Stick With It!
A couple of weeks ago, David Sirota, a writer for the "digital magazine" Salon, took to the keyboard to ask one of those burning questions only magazine and newspaper feature writers ever think to ask, and only when they're running up against deadlines and can't think of anything better to write about: "Is It Ethical to Drive Stick?"
No, I did not make that up. Click the link if you don't believe me.
How could one's choice of automotive transmission possibly be a matter of ethics? Performance, fuel economy, mechanical reliability, initial cost versus marginal utility and other microeconomic particularities, physical dexterity, personal preference, certainly--but ethics??
From this non-absurd premise, Mr. Sirota concludes that there is almost no reason to drive a stick--we'll get to his "exception" here after a bit--and, therefore, if you prefer a manual transmission, you're indulging a "fetish" for "machismo"--and probably killing baby polar bears in the process.
There is so much wrong with this thinking that we could spend several thousand words and a non-trivial fraction of Amazon's immense bandwidth and not even begin to cover it all. I could mock the article's postmodern-gender-role-deconstruction subtext, but columnist Jack Baruth at TTAC has already done that particular evisceration better (and funnier) than I ever could. I could just be snarky and say that his problem isn't that he's driving a manual transmission, it's that he's driving a Saturn--a badge-engineered monument to mediocrity brought to you by the same pre-bailout geniuses who gave us the Aztek and Catera--but that would hardly be sporting of me now, would it?
I'd rather aim a little higher with my critique. What really causes Mr. Sirota to go off the road is a lack of perspective.
To begin with the blindingly obvious, not every decision you make, and not every action you take, is of equal importance. How you treat your family or your co-workers or strangers in need, whether or not you live up to your responsibilities or keep your promises or cheat on your taxes, those are moral and ethical issues. Other decisions--do you prefer Garth Brooks or Chris Gaines? Ohio State or Michigan? Ginger or Mary Ann?--are mostly, or even exclusively, matters of personal taste that traditionally have not been considered to have any significant moral or ethical component. Notice that I said "traditionally." There's been a trend in the last century or so for academics and social commenters and miscellaneous activists to ascribe greater and greater moral and psychological significance to individual actions of lesser and lesser actual importance.
Where did this come from? Maybe it's a product of Freudian and Jungian psychology, which claim to derive deep insights into your personality from little things like what color the unicorns are in your dreams or whether you watch Castle or Hawaii Five-0 on Monday nights at ten. Maybe it comes from the assertion by advocates of social change that "the personal is political," or the innate need we all have to connect with something greater than ourselves. Perhaps it comes from all of these things, or maybe it's just how people roll these days. Whatever the cause, we have arrived at the point where an essayist for Salon is associating a preference for manual transmissions with, well, not to put too fine a point on it, creepy psychosexual personality disorders.
While it's true that modern automatics can be more efficient than a stick, the difference isn't really all that great. For the GTI, as I mentioned above, there's a 1 MPG difference--and according to the Ohio EPA's tailpipe test machine, the GTI is already about as close to being a zero-emissions vehicle as you can get and still burn gasoline.The environmental advantage of the DSG is trivial at most.
That 1 MPG advantage also translates to $100 less per year in fuel costs by the federal EPA's reckoning--a touch more than two tanks of gas at current prices. The DSG stickered at $1,200 over the base six-speed. That's twelve times the annual fuel savings--and it'll take longer than twelve years to break even once you factor in the time value of money and the payment of interest on the $1,200 if you financed the car. Any way you look at it, the economic and ecological argument for the autobox is pretty far from a slam dunk.
Now, you can look at that set of facts I've just laid out and legitimately conclude that the upfront cost of the DSG is worth it to you because you prefer not to do your own shifting, or you place a higher value on reducing your carbon footprint or our dependence on foreign oil than the raw dollars and cents calculation. You could also conclude, even if you consider carbon footprints or personal energy consumption to be extremely important, that the cost-benefit ratio isn't enough to justify the extra expense, or that you can do something else with that $1,200 that better serves the cause or improves your life in some other way. Either one of those would be reasonable judgments for an informed adult consumer to make. Neither one is obviously wrong or evil or unethical. Your ride, your money, your call.
In my case, not only did I not want to spend the extra $1,200, I actually like driving a stick. I have to spend an hour a day in the car, sometimes more, and I wanted a car with driving dynamics I would enjoy, and I was willing and able to pay for that. My ride, my money, my call.
Mr. Sirota likes driving a stick too--but he can't leave it at that. He writes:
Thanks to all this, on the days I don’t bike to work and instead fire up my 11-year-old Saturn and shift it into first gear, I no longer feel so righteous or populist. I feel like part of the problem — not just because I’m driving a fossil fuel-dependent vehicle, but also because the manual transmission seems like a silly relic.
I don't get this. Why the guilt over something that you enjoy, and which (as we've demonstrated above) is at worst doing no measurable harm to either your wallet or the environment? You have to get to work, and on the days when riding the bike isn't practical, it's going to be in some vehicle that burns fossil fuels unless you have a Nissan Leaf handy or live on a streetcar route--and even then, electricity usually comes from fossil fuels, so you're still using fossil fuels anyway.
If you rank the sins and follies of mankind in descending order of importance, driving to work in a gasoline-powered car will be pretty far down the list--if it even makes the list in the first place. Certainly, then, your choice of transmission in that car isn't something that you need to wear a hairshirt to the next Sierra Club meeting over. It's not that big a deal. Relax, embrace your inner Andretti, and sink your left foot into life!
There is, however, one point on which Mr. Sirota and I are in complete agreement:
In the age of distracted driving, many believe the stick shift might encourage kids to stay focused on operating their vehicles, rather than operating their smartphones. The idea is that because a manual transmission requires special attention to operate, it doesn’t allow for as much multitasking as an automatic.
While there’s no science (yet) to prove the manual-transmission-as-deterrent-to-distracted-driving hypothesis, the memory of those first harrowing stick-shift lessons — with my dad imploring me to “really focus, goddammit!” — suggests to me that there’s something to the theory.
My oldest son learned on the GTI and drives a manual transmission to school, and my youngest is repeating the process. Both boys are much better, much more careful drivers than I was at their age, and they (and I) credit learning on a stick for much of that.
They also agree with me that it's much more fun.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner