By on October 31, 2007

vv_m5gearbox.jpgIn another case of under-informed greenery, Slate.com attempts to answer the question vexing America's automotive environmentalists: should American drivers switch to manual transmissions to save the planet? Answer: yes. Author shave 15 percent off their annual gas consumption. "The Department of Energy estimates that the average American driver uses 500 gallons of gas per year, so we're talking about a reduction of 75 gallons. Since a gallon of gas emits 19.564 pounds of carbon dioxide… you'd be reducing your annual CO2 output by approximately two-thirds of a metric ton." But then again no; American drivers lack the right technique/attitude to harvest the savings. "If you're lazy about shifting and allow your RPMs to soar unnoticed, then you might actually guzzle more gas than if your car were equipped with a well-engineered slushbox." Koerner seems blissfully unaware of the wide variety of cog-swappers on the market: slushbox, CVT, DSG, automatic clutch. But he's convinced that manual transmissions are a better bet, if only because "The brake pads on stick-shift cars… tend to wear out less rapidly than those on automatics. And manual transmissions are relatively cheap to fix and replace, so you can wait longer to buy a new vehicle." Who knew?

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34 Comments on “Slate Slates the Slushbox...”


  • avatar

    unfortunately, the slushbox is the most common automatic transmission out there

  • avatar
    Orian

    “But perhaps that kind of technological detail would overtax the concentration of treehuggers?

    Ok, what gives with the site lately? It’s gone from car info/article/opinions to outright political insertions all over the place.

    I will admit I am somewhat of a tree hugger, but I am not naive enough to think an article like this is anywhere near accurate. I don’t buy the E85 Bullshit hype, nor do I believe plug ins are the way to go.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Slate’s a political ‘fashion’ magazine and this guy’s job is to pretty much make fashionable pretensions on how the world should be like.

    Too many folks out here have trouble driving automatics. I think giving a 5-speed to an SUV Sally or SUV Sam would make the ‘Angel of Death’ all too busy. This may not be a bad thing since we need to conserve water in Atlanta. He would probably need to outsource his business to a bunch of morticians with H1-B’s and buy new black robes from China (laced with lead, of course.)

  • avatar

    Having owned both a 2006 Honda Civic sedan automatic 5-speed and a 2006 Honda Civic coupe manual 5-speed, I know that the automatic gets better highway MPG.

    Due to the gearing differences in the two cars, the auto in the sedan runs at about 1k fewer RPM on the highway than the manual in the coupe.

    In ’06, the Civic with an auto transmission was rated 40 MPG highway, while the manual was rated 38 MPG highway.

    The days that manuals “automatically” got better MPG are over– in some cases, anyway.

  • avatar
    kansei

    While I’m not sure what sort of nasty effects this would have short term, in the end anything that requires people to pay more attention to the task at hand while driving is a good thing. New cars are all so quiet, so comfy, so numb to the world. At least with a manual transmission you’d know what was going on a little bit more.

    Truth be told, DSG/SST and other variants of the dual clutch automated manual gearbox don’t have any fuel economy penalties at all so it just exposes how little research the author of the article actually did. Bravo for failing to do a decent job.

  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    I agree with Mr Swanson, but with a different car.

    I own a Toyota Yaris and have driven both manual and autos and my gut feeling was that the auto was giving me better MPG than the manual. When I checked the figures, they tallied. The Manual was less efficient than the auto.

    Autos (like diesels) have come in leaps and bounds to the point where they will supercede the inital technology.

    Also, manuals are so tiresome, especially in traffic. I personally, don’t understand Europe’s insistence on sticking with manual gearboxes. Totally bonkers……

  • avatar
    Matthew Danda

    As I recall, the 2007 4-cylinder Ford Fusion is rated for the same mileage whether in 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic form.

    I have the 5-speed manual version, and, according to my Ford trip computer, I get 24.1 MPG in evenly mixed city/highway driving.

