Monday, November 9, 2009

Mr. Automatic

There was a time when I'd only buy a car with a manual transmission. Slushboxes, as automatics are sometimes called, were boring to my way of reckoning and they robbed power from the engine. I liked revving the engine, snapping off crisp up-shifts, and listening to the exhaust crackle as I downshifted. It was a way to satisfy my inner Walter Mitty as I pretended to race at Watkins Glen or Monaco.

Somewhere along the line of marrying and having kids, I began buying cars with automatics. I didn't mind the car shifting itself in stop and go traffic, or when I needed to retrieve the lost binky from the backseat. But somewhere along the march of time, I realized I now would prefer to own an automatic over a manual transmission. This truth became self evident recently when I looked at the new Dodge Challenger and realized I'd rather own the auto instead of the six-speed manual with pistol-grip shifter. In fact most of the cars I've been dreaming about lately have automatics, from Jaguars, AMG powered Mercedes Benzes, and the Challenger. In fact, there are only a handful of modern cars I'd own today with a manual transmission.

To be fair, slushboxes have come a long way in the last ten years. Most of them are much tighter, more efficient and some of them offer a choice to let you do the shifting yourself. Ironically, we have Porsche and Ferrari to thank for this. Porsche began offering a Tiptronic transmission in the early 1990s. Licensed versions of this gearbox even made their way into cars like my Hyundai Sonata and it worked surprisingly well. Ferrari pioneered the "flappy paddle" gearbox, an automatic with two paddles mounted on the steering wheel to shift gears. Six time F1 champion Michael Shumacher once boasted he was faster in a car with this setup than with a conventional manual.

As I approach middle age I've learned several bits of wisdom. I can't eat or drink as much as I like and not somehow be punished for it. There is such thing as a "recovery period." And a compromise is not a draw but a positive, "win-win" outcome. It is in the spirit of win-win that I view auto-manual gearboxes. With one, I can better endure the stop and go traffic on my commute, retrieve lost toys for my kids, and pretend I'm Michael Schumacher charging the field in Formula One.

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