About a year ago I traded in my ridiculous Hot Wheel of a 4×4 Mazda pickup truck for a 2004 Subaru Forester. This vehicle is everything the pickup wasn’t: practical, comfortable, stable, and fuel-efficient.
I only got the truck as a rebound vehicle, when my adorable little Ford Festiva was beaten to death in a rear-end collision with—this is a little embarassing—a Corolla FX. Total writeoff. (Note: the Corolla read-ended me, not the other way around.) After the accident, I wanted to get the biggest, burliest car I could afford, and a four-wheel-drive pickup truck seemed to fit the bill. Since then I have come to my senses. Fixed-differential four-wheel-drive is great in three feet of snow, but horrible on slick pavement. A vehicle with no weight over the drive wheels is always perilously close to laying a patch or spinning out of control. And pickup trucks are one of the most profitable segments of the auto industry for a reason; they’re built cheaply, with little of the safety features and extra reinforcement that come standard on so-called “passenger” vehicles.
One of the many features I truly love about my new car is the automatic transmission. For many years I felt that a standard transmission gave me “more control” over the vehicle than an automatic, and from a truly empiric standpoint this is probably true. However, having more control over your vehicle can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how good you are at controlling it. Other than downshifting when descending a hill, I’ve never used my extra control over my truck’s manual transmission to any good effect, and often used it to my detriment, lugging the engine during a poorly-timed upshift or popping a jackrabbit start when a light changed abruptly. I figured that, all things considered, having the car, constructed as it is by highly-trained engineers and designers, decide when it should change gears was probably a step up. Between that and the all-wheel-drive—you feel like you’re velcroed to the road, I’ll never own a car without it again—I feel like my car is taking care of me, looking out for its and my best interests. Which sure as hell beats leaving this up to me, whom I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw me.
And then of course there’s the question of traffic. In case you do not live in the Northwest, lemmetellyou, traffic around here can be a truly horrid experience. I generally don’t have to deal with it, since most days I telecommute. However, once or twice a week I drive south about 90 miles to visit the office, and the trip back is invariably anything from nasty to outright torture, particularly in a manual-transmission automobile. I clearly remember coming home some days with my left leg shaking and throbbing from two to three hours of clutch-in-clutch-out. Now that I have my Subaru, traffic is almost no big deal; I can catch up on my long-distance correspondance, listen to music, take a nap—er, scratch that last one. Nope, never do that, nosiree.
When I got my new car, however, I made a solemn pledge, both to myself and fellow travellers on the road: never would I fall prey to the Curse of the Automatic Ankle.
People who have driven nothing but automatic-transmission vehicles all their lives tend towards a truly aggravating behavioral trait on the road. Without getting into a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo—which I probably don’t understand anyway—the key feature of an automatic transmission is that you do not need to disengage and re-engage the clutch in order to shift gears. In fact, there is no clutch; a device called a torque convertor handles the transition from one gear to another. Since there is no clutch, a driver with an automatic-transmission car does not need to concern him/herself with the revolutions-per-minute (RPM) of the engine, in order to decide when to shift gears.
The upshot of all this is that drivers of automatic-transmission cars can accelerate as s-l-o-w-l-y as they like, and often do. This is what I call the Curse of the Automatic Ankle.
You know the situation: the nonagenarian behind the wheel of the Crown Victoria in front of you at the traffic light, who, as the light turns green, accelerates at a glacial one-mile-per-hour-per-hour. Civilizations collapse and stars go out in the time it takes for these people to get up to 25 MPH. Meanwhile, drivers with manual transmissions unfortunate enough to be stuck behind them are lugging and jerking and bouncing along. Their vehicle cannot accelerate slowly enough with first gear engaged to keep from overtaking the ‘Vic, so they have to throw in the clutch again, or else risk stalling their engine. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the old guy finally gets up to a first-gear-friendly speed or a passing lane becomes available. In the case of the latter, those drivers of lesser age or maturity tend to indulge in rapid—even dangerous—acceleration, socially unacceptable digital sempahore, or quite possibly both.
In the off-chance that someone who suffers this malady may be reading this, please take note: those drivers who peel back the pavement as they screech around you at the nearest opportunity may be assholes, but they also have a valid point. They don’t merely want to accelerate faster than you care to; the vagaries of physics dictate that they need to accelerate faster than you care to. Modern automotive technology requires a car with a manual transmission to accelerate in real—rather than geological—time. Please bear this in mind when you take to the road.
This has been a public service announcement.