  • avatar

    With all due respect to American readers, I wonder why the obvious solution – i.e., not buying massive barges that get 9 mpg for 1-person commutes – was not suggested by slate.

    It seems it would be very easy to show that buying a full-size sedan and renting an SUV for the occassional camping trip and moving day comes out a lot cheaper than buying a huge SUV outright.

  • avatar
    Kevin

    It’s simple really. You’re not a man if you drive an automatic.

  • avatar
    beetlebug

    Two words: Driving Habits. Obviously, I get worse MPG flooring my car all the time then Mr. Normal does driving with a light foot. I think that most of this stuff is hogwash.

  • avatar
    jazbo123

    Since the advent of the lockup TC and electronic powertrain controls, that argument is not really valid. This guy is spouting 1970s information.

    Harldy surprising though, in my experience the mass media rarely if ever get technical issues right.

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    Sweet! Now I can act all green cuz I drive a manual!

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    My car gets piss poor miliage and its a six cog DIY swapper.

    Of course, I have fallen in love with the sound of my turbo spooling up, so I tend not to be light of foot. Actually, on this last tank, I got about 300 miles out. Not bad based on how I like to drive.

  • avatar
    Antone

    It’s just more fun to drive a nice manual shifting automobile… Lately I really into handbrake usage also. You know it’s a good car if you pull the handbrake while moving and it doesn’t ding or set-off dash board light emergencies…

  • avatar
    radimus

    And manual transmissions are relatively cheap to fix and replace

    I see that Mr. Koerner has never received a quote on the labor charge to just remove and reinstall ANY transmission in a FWD vehicle. Once he does he’ll understand why most places don’t repair automatic transaxles anymore and prefer to just swap them with reman’d units.

    And as long as I have to slog my way through stop-n-go traffic five days a week I’ll happily spend that supposed 15% in extra gas to avoid the hassle of farting with a clutch.

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Indeed, the tranny going is one thing I am not looking forward to…

  • avatar
    shaker

    I prefer a manual tranny merely because there is no formula for a “bullet-proof” autobox. If you drive a stick very carefully, you can eke out more mileage in a “suburban” situation, but the modern “slushbox” in a mid-size car is pretty darn good for efficiency in all other scenarios (even with the added weight).

  • avatar
    Heep

    I had to laugh while in the McDonald’s drive-through last week. The lady in the Corolla in front of me would shut off her engine immediately after moving, presumably in an effort to conserve fuel/reduce emissions. OK, fine; unfortunately, she was horribly useless with a clutch. The routine of moving ahead in line was somewhat like this: Start car, rev to 2500, slowly release clutch, stop, shut off engine.

    I got the feeling she was doing more bad than good.

    Anyways, as was mentioned, it really all comes down to how you drive. I suspect an automatic gearbox is more efficient for more people more of the time, but I also suspect a capable and concentrating frugal driver could easily do better with a manual gearbox.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    IIRC, some time ago (at least 3 templates) Our Fearless Leader, Mr. Farago, opined that slushboxes were more fuel efficient in the real world than manny trannys.

    Besides how can you shift while you are drinking a latte and talking on the phone.

  • avatar
    Brian E

    In a DBW throttle car, a slushbox ought to get better mileage than a manual. Yes, it used to be the other way around, but these days letting the transmission think for you is best for efficiency.

    Of course, fun is a different matter. The holy grail is to switch back and forth depending on need. VW’s DSG answers the call, but I’ll hold off on being an early adopter given VW’s reliability history. If the rumors of a DSG-style tranny in the next TSX are true, I’ll trade in my slushbox-equipped model when the loan is up.

  • avatar

    All else being equal, a transmission with a mechanical clutch (manual, DSG) will be more efficient than a transmission with a fluid clutch (fluid coupling/torque converter) simply because of fluid losses. All else is not necessarily equal. Highway mileage, for example, depends in large part on final drive gearing. Some autoboxes have noticeably taller top gears than their manual equivalents, sometimes because the automaker assumes that people buying the manual are going to be more aggressive drivers.

