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Death Of The Stick-Shift

Inspiration came to me for the hundredth time after driving a C6 Corvette equipped with the 6L80-E automatic transmission. That the 4-speed Hydramatic has gained a couple more overdriven top gears is news enough, but that it was enabled by a paddle shift mechanism mounted on the steering wheel was provocative. I’d never used one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. This combo rips off gear changes quicker and faster than most people can move their arm and stomp their foot. The union is precise, quick, and robotic. Is that the death knell for the hand-shift transmission we hear?

I matriculated in a world of primitive two-speed automatics, a time when car companies were trying to phase out the manual shift. That’s what I learned to drive, in a ’44 Jeep to be exact. I still dream about it. Leg a little shaky on the clutch. Give it just the right amount of throttle so it doesn’t bog, buck, or die on the spot. Do it right the first couple of times and it puts you on top of the world (to a 13 year-old kid, anyway); it’s just like learning to ride a bike: once you’ve done it, you’ll always remember how.

Eventually, you get to the stupid but very entertaining activities: Puttin’ the revs in line. Jammin’ the clutch. Out of the hole hazing the tires. Big yank on second gear. More rubber on the road. Whack third and ride that bitch till the torque’s all gone. If nothing else, a feeling of accomplishment and well-being. A small relief from a world gone hopelessly mad doing what the self-righteous turds claim is the path to divinity, and pretzel logic bullshit.

Look here. The manual-shift transmission represents the last option, the last act of free will for us, shifting gears according to the map that’s already installed in the cerebral cortex, not when and why an engine controller tells it to. In the ever-tightening circle of emissions, fuel mileage, and political correctness, the automatic transmission is the pre-programmed constant. Dipping the clutch and blipping the throttle the way you can with a stick shift isn’t likely.

The supreme object is to remove the fallible, quirky human from the equation completely, Big Brother says. This stuff isn’t new; it’s been creeping steadily into our shit for years.

On the OE side of things, expect no manual transmission miracles. When car companies that once exalted the clutch begin making 7-speed automatics that work so damn good they’re silly, there’s reason to open up and listen. On its upper end cars, BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer ultra-overdrive ratios on top of the standard ones. Porsche, a stick shift benchmark if there ever was, has been jerking around with the Tiptronic automatic for years.

Even the General has stepped up. By the end of the ’08 model year, it’s forecasting that a million cars will be equipped with one of the Hydramatic 6L80-E variants (RWD, AWD, FWD) and torque limits ranging from 258lb-ft to 520lb-ft. (Torque ratings are based on a 24-hour WOT test, so there’s plenty of moxie in reserve for the inevitable hot rod retro-fit.)

How about a tranny with no gear ratios at all? The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is eating up the thoughts of more and more car company product planners. In the CVT, the usual gears are replaced by a segmented metal push-belt running between a pair of variable-width pulleys. At low speeds, the pulleys tighten up to give the needed leverage. At cruising speed, the pulleys grow wider and engine speed drops accordingly, a distinctly weird but somehow satisfying rendition. The current Honda Civic Hybrid is so equipped.

As for Mother Mopar, you’ll notice that four of its high-performance iterations -- Caliber, Crossfire, Viper, and SRT-10 -- are available with a manual transmission. The soul of the corporation’s growing street-going armada, however, is couched in an automatic. I’ll crawl out on this limb here and say that the stick shift isn’t likely to return...at least not to the world of Original Equipment. Or the hot rod market, for that matter.

For its considerable largesse, the performance-built automatic is unquestionably the tranny of choice, though someone ought to do something about the stupid reverse shift pattern. To most of you louts, the idea of driving a clutch is a noxious aggravation, a chore, something you should no longer have to endure. Me? I’m a backwards SOB. I like the idea that I play a key role in the actual driving process, that thing we all fell in love with in the first place.  

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