The Twilight of the Manual Transmission

[note to reader : I will shift between being the technical tomfoolery, being sarcastic, and trying to keep things simple for the average reader.]


Everyone knows that all cars have a motor*, and that it is pretty much the only thing that makes it a CAR. Without a motor, a car is but an empty husk best suited to being blown up on a movie set.

But you know what, a car also contains a transmission!
A what?

You know, a transmission. Wikipedia explains it much better here, but just to put it lightly, it’s the big, hulking piece of metal that contains magical elements to move your car. I know, the motor contains a lot of magical shit too, and it’s often so magical that it just has to come out of the exhaust sometimes in the form of fire.

See? Magic.

Those of you who haven’t seen a transmission before, I do not blame you. It is so magical, it is hidden safely away under the vehicle, a frontier that is rarely seen by human eyes, and often only by the bravest (or cash-strapped) souls who venture to it. All you who’d ever been inside a car though, would know that the only humanly possible way to tap into the magical powers of the transmission is through a magical wand that often sticks out of your car’s floor, or in some cases through a flappy device (paddle) behind the steering wheel.

Ok, enough of this “magic” this and that.

Most cars being sold nowadays are being sold with an automatic transmission. Americans love them, the Europeans seem to abhor them, Asians are beginning to see the light of the a/t** revolution. Here in the Philippines, they are steadily making headway, with most current model vehicles being offered mainly with an automatic transmission. Most vehicles driven in the PI is still driven though via a manual transmission.

Automatic?

Manual?

Transmission?

Both of these contain magical devices called gears, a combination of which regulates your vehicle’s speed, converting the magic of the motor, which can only produce noise by itself, into movement, allowing your car to crawl in traffic, sprint across to the next stoplight, barrel down the highway and so on. The photo below shows roughly how a transmission assembly would look like from the outside.

If you cut it in half, and saw the insides, it would somehow resemble this.

The gears do not move by themselves, but are manipulated either by a combination of electrical / pressure signals from the motor and other places (automatic) or the driver’s Newtype*** potential transmitted to yet another magical device, (manual) the legendary clutch pedal.

Going back a little bit, most vehicles here in the Philippines are operated via a manual transmission. This was the dominant style of transmission in the country until the dawn of the new millennium, when the automatic transmission started being sold in larger numbers. Car manufacturers started offering these models at lower prices than previously available. Nowadays, most modern vehicles driving around the crowded streets of Imperial Manila are of the a/t variety. Without the need to learn manual clutch operation, people can now drive themselves to wherever they need to be. The car, through the magic imbued by the manufacturer, does everything by itself, selecting the correct speed for whatever you want to do, all seemingly on it’s own.

The more moneyed may have cars that you can shift through gears without a clutch (Sportronic as had become colloquially known) but that’s a topic for another day.

Since there are less, and less new vehicles being sold with a manual transmission, there are less people who are required to learn how to operate a clutch. It had also become easier to own a brand new car nowadays, leaving a good portion of used manual transmission cars at the hands of part dealers who often take the car apart and sold for parts. A few would still buy a used m/t vehicle as a first vehicle, but that number is slowly decreasing. Wait, lemme show you what a clutch looks like.

A clutch dis – you can also play Ultimate Disc with it

This legendary device is what makes a manual transmission car’s movement possible – installed between the transmission pressure plate and the engine’s flywheel, it directly transmits the flywheel’s rotating motion to the transmission, which then sends it to the differential then to the wheels. This little piece of awesomeness is operated manually (you know, like you have to do it yourself) by one of today’s most scorned devices – the clutch pedal.

See how many pedals you have to use? Then look down at how many feet you have…

Why is the clutch more terrible you may ask? In a manual transmission, you have to do the following things in order to get the car to move through first gear from a standstill.

1. Fully depress the clutch with your left foot so it disengages the flywheel.
2. Slowly blip the throttle with your right foot to the correct RPM^ so the motor doesn’t die.
3. Use your right hand to select the correct gear.
4. Bring the clutch pedal back up to its working level.
5. Add corrections to the amount of throttle being given to the motor.
6. Let go of the clutch pedal completely.
7. Repeat the process 10 seconds later.

Let’s see what you have to do on an automatic transmission.

1. Move the shifter to the correct Drive mode with your right hand.
2. Give the car gas through the right foot.
3. The car magically moves all on its own!

Comparing both lists, you can therefore conclude that it is easier to drive an automatic transmission car, and a manual transmission seems to require a lot of work. This is mostly true – it takes lots of practice to find the clutch level, give the car enough gas, shift gears and so on, all in a fluid motion, and proper timing.

Screw the timing, and the car either stalls, or if you are lucky and it gets to move, it will be a jerky ride. With enough practice, it all becomes second nature and you will not even think about doing it. This is exactly the reason why a/t’s have become popular – by eliminating the task of learning to operate three pedals with two feet, more people can now own a car and drive. A lot of people start “learning” on a manual, but soon move on to an automatic. Without the years of practice or experience behind them, whatever little they learned during the few days of driving school will be totally forgotten when you make them drive a manual transmission vehicle.