    In-town mileage depends wildly on driving style and transmission programming. The last time I had to rent a car, for example, I ended up with a Hyundai Elantra. Despite its modest (2.0L) engine, it got dreadful in-town mileage, worse by more than 10% than my 2.3L Mazda. The problem was that its shift schedule was set up so that it would rush into top gear as quickly as possible (which would be good for fuel economy, except) and then downshift one or two gears at the slightest provocation for more power and stay there until you lifted the throttle. Downshifts were very smooth — in a manner indicative of a lot of slushiness in the converter and clutch engagements — and if I wasn’t watching the tach it would consistently be one gear too low, buzzing along at more than 3,000 rpm. I had to be very cautious about feather-footing the throttle to stay in an appropriate gear.

    It was an excellent reminder of the principle that just because somebody does something for you doesn’t mean they do it well.

  • avatar
    EEGeek

    Aside from mileage (which depends on gearing), improved reliability, and lower repair cost, no one has mentioned the initial purchase cost advantage of a manual transmission. On average for the Corolla, Accord, and Fusion, the AT option adds $825 to the MSRP. Perhaps that’s not a huge deal on a $28K loaded Accord, but an extra $900 on a base Yaris…

    For me, I like the control that the clutch provides, but if I had to deal with bumper-bumper traffic all the time, I’d probably opt for a DSG.

  • avatar

    If Brendan Koerner can convince a few slate readers to switch to DIY, it will make me happy even if it doesn’t do much to reduce global heating. I worry about manny trannies disappearing entirely from North America. Of course, for Wash. DC dwellers like Koerner, there is another good reason to switch: most of the potential car thieves dn’t know how to drive manual. Someone tried to steal a friend’s car and apparently had just that problem.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    The problem w/using EPA tranny stats is that the A/T numbers are reproducible by all users, as the shifts are electronically controlled, while manual numbers aren’t because the EPA uses professional drivers. I’m sorry, but I don’t think GTIBoyRacerGuy who learned to drive a stick in a Kmart parking lot has fuel maximization skills in check. BTW: Nice to see Slate is cranking out material USAToday would be proud of; way to go, Stephen Glass.

  • avatar
    miked

    Brian E:” In a DBW throttle car, a slushbox ought to get better mileage than a manual. Yes, it used to be the other way around, but these days letting the transmission think for you is best for efficiency.”

    Yeah, I’m trying to learn that now. I just bought my first automatic ever, and my first DBW car. After about a month of fussing and experimenting, if finally discovered that the car works best when I just leave it in D and slam the go pedal to the ground when the light turns green. The computer does the rest. Sad but true.

  • avatar
    Cavendel

    I drive an Acura EL (civic in a tux), and I find that the engine revs quite high at 3200-4000 on the highway. This is with a 5 speed manual. A friend has the same car with the auto, and it is 4 or 5 hundred revs lower.

    I figure that Honda doesn’t trust people to downshift a manual if the revs get too low, so they won’t put a tall 5th gear on the car.

    As a side note, I recently switched from 195/55/16 tires to 205/40/17 tires (with new wheels), and I’ve noticed a big drop in fuel efficiency. I used to get 650 to 700 km per tank, now I’m lucky to get 600. Driving habits and car maintenance seem to play a bigger role than transmission selection.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    “…And manual transmissions are relatively cheap to fix and replace, so you can wait longer to buy a new vehicle.”

    As a previous reader pointed out, Slate’s Brendan I. Koerner is stuck in the ’70. Perhaps he wrote this ignorant drivel in the throes of a flashback. Most new automatic transmissions outlast the engines they are mated to. Many are good for half a million miles. They certainly require less maintenance than the DIY variety. People simply aren’t swapping old for new cars every third year because of transmission problems.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    That’s silly.

    I drive a manual transmission because it makes the high-RPM range so much more accessible to me. If I were falling asleep in an automatic I’d probably drive much more calmly and save lots of gas.

