Americans and Automatic Transmissions

I was watching the Amazing Race last night, and what strikes me is that some contestants always get two things wrong- they take massive packs with them, and they can’t drive manual (“stick”).

Are automatic transmissions the norm in the US?

This strikes me as odd as my experience is they aren’t as fun to drive, they ‘disconnect’ you from driving a little bit (i.e. you know how fast you are going if you need to shift from fourth to fifth) and automatic transmissions tend to over-rev. before they change. I drove a Subaru Liberty on the weekend with the paddle gear changes and even it took a few seconds to change.

I haven’t driven any ‘supercars’, but are high performance cars predominately manual or automatic?

Not many supercars use auto. Most have manual or SMG gearboxes. Both seem to be getting fazed out by dual clutch (DSG) now though. The new Ferrari 458 is only offered with a dual clutch. These are awesome gearboxes, super smooth and fast, but you are still disconnected, unlike a manual

I’m sure a substantial percentage are automatics. I think a lot of it has to do with the way the car developed in the US in the 50s and 60s. The interstate system was developed to make it easy to cover miles and miles of roads without much effort. That means that similarly easy to drive cars were developed, and it has since stuck. Auto trans is substantially better in gridlock traffic, even if you are disconnected from the driving experience. Although, no matter what you’re driving at 5mph isn’t very exciting.

The author LJK Setright argued that Americans don’t expect to have to learn to do anything. That was the key to the Model T’s success. It had a two speed manual, although it could be left in 2nd gear and driven around without too much hassle. Mind you, before the invention of synchromesh in the 1950’s, the process of changing gears while in motion was more complicated than today.

This also explains why GM was the first to develop a modern automatic transmission in the late 1930’s (hydramatic).

Today, more than 90% of new cars in the US are automatic. For example, manual transmissions account for 2% of Toyota’s US sales. I believe the split in Europe is around 50/50, although automatics have made huge gains the last ten years and continue to do so.

Yes, it is sad but true. Most of my fellow US citizens are too lazy to have a third pedal. As you mentioned, the amazing race highlights this (which is strange, as the show has been on for a while…if you watch it and become a contestant…shouldn’t you know you need to drive a stick??).

Car and Driver has a great marketing plan called “save the manuals”. It is funny.

As they point out in the video on the link, driving a manual “connects” you to the car. It is much harder to complete “other” tasks while driving. The experience of driving with all four limbs demands a little more concentration. Imagine if we were all driving manuals? Better fuel economy (98% of the time), cheaper cars and drivers paying more attention? Wow, what an improvement!

I’m pretty sure the percentage of automatics in Europe is a lot less than 50%. Recent numbers for UK (sorry, there was no date or year so I say recent based on the context of the article) suggest 20% of new cars in the UK are automatic. A number that corresponds well with my own guesstimate (Scandinavia and the Netherlands).

I dunno why Americans don’t like manuals, but based on stereotypes I would say Americans are less interested in “involvement in everything they do”, often choosing an easier and more comfortable solution (please don’t get offended) while Europeans overemphasise the importance of doing everything yourself (both these statements are stereotypes hence pushed to the extremes). Also there might be just tradition, at the time Europeans started buying cars the European economy was very different from that of the US. A car was something really expensive and an automatic transmission added to this and, I think, was seen as an unnecessary luxury (it also gave worse fuel economy = more money down the drain).

Most Americans don’t want to shift. They want to get in the car, eat a sandwich, send some text messages, and arrive where they are going. Manuals are not only rare, they are hard to find in a lot of areas and I would say a majority (or at least a very large percentage) of cars sold in America aren’t offered with manual transmissions at all.

The automatic is seen as both a luxury and a “Standard” option on most cars these days. In metro areas like NY finding a car with a manual is often a hunt. I had to wait 4 weeks for my car to be built in order to get one with a 6 speed because the production #'s are so low.

You also see manuals dying off as DSG and SMG type transmissions start to emerge as the technically superior solution, even if the involvement is lower. You can’t argue with a transmission that can make shifts in 20 milliseconds and still transfer power the same way a regular manual can.

In Europe, you also have to take into account that cars are much more expensive to purchase and own than in the US. Much higher gas prices and insurance prices mean that many people strip as much out of the car to get the ownership cost down. In the US where at our worst gas was $4/gallon (I think it was around $11 at the time in the UK) that was the only time the people started caring about their fuel economy.

It all depends on the person though. A lot of people just don’t know how to drive stick or have anyone to teach them, and since automatic cars are so abundant theres no reason to need to “learn” how to drive stick. On the other hand I haven’t owned an automatic car since I was 17.

I’ve owned four 5-speeds since I learned to drive. Although, I did flip a couple of automatics to make some cash:)

I think it isn’t so much that Americans want to do other activities, but what LJK said. Americans are very democratic thinkers and the car is seen much more as an extension of freedom to move than a piece of technology. The automatic allows anyone to just get in a car and drive. The manual is demanding training and practice. It’s elitist.

Also, a friend of mine in HS and I wanted to start a club called GAME, the General Association of Manual Enthusiasts. hehe

I personally don’t know any Americans who can’t drive stick. Many of them don’t want to, however.

