Save The Manuals: One Man’s Journey from Freeport to Bayshore in Search For a Car Worth Driving

Stick Shift

They came for our flip up lights, and we said nothing, for we had no flip up lights for them to take. They took away our dipsticks and we looked away, for what were we to say? But we cannot–nay–shall not stand idly by as they take away our stick shifts.

Automotive engineering has followed an inverse curve over the past twenty years: as engine and chassis design has grown more advanced (ipso facto: more complex), the driver as pilot has been allowed to atrophy into those blob things from Wall-E. They climb into their Toyota, hit the “Go” pedal and are magically teleported to the spot immediately to my right as I try to leave the parking lot of the bagel place.

On the other hand,

According to this very similar article on Aol Autos, sales of cars equipped with a good ol’ fashioned 5/6-on-the-floor transmission have declined from 22.4% in 1987 to 7.7% in 2007. I’ll let someone better at statistics than I am figure that out in the comments, but if my calculations are correct, that means that far less people are driving stick outside of the enthusiast community [ed. note: “my calculations”= lurking on Jalopnik and Bimmerfile]. However, a growing population is rediscovering the joys of rowing their own: High School kids. And I don’t just mean out behind the bleachers (ey-ooh!). Small, affordable new cars are still not only equipped with a stick, but actively marketed as a driver’s car: the VW GTI, the Mazdaspeed 3, the BMW 1 series (and 1M, squeeeeee!). These are small, fast cars that put feel and driving pleasure first–especially in the case of the Mazdaspeed, ’cause the interior of that thing blows.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve spent the past week on a quest for a new car (poor timing, personally/financially? Absolutely.) and I’ve spent the bulk of that time irrationally lusting over E30 BMWs. Why? Because they’re awesome. They’re light; stripped down luxury that looks like economy to our bloated Aughts Eyes. The ’87 325IS that I was looking at isn’t any faster than the car I’m driving now–in fact, my brother’s Mini has more horsepower (a scary little fucker, that), but the driver is infinitely more connected to the road. Pushing a slow car to go fast is WAY more fun than driving a REALLY fast car in traffic. Gabe over at BimmerFile elucidated on this pretty succinctly, so I’ll just direct you over that way for more on that. But there are a blessed few used cars on the market (E30 or otherwise) that feature 3 pedals on the driver’s side. Even walking into a BMW dealership to check out a 128i yielded strange looks when I asked if they had one in stick. It’s unthinkable. No one buys them so why have them sitting on the lot?

I stopped in at Subaru… nothing. The WRXs weren’t even in yet. Mitsubishi? Not one with 5/6-on-the-floor and a prayer. Ford? The Focus ST won’t be out for another year and a half-ish and even the Focus SES is a joke when you compare it to comparably priced econo-boxes (my girlfriend’s Kia Forte Koup? Laughable name, awesome interior and handling).

I was getting frustrated. Granted, being jobless doesn’t exactly make me the best candidate for major “Let’s Just Check Your Credit Score” kind of purchases, but I can still go look and comparison shop, right? And then, after driving my dad’s awesome/ridiculous/Amurica! F150 (not even offered in stick, as far as we can tell), I gotta say, I was lulled into a sense of comfort. “My my my, this IS a lovely ride! Lookout peons, lest I crush you with 2 tons of Made-in-Dearborn Muscle!” Well appointed, powerful, roomy as a mofo, it’s pretty sweet. The only thing I can fault Ford for is the absolutely ridiculous nature of Sync’s voice commands, but that’s a different rant for a different day. [back on track:] But the driver involvement is missing short of, “How close is that parked car? shitshitshitshitshitshit… phew.” I don’t need this kind of space… shit, everything I own can fit in the back of a GTI, though I still have more stuff than fits in the minuscule 128i. I want a car with racing heritage, “Holy God”-passenger-foot-through-the-floor acceleration, hoonability and something that might resemble fuel economy. (Don’t hang me… half tank of regular gas in the F150: $60 and 20 Gallons)

But, egads man! They’re taking our fun away! If it weren’t for this sort of new “Let the Children Play” market segment, America would be driving computer chips and then the robots would really take over. I understand that cars with 400+ BHP really need to be shifted electronically; I can just hear the transmission falling out of a pre-fire Ferrari 458 because of an ill-timed, poorly-chosen gear. But how often are normal people going to be tracking their cars? Where is the closest track to Long Island, anyway? No, we must get our kicks in the safest, most every day places that we can. I’ve always said that the world is my racetrack and I try to have the most fun that my 1.2 mile commute to the train station will allow without me putting someone’s life in danger. If that means leaving my driveway sideways and downshifting into the LIRR parking lot while simultaneously eating a cold englishmuffin without spilling my coffee, then so be it. But please, Ford, GM, BMW, et al, why must you take away my option to do so? I’m sure your market testing tells you that your customer doesn’t want to think that hard about their appliance with seats (cough, cough, Toyota, ahem, cough). But please, see to it that you don’t alienate your not necessarily ludditical customers.

I’ll finally hit “Post” and leave you with this annecdote. When I finally found a 128i to test drive, I was obviously seeing how far down I can drive the lease (I mean, what do I look like? Someone that can afford a car? COMMON!). The saleswoman at the Bayshore Habberstad BMW was actually quite great (gimme free car plz?) but made sure to stop and ask, “Do you want it in stick due to cost?” as if, at that point, the $1500 to get Steptronic would have made a difference if I was confused by the clutch pedal. No ma’am: I just want to have some fun when I’m out being annoyed by the people driving the X6.

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About chris
www.chriscona.com

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