Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

Turo turned me on to automatic gearboxes

A few weeks back I helped my younger brother move in back to UC Santa Cruz. This year he’s living off-campus so there’s plenty more to bring, mainly the stuff that belongs in the kitchen. His MK7.5 Golf GTI hatchback can fit quite a bit of stuff, but in the end we also needed a second car to haul to all.

Unfortunately, my first ever car, the family’s 2006 Toyota Corolla, gave up the ghost the same weekend. The car’s utterly weak C59 manual transmission (third gear has had a grind since I can remember) shattered a few gear internally, and it was making the most horrible noises when driving, akin to a racing car gearbox with straight-cut gears. The lever refuses to go into third or fourth gear, and we simply weren’t confident it can make the 130 miles round-trip to Santa Cruz.

We needed another car quite quickly, so to the Turo app we went the night before. 50 bucks on the credit card later the following morning, and we had ourselves a 2017 Honda Civic to use. What lovely convenience it is to be able to rent a car in that swift a timeframe; the traditional route would’ve found us at the SFO airport rental car complex because it’s be the only spot open on a Sunday. Not to mention it’d cost considerably more.

The Civic had an automatic gearbox obviously, because why would any sane person lend their manual transmission car out to a stranger. I did the driving duties, and it was the first time in the longest time I’ve driven an automatic car for an extended period. Perhaps it is because I’m getting old, but as an avid advocate of the row-it-yourself gearbox, I found driving the auto Civic to be an absolute pleasure. Automatic transmissions are actually okay!?

I get it now: in normal everyday driving, not having to do the clutch and gearstick dance at every intersection is a godsend for comfort. In a car with an auto ‘box you just push the gas and go. Manual transmission fanatics sticking to their dogma of daily-driving a stick-shift car being no more difficult than a car with an automatic gearbox are fooling themselves; I use to be that guy, but having driven to Santa Cruz and back in that Honda Civic, my position have changed completely.

Bay Area traffic isn’t going to get any better, mind.

I don’t think I’ll buy another manual gearbox car as a daily driver ever again. The bliss and ease in letting the car shift itself, particularly in traffic, is worth the “car enthusiast credibility” sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong: on an empty winding mountain road in a proper sports car, a stick with a clutch is still the choice for pure driving enjoyment.

Or you buy a 911 with PDK and get the best compromise of both worlds.

Look at the stars, look how they shine for… you.

Look at the stars, look how they shine for… you.

I won't be saving the manuals?

There’s a solid chance my next car will not have a manual transmission. 

A few years ago I would’ve call that an unimaginably frightening prospect. All the cars I’ve owned thus far have had a stick, and I wasn’t planning on deviating from that for the next one. However, the price level of sports cars I can now afford have changed, and along with that the gearbox situation as well. 

First I must say I continue to adore the manual gearbox: it provides an analog and tactile connection to the driving dynamics that’s utterly lacking in an automatic, no matter how good of a dual-clutch transmission it may be. The beautiful euphoria and sense of accomplishment in executing a perfectly timed heel-toe downshift is incomparable and irreplaceable. 

As all car enthusiasts know, the manual gearbox is being left behind by manufacturers. People aren’t buying stick-shift cars therefore automakers aren’t incentivized to continue development. Often in high-power sports cars the manual transmission - if offered at all - seems to be an after-thought and not nearly as good as the automatic version. In the C7 Corvette for example it’s painfully obvious much of development money is spent on the slushbox. Chevy engineers have actually told journalists the Corvette with the auto is the spec to buy. 

Worse, once you start looking at sports cars into the six-figures, the landscape is almost barren for the manual transmission. 

Putting the lack of demand side, from a technical perspective it makes zero sense for manufacturers to engineer a stick-shift ‘box: modern automatics have gotten tremendously good. A proper dual-clutch unit can shift faster than any human ever and never miss a rev-match downshift. 

But what I most appreciate is the improved gearing: in chasing fuel-economy and top-speed figures, automakers have spaced gear ratios in cars super wide, making life difficult for the standard six-cog manuals. The latest automatics have higher gear counts so the engine’s power-band is better utilized - it's always in the sweet-spot. Driving the latest Golf GTI with a manual was very frustrating because by the end of second-gear the car’s already traveling beyond 70mph. Sacrilege it may be but I'd tick the option box for the 7-speed DSG. 

Due to these factors and the fact I will be looking at used sports cars in the low $100,000s, the manual transmission will likely be eluding me for the forseeable future. 

Daybreak clouds this morning. 

Daybreak clouds this morning. 

Heel-toe downshift

Learning how to drive a car with manual transmission isn’t all that difficult. A few hours in an empty parking lot, assuming you already know how to drive, is all it takes to master the art of shifting gears on your own. That’s precisely how I learned it way back when.

However, the advance stick-shift technique of heel-toe downshifting is proving to be more troublesome. I’d thought myself so uncoordinated that for the first almost decade of driving a manual, I didn’t even bother learning the technique. It wasn’t until I bought the Mazda MX-5 two years ago that I determined to learn the skill once and for life, to complete the repertoire.  

13,000 driven miles later, my heel-toe downshifts are still highly inconsistent. 

Perhaps I was over optimistic at the amount of time necessary to learn it well. Also I tend to switch up shoes everyday - with differing sole thickness - which surely throws my foot’s muscle memory for a loop. It certainly isn’t fault of the car, because the pedal set-up, clutch effort, and gearbox feel in the ND Miata is absolutely sublime. There’s hardly a better car on the market to learn heel-toe with, except a rental car with a stick. 

The challenge continues, then. I don’t care what sort of extra pain/early death I’m inflicting on the clutch, the goal remains to be able to get into the car wearing any shoe and heel-toe downshift with the same consistency as normal rev-matching without braking. 

Wish me luck.