Stop and go traffic jams are a pain with a manual, and we have lots of those. Seriously, there’s low-grade repetitive stress injuries happening in my left knee from the long throw on my VW.

Paddle shifting is nice in video games, but the few that I’ve experienced (GTI R32 and a sick Dinan M5) are removed from the driving experience, especially in sporty cars.

I don’t think most Americans think about the ‘fun’ of driving and equate that with a manual. Most people are driving to get stuff done, pick up kids, get groceries, eat breakfast, etc. and an auto is that much easier.

I’m considering an auto tranny for my next car or truck, not even a paddle-shifting type.

Most of my close friends, family and co workers are car enthusiasts, so they own sticks or at least know how to operate one. Outside of that group of people though the majority of the people I know have no idea. I can’t think of a single woman I know besides my mom that would even know how to drive a stick.

Traffic does suck with a stick. I try to be a tough guy about it but I also wound up having a lot of knee issues because of it (they’ve gotten better since I moved and no longer commute 80 miles a day).

I agree paddle shifting isn’t as fun, but most sports cars manufactuers can’t deny the performance part of it. Especially when you get into these really high horsepower cars where a novice driver would smoke the clutch in a matter of minutes. I did an exotic car demo day and the only manual was a Porsche GT3 where they said the average life of a clutch was 2000 miles because so many inexperienced drivers were driving it.

Especially when you get into these really high horsepower cars where a novice driver would smoke the clutch in a matter of minutes

Good point- but my first car was a 1976 Gemini that I used to gear-downshift instead of braking into corners, great fun and sounds awesome, until the clutch went going up a not-so-steep hill.

Traffic does suck with a stick. I try to be a tough guy about it but I also wound up having a lot of knee issues because of it

Don’t have those issues where I live, so never really considered it. Here a 2 minute traffic jam causes people to pop veins in their heads in anger, we’d all be dead if we had serious traffic.

I’m one of those non-manual drivers. I tried to learn when I was younger but of course nobody wants you in their car to mess up the clutch, so I never got a chance to learn. But even then, I really didn’t want to, I just wanted to be able to drive what was there. My focus is on being where I want to be, not dealing with driving to get there, the simpler method the better. As soon as that whole teleportation thing gets going I won’t ever touch a car again, they’ll just be in my driveway as pieces of modern sculpture!

I’d say automatics here in the UK are a relatively rare thing, and it seems the majority are mostly seen on premium marques. My dad always said autos are nice as long as the engine size is decent (ie- 2 litres at the very least) and I’m inclined to agree. Here in the uk two litres is considered a reasonably big engine considering the popularity of hatchbacks and b & c size cars. The little cars with autos are often sought by women i think, (my girlfriend being a good example) but it often
embarrassingly feels like you’re revving the engine into oblivion kicking down when you haven’t got the cubic capacity.

Whenever I have to drive an automatic I usually have to tuck my left leg right under my seat because of an almost overwhelming inclination to mistakenly hit the brake thinking its a clutch, which is very unnerving to say the least!

That makes sense. I used to drive the family Dodge Caravan. Tiny engine, heavy car, front-wheel-drive. Trying to overtake another car was impossible. Automatics work great with big cars, trucks, SUVs and big engines. I test drove a 5.7L Toyota Tundra (automatic tranny only), floored it for a freeway on-ramp and it got to 80mph faster than my GTI would. Granted I was probably getting about 3 mpg at that point…

I love stick. My sister had a German built (I think) Ford contour with the dura-tech v6 and a 5spd. It would cruze so smooth at 90. Good torque and peppy power. It also came with a ford mondao manual (the book not the tranny). My Volvo 855r is only an auto due to that being the only option for it. I am looking at procuring at manual for it with a torson diff : )

I love stick. My sister had a German built (I think) Ford contour with the dura-tech v6 and a 5spd. It would cruze so smooth at 90. Good torque and peppy power. It also came with a ford mondao manual (the book not the tranny). My Volvo 855r is only an auto due to that being the only option for it. I am looking at procuring at manual for it with a torson diff : )

While automatics lose some more horsepower from the engines to the wheels compared to a clutch based system, the bigger issue and percieved performance difference really comes from being able to control the gearing yourself (and the typical lack of ratios of a 4 speed auto vs 5 or 6 speed manual).

An automatic, especially a crap one will have to be forced, either with a lot of throttle or a manual downshift mode to shift down if you want to pass someone. With a manual you don’t notice this as much since you can ride the gear a lot higher without it upshifting. It’s easier to keep the powerband where you need it.

Funny no one has mentioned the “hill holding” benefits of an automatic. If you’ve ever been stopped for a traffic light on an incline while driving a stick you can appreciate not having to use three feet to get back in motion. Especially if the guy behind you has decided to park on your rear bumper.

My desire for a nice, decently spacious (not compact) wagon in a manual transmission has really limited me. Volvo don’t sell a single manual transmission model in the US- I would love the V70 or even their new smaller SUV (sacrilege, I know). The Venza and Crosstour are out too. I like my Saab 9-3, but will have a hard time buying an identical car when time comes (the replacement is still a ways out). Subaru’s turbo Legacies don’t come in a stick either.

Both my girlfriend and I have m/t wagons and like the improved economy but love that it requires paying attention to the machine itself, reducing the temptation to futz with toys instead of driving…