Well, no – it’s not what you thought. This column isn’t about Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner. It is about your car’s transmission. About pros – and cons. And about how to make it last as long as the rest of the car – whether you go automatic or manual.
Which is more important than it used to be because of the stupefying cost to rebuild – or more often, replace – a late-model car’s transmission. In some worst-case scenarios, it can cost as much as the car is worth. Or close enough to what the car is worth to make it hard to justify the fix.
Automatics and manuals have different weak – and strong points. And there are specific things you can do (and ought to avoid doing) in order to get the maximum possible service life out of each type.
First, the weak – and strong – points of each.
Manuals are inherently simpler – and simpler usually means more long-term reliable. For instance, they are much less vulnerable to sudden catastrophic failure resulting from overheating or fluid loss (which we’ll get into shortly).
Most of the time, they cost less up front, too – because the manual (when available) is usually standard while the automatic is optional – and so costs extra.
Also: If you have a manual transmission, you can roll-start the car if the battery ever dies on you. This is because there is a physical/mechanical connection between the rotating wheels and the rotating engine. When the wheels turn, so does the engine – assuming, of course, the transmission is in gear and the clutch is out (once the car is rolling). If so, it will turn over just as if the starter motor were doing that job and if the ignition is on, the engine ought to fire. This physical connection between the engine and the rotating wheels is why, by the way, you have to depress the clutch – or keep the transmission in neutral – when the car isn’t moving but the engine is running.
Otherwise, the engine stalls – because it can’t turn over the Earth!
You can’t roll start a car with an automatic because the connection between the engine and transmission is hydraulic. If the engine isn’t running, there is no hydraulic pressure and so the car just rolls. The engine has to be running to produce the hydraulic pressure that runs the automatic and – in turn – turns the drive wheels.
So, if you have an automatic and the battery dies, you’re stuck until you can find someone to jump-start the thing.
Automatics, on the other hand, are easier when the battery isn’t dead. No having to clutch – or shift. An automatic can just be left in Drive – and the engine won’t stall when the car isn’t moving, either. (The hydraulic connection allows some slip, which is why you can keep the transmission in gear when the vehicle isn’t moving and the engine is running.)
While manuals can be fun on the open road, and do give the driver more control than an automatic, they can be a chore in stop-and-go traffic. Also, they wear faster when subjected to stop-and-go driving. Clutch in, clutch out – and in-between. The clutch is a wear item. And it wears out, just like brake pads do. The more you use it – like brakes – the faster it wears. Replacing the clutch is part of routine service with a manual transmission and should be factored into the decision about which way to go. A clutch job generally runs between $500 and $800 depending on the vehicle.