Years ago, it was understood that manual-transmission cars had better fuel economy than the same cars with automatics. But for the past several years, as manual transmissions become increasingly scarce, the dealers (and EPA) claim that the mileage is the same due to improved automatics. I don't believe this. What's your opinion, and do you think they just quit testing the manual cars, and slap on the same rating? I'm looking to buy a new car, maybe manual.
TOM: It's true. You're right to be a bit skeptical of the EPA's mileage numbers. The EPA doesn't actually test any cars; the manufacturers do the testing and then report their numbers to the EPA.
RAY: We know of at least one case of admitted fudging, by Hyundai. And another case in which Ford admitted to some "calculation errors," and had to revise downward the mileage numbers for a bunch of its hybrids.
TOM: So the EPA numbers are really just estimates. In our real-world testing, the mileage numbers we get often are lower - particularly in city and mixed driving. For some reason, the highway numbers often come pretty close.
RAY: But, in general, we do believe that modern automatic transmissions do as well as or better than manual transmissions, as far as mileage.
TOM: There are two reasons for that. One is the number of gears. It's not uncommon now for automatic transmissions to have between six and nine forward speeds. And with the international "gears race" in full swing, I'm sure 10- and 11-speed automatics are just over the horizon.
RAY: There also are continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs). They use pulleys to constantly adjust the gear ratio, giving them, theoretically, an infinite number of gears.
TOM: The more gear ratios you have available, the easier it is to find the most efficient one at any given moment. And that improves the car's overall mileage.
RAY: The second factor is the lock-up torque converter. The reason manual transmissions used to get better mileage is because there's no "slop" in them. You put the car in the gear, take your foot off the clutch, and the car is "locked" in that gear until you remove it.
TOM: That's why a car with a manual transmission will stall if you come to a stop without taking it out of gear.
RAY: Automatics use a viscous, fluid coupling, which allows the transmission to "slip" when you're stopped at a light, to prevent the engine from stalling.
TOM: But that same fluid coupling that allows the transmission to slip at low speeds was harming mileage at higher speeds.
RAY: The lock-up torque converter solved that problem by, essentially, allowing an automatic transmission to "lock" into gear (automatically) at higher speeds, like a manual transmission would - and then unlock when you slow down and need a traditional automatic transmission again.
TOM: So automatics do get comparable, if not higher, mileage these days. And there's really no longer a cost advantage to driving a stick shift, unless the purchase price of an optional automatic transmission is exorbitant.
RAY: And when you factor in the inevitable clutch replacement you'll need during the life of a car with a stick shift, the automatic often makes much more economic sense.
TOM: So the only good argument for buying a manual transmission these days is "Because it's fun."
RAY: If you define "fun" as juggling your coffee, the steering wheel, your breakfast burrito and the gear shift (which I do).
My stepson recently discovered something dangling under his 1997 Ford Escort wagon. He took it to some mechanics, who looked underneath and found it to be the rear sway bar. Their solution: Remove the sway bar, because it's not really necessary. Not knowing any better, he took their advice. This does not sound right to me. What do you think?
RAY: If my brother removed every part that dangled off of his car, he'd have nothing left but a steering wheel.
TOM: Actually, that's dangling, too.
RAY: It would have been better to reattach the anti-sway bar. The sway bar is a thin metal bar that's attached to the undercarriage by a couple of bushings on top, and then on each end it's attached by links to the wheel's control arms. And as its name implies, it's there to keep the car from leaning too much on turns - which improves handling.
TOM: Removing it won't make the car unsafe to drive. In fact, anti-sway bars were commonly optional equipment a decade ago. But without the sway bar, the car will not handle and corner as well, or as comfortably for the driver and passengers, and your son will have to get used to driving slower on turns.
RAY: I know it's hard to imagine that you can further compromise the handling of a '97 Escort wagon, but you can.
TOM: Most often, when the sway bar fails, it's not because the bar itself has broken; it's usually because one of the links that attach the bar to the control arms has failed. Replacing a broken link with a new one probably costs $100 or less. That's well worth fixing, in my opinion.
RAY: If he doesn't fix it, he'll probably have to spend that 100 bucks on Dramamine for his passengers anyway.
TOM: So if the sway bar itself was intact, and if he still has the part they removed, he can go to another mechanic and ask them to reattach it for him. It's a five-minute job, and that's what we'd recommend.
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