Sometimes, you just have to face some hard truths:
- Pro wrestling is fake.
- I'm probably never going to own a Ferrari.
- The clutch pedal will soon be extinct.
I think that's what made it a pleasant surprise to spend some time recently driving a Hummer H3 outfitted with a five-speed manual transmission. At 4,700 pounds, the H3 won't ever be considered sprightly. But it was definitely one fun ride.
Manual transmissions have been on my mind a lot lately. Here are three reasons why:
- 1. The federal government is taking aim at trucks and SUVs with the biggest overhaul in fuel-economy regulations in 30 years. Automakers will need a multipronged approach to boost the fuel economy of their truck fleets; downsized engines, lightweight materials and hybrid powertrains are all on the menu. But opting for a manual transmission instead of an automatic is usually good for an extra 1-2 mpg.
2. Over the past several years, automakers have tried to deliver the best of both worlds - the fuel economy and sportiness of a manual, combined with the convenience of an automatic. Porsche was one of the first out of the gate with the Tiptronic, an automatic transmission that could act like a manual. Buttons on the steering wheel let the driver command gear changes without the need for a clutch pedal. Several other automakers now offer this option.
3. Finally, my 12-year-old son is exhibiting signs of car lust. More on this later.
BMW's strategy is to offer the flip side of Tiptronic. The Sequential Manual Gearbox is a manual transmission that acts like an automatic. Once again there's no clutch pedal. Electronics and hydraulics handle all the clutch work during a gear change.
The SMG will handle shifts by itself, or the driver can use the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel to change gears. And then there's this brilliant bit of engineering: A button on the console allows the driver to adjust the feel of the shift. It can go from a hard, quick sporty change to a more leisurely luxo feel.
I spent a week driving a BMW M5 with the SMG. But something was missing.
No matter what I tried - backing off the throttle before shifting, being in the throttle hard or letting the gearbox choose when to shift - the transmission didn't feel natural, or fun.
Most disappointing was the sense of drag as the transmission shifted gears. With a conventional manual transmission, the vehicle coasts while the clutch is disengaged during a shift. That one little flaw would keep me from spending $80,000 on an otherwise great car.
And that brings me back to my son, by way of my father.
The soft spot in my heart for manual transmissions can be traced back to my father in Iowa. When I started to drive, his rule was that I had to master a clutch pedal before I could drive an automatic. So I cut my teeth, and dulled a few gears, on a 1973 Jeep CJ-5 out in the fields.
Today, I run across many people who say they don't know how to drive a car with a clutch pedal. Sometimes, especially with younger drivers, I make it my mission to teach them.
And now my son, Michael, has been volunteering to go out on cold Michigan mornings to start the car. It's a sure sign he's growing fond of the idea of getting behind the wheel.
Call me a dinosaur, but I'm determined that my sons learn to master a clutch pedal first.
I just hope I can find a car that still has one, when the time comes.
You may e-mail Dale Jewett at [email protected]