Soon, when costs totally drop – and it’s already started actually, we can anticipate that there will be a lot less manuals on the road, and more automatics.
With everything made easier for you, everyone loves an automatic!


But there are a few individuals who rally behind the manual transmission, and it’s pending demise.

I am purposely omitting public utility vehicles in the Manila, largely because they have no choice as most fleet vehicles have a manual transmission, but in the name of convenience, and all things equal, they will vastly prefer an automatic.

These are mostly the people who prefer the feel of being in control of a car. There is nothing more visceral in the automotive world (except maybe jumping into the race car of your dreams) than using both feet to move three pedals, change gears and make the car the exactly what you want when you want it to.

Now a lot of you might make the argument that Formula One cars do not have clutches pedals, but this is mainly due to the quest for speedy gear changes, and not driving feel. Remember that a Formula One car was built for competition use, and no matter how good a driver you may claim to be, you cannot shift faster than an automatic transmission, let alone the ones on a Formula car. I once tried to make a claim to outshift a Nissan Sentra’s automatic transmission – I lost.

One of the most fun things to do with a manual transmission car is heel and toe shifting. This where you literally use both feet to work all three pedals together in a ballet dance of sorts for the feet.

This is roughly how it looks, and you can trawl Youtube for videos on how it looks like. Basically, it makes for seemless downshifts from higher rpms, negating the sudden deceleration of a downshift from high gears at high speeds. The objective is to match the speeds of the driven wheels with the speed of the transmission to make the gears engage smoother and to reduce wear on the transmission and driveline. This also makes sure that the wheels will not suddenly lock up during the shift, and cause a loss of control.
In my opinion, until something more fun comes along, if you want to go out and hit the roads for some spirited driving and come out with a fuller sense of satisfaction, nothing will come close to a nicely tuned car with a fully manual transmission.


I drive Aska (87 Lancer SL) daily, even in bumper to bumper traffic. A lot of pussies passing off as “men” might complain (lol) that it’s “tiring” in traffic, and to some extent it is. However, this can be mitigated by not being a pussy and getting the clutch pedal set up correctly. Lots of people leave the clutch pedal set up waaay high, like you just give it a small push and the clutch disengages. Their logic is that if the car is close of stalling, a little push on the clutch will be sufficient.

However, I find this position to be pretty awkward because your left foot hangs over the pedal, instead of the whole leg working. My clutch pedal is set quite low, almost 3/4 of the way into the firewall. The reason for this is to allow my whole leg to work the clutch, and for small motions such as letting go of the clutch, I find it much easier to release it in small amounts from such a position, rather than having the foot hang over the pedal, allowing me move the car as slow as I want or dump the clutch and everything else in between.

I’d been stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours on end with Aska, and while I don’t really want to do it on a daily basis, you can survive with it. Of course, choose your route and times wisely.

You really have better things to do than be stuck in traffic.

Don’t take my word entirely for it, YMMV.

Contrary to popular Filipino belief, driving stick does not equate to improved fuel economy. See here in Manila, a lot of people believe that automatics guzzle gas because they shift higher and take longer to “decide” to change gears, where as a little nudge in first gear, and then a shift into second and keeping rpms low will save gas.

For older automatics yes (but that’s conditional), but for today’s vehicles, especially those with CVT (continuously variable transmission) having good fuel economy is a cake walk. Today’s automatics are designed to be more economical than a comparable manual transmission car with the same motor. Not only are engines now more economical than ever, but transmissions have evolved to be more smart and shift when actually needed, taking into account the weight of the car, road grade etc. My friend’s Mirage hatchback gets a consistent 21 kilometers to the liter – traffic, a/c and all. I’d lucky to get Aska to do 12 kilometers to the liter – on an open highway.

Unless you know exactly when to shift in a manual car, you can’t beat a contemporary automatic in terms of fuel economy.

Right now, there are less and less manual transmission cars coming out. And with each passing year, less and less people become dedicated enough to learn and drive with a manual transmission. May city cars offer an automatic models that are cheaper than their manual models. Even sports cars are embracing the change towards automatics, with the Toyota GT86 being one of the few sports cars released recently with a fully manual transmission, which makes it more manly than most Porsches coming it.

My car friends and I know of this, and we relish the times that we have driving our manual transmission cars. There will probably even a time when the good old manual transmission will be relegated as museum pieces or artifacts of a time long gone.

950ac-dsc_0025

Nope, no automatics here.

I do not hate on automatics though, and recently I have fallen in love with one. But I think that a fully rounded driver should at least give it a try, and would certainly be handy knowledge in case of an emergency, or make a career in grand theft auto in the USA.

The last is a joke son, in case you do not understand.


* – I know it’s more common to use “engine”, but I like throwing the word “motor” more
** – automatic transmission
*** – a fictional character from the Gundam universe, with psychic powers

^ – Revolutions Per Minute
YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary
I am indeed joking with the pussy and manly mentions in this entry. If you’re butthurt, I can’t do anything about it.

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