  • avatar
    phil

    carlisimo is right; MPG is a function of RPM, that’s why 400hp corvettes can get high 20’s on the freeway, they have a very low 6th gear and can cruise at 1800 RPM all day long. the auto vs stick is a tired old argument that is much more interesting as a performance discussion than a MPG discussion. i’ve recently switched from a 6 speed manual to a 7 speed auto, both high performance cars, and have to say i miss the true manual; the little silver flippers on the steering wheel are just not the same. but when the traffic clogs up the auto is a dream. so you just have to own a minimum of 2 cars!

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Sammy Hagar :
    October 31st, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    The problem w/using EPA tranny stats is that the A/T numbers are reproducible by all users, as the shifts are electronically controlled, while manual numbers aren’t because the EPA uses professional drivers. I’m sorry, but I don’t think GTIBoyRacerGuy who learned to drive a stick in a Kmart parking lot has fuel maximization skills in check.

    The A/T numbers are no more reproducible than the M/T numbers when the driver only knows how to get from red light to red light as quickly as possible. I think there is just as high of a percentage of A/T drivers as M/T drivers who don’t know how to or don’t care to drive for efficiency.

    I’m an M/T driver who averages well above the EPA highway rating, but Slate is definitely out to lunch on this subject.

  • avatar
    Macca

    Like others have already mentioned, many automatics are more efficient than their manual-shift brethren. DBW is one reason, as is of course the gearing of the standard transmissions.

    I spent my first seven years of driving with a stick-shift. It was a blast, and I recall saying things like “I won’t own an automatic until I need my hip replaced…” when I was in high school. Once I grew up and got a job, complete with a hectic commute, things changed. Suddenly the fun of flicking through the gears had changed into unbelievably long periods of time spent in rush-hour, never-go-faster-than-15MPH traffic.

    It was at this point that I decided that I needed my commuter to be an automatic. Although at the time I used to think that an automatic transmission sucked all the fun out of driving, I’ve now learned that I enjoy different aspects of driving just as much. When I hit my mid-life crisis and need a little Miata or S2000 to cheer myself up, however, I’ll definitely enjoy shifting my own gears on a weekend drive through some twisty blacktop.

    But yes, as someone else already mentioned, this author should have campaigned against the urban-SUV instead of the automatic transmission. It’s hardly the efficiency killer that it used to be, and is exactly the opposite in many newer models.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    I’ve never met EPA highway with an autobox. How could I when every time I drive an auto it starts running past 2200 rpms and I’m yelling at it to “Shift damn it! Shift!!” Then there’s the whole not being able drop into neutral and just coast. That drives me absolutely insane. Does DSG just engine brake if you let off the throttle?

    I’ve broken EPA highway on all my MT cars. You can bet that I wasn’t even close though during my first month of driving an MT car. I was actually considering going back to auto for a while. Now, I’ll never go back. So you need to hone your skills if you want to be a smooth and efficient operator of the manual transmission. Once you do, it’s as good as masturbation. Well, almost.

    Here’s a fuel saving tip for people who drive MT. Use full throttle when you can; it’s more efficient when you’re not choking it for air. Some ECUs may richen it up though at 100%, so it may be more efficient at 90% or so.

  • avatar
    lewissalem

    So what Brandon. Not gonna happen. See the nanny State can not force me to drive a certain way to optimize efficiency for “the planet” with my stick. If Brandon had his way, not recycling would be a $1000 fine and possible jail time.

  • avatar
    Macca

    “I’ve never met EPA highway with an autobox.”

    Hmmm. That’s too bad, but I can say that I’ve exceeded EPA ratings with my autos and manuals. My previous car (an automatic) averaged 27 MPG in town and about 31 on the highway. EPA ratings when new for were like 23/29 or something like that. And I didn’t baby it.

    Your recommendation for manual transmissions actually applies to automatics too – if you drive too much like granny, you won’t necessarily improve your mileage. There’s a fine balance between driving (and accelerating) too slow and too fast.


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