? Not needed?

  2. Mickey says:

    I hit the small winner category at a cost of $4k. Rebuilt torque and tranny. I had two vehicles which were standard tranny and they were a 74 Toyota Corona SR5 my first vehicle. The second was a 92 GMC Sonoma. I would still go with an automatic. Simply don’t care for shifting in traffic. If I feel the need then I go to “S” sequential shifting.

    • Mickey – I know. I thought about you when I wrote this, as I didn’t want to wash over the fact that sometimes automatics do fail, and the costs are really high.

      I’m with you on shifting, at least in rush hour. It’s a drag and a half in stop-and-go.

  3. LJC says:

    Does the Tundra have a sealed transmission?

    • LJC – I’ve never heard it called a sealed unit, but it’s similar to sealed units in that you can’t actually drop the pan. To replace the fluid, you just open a couple of valves…it’s very similar to the method used on most sealed units.

      However, I don’t think that it’s sealed technically because fluid replacement is recommended for heavy-duty use — only this is likely not an official distinction.

      I guess what I’m saying is “I guess so.” Anyone with a better opinion feel free to chime in. :-)

  4. AJ says:

    I think some of us automotive nuts can probably compete pretty close with a modern automatic. But for every one of us you’ll find a thousand people who aren’t willing to put in the effort to drive a manual that efficiently.

  5. Mickey says:

    Jason and Tim I was told by the dealership it’s actually a sealed unit. This is why you can’t check the fluid. You have to take it in for a tech to check it. Not to mention they can do both ways of putting fluid in cold or at 156 degrees running temp. Now don’t expect the dealership to put oil in right away with cold oil in a hot tranny. Won’t happen. Either tranny has to get cold before putting it in or they have to heat the oil and put it in. Usually I’m told the truck could be held overnite to put in cold oil or they wait all day long till it’s cooled. I paid the extra for them to heat it and put it in. In 07/08 they wouldn’t put oil in cold it had to be heated.

  6. Mickey says:

    Im at 146,700 miles now. At 150k I will do what is recommended for the tranny which puts it close to the 60k miles recommended for a flush. Will be doing the wife’s 07 Prius flush for the tranny and radiator on froday. Grandson works at a Toyota dealership while in school. This gives him the hours of pay along with teaching how to do it. For me it’s a win/win situation. Yes it costs more but the training for the grandson is worth it to me. Yes I do travel a little further for this dealership too. Everytime I go in the dealership wants to buy my truck. I’m sticking with it because it still looks new as an 07.

    • Larry says:

      Forgot to mention, Automatic transmissions have clutches, call them bands or what ever but, they are wet clutches. If a torque converter locks up it has a clutch. I will also agree that in traffic, a manual is a bit of pain but, man up an shift.

      I just flat out don’t like automatics but will say the new 6 speed and 8 speed autos are making huge improvements.

      Only replaced 1 clutch in my life and it did cost 1200.

      Most of the world outside the US still uses manual transmissions.
      dump trucks, manual
      big rig hauling tractors (13 speed manuals)
      NASCAR, manuals
      Indy, manuals
      motor cycles, manuals, automatics on a motor cycle I wouldn’t even look at one
      trains, no automatics there (yes I know they are electric)

      I will take the MPG challenge any day. As soon a person steps on the gas an the converter unlocks I win.

      I would also think that an automatic rebuild must be 2000 or more. As for begin sealed,,,,,,, what happens if a seal starts to leak, how can you check it. Like automatics or not they still need a stick so they can be checked.

  7. Larry says:

    I have never owned and automatic trans car or truck. My T100 is 18 years old with 210,000 miles. Original clutch. I have never had to replace a clutch and one of my cars went 300,000 miles.

    There is no way and auto trans can match a manual if the gears are the same. Every time the torque converter unlocks it becomes less efficient the a manual which is fully locked with a clutch.

    People are being sold a bill of goods and are too stupid to see it.

    The world over people run small diesels with manual transmission.

    The people of the US need to dump this government to keep them out of all the stupid junk we now have on our cars and trucks. TPMS, talk about stupid. People have become too stupid to look at their tires.

  8. Greg says:

    I have had 4wd Tacomas sence 85. Have put 350000+ miles on every one of them. 50000 miles a year, from Cape Cod to Boston every day. I beat the automatic mileage every time. I have never replaced a clutch in any of them. My current Tacoma has 410000 with the original clutch. I used to race VW’s on dirt back in the 70′s, so I can do my own work. Cost is cheep, labor is fun, and youtube makes it easy. I would have to hit mega bucks to own a Tundra. I love having control on in traffic. At 3200 rpm, I can pretty much take spot on anyone. If they came up with a standard trans, I would defiantly test drive them both. Now, more research. Checking for paddle shifting. Greg

    • Larry says:

      I second that. Of course the manual beats the auto every time. Whenever the torque converter unlocks we are wasting rule. You can watch the tach and see it unlocking all the time.

      I just got back from a 1400 mile trip down to New Mexico in my 2011 Subaru Forester 2.5L 4 speed auto. With only 4 speeds that sucker was constantly unlocking and shifting looking for a gear that was not there. I almost went deaf with the engine running 5000 RPM half the time.

      We only got 23.5 MPG total. My 6000 pound truck could have done the trip getting 21.

      I am never going to stop saying automatic transmissions suck.

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