Mustachian Motoring with a Manual Transmission

Becoming an excellent driver is a truly worthwhile pursuit – for both the added safety and the cash savings it provides. I still remember the the awe I felt towards driving as a young boy when my family went places together. When I was old enough, I’d like to sit up front, next to my Dad, and watch the actual driving take place. Whether we were rolling through the hilly country roads to get down to the beaches of the Great Lakes, or heading home late at night along a big-city freeway, Dad was always there keeping the family save with Excellent Driving, smoothly picking the right lanes, and matching the engine speed to the driving conditions with the Manual Transmission. 

It was (and still is) a mystical experience, hearing the sweet mechanical whine of rising RPMs as the fuel hit the engine just as the clutch blended the power out to the wheels, watching the gearshift move back and forth through the slots, magically hitting just the right gear to catch some engine braking down a steep hill, boost the power for a winding ascending curve, or slip into a deep overdrive for an extended traverse through the countryside. From the the 1989 Honda CRX Si in which I learned to drive in 1989 through to the present, my cars (and motorcycles) have  always had the Manual.

So you can imagine the way I feel about the current state of affairs, where in the United States less than ten percent of new vehicles are being ordered with the classic 5-or-6-speed. In fact, many of the best-selling US-specific models don’t even offer a manual option, because there aren’t enough drivers who even know how to use them. Instead, vehicles are competing by adding ever-more cup holders, bubbly exterior styling and little automatic features that do everything from closing the doors and trunk for you to managing your collection of strollers and diapers.

These vehicles are like junk food purchased from a convenience store. They are expertly engineered and extremely convenient, but in the long run they are sapping the health from the art of motoring, because they are taking the skill out of it. Because of this trend in the car industry, most people don’t even learn to drive a manual, which in my book means they don’t know how to drive at all.

Even more ridiculous and tragic is when I see my own friends buying automatic transmissions in cars where I know a manual is available. The Honda Civic and Fit, the Subaru Legacy, the Toyota Corolla. These are not cars meant to be outfitted with automatics! Why would you pay more to make the car shittier in every measurable way? There are only two lame excuses – you don’t know how to drive one yet (so learn, by buying a manual and having a friend drive you home in it then teach you) – or you think you drive too much in rush-hour traffic (#1 – manuals are fun in all conditions. #2 – fix your lifestyle immediately so you don’t drive in stop-and-go traffic, addressed by other articles here).

Let’s be clear: I’m a family man, and I’ve got a wife and young boy myself. Like many people, my wife had been raised on automatics, but I helped her break free from this cancerous legacy by teaching  her how to drive a real car early on in our relationship. Before committing to marriage. Even back then, I foresaw the difficulties that would arise if we had to share a fleet of vehicles for life, and only one of us could actually drive. An entire lifetime of silly automatics would have to be purchased – just because of one missing skill! So, within a week of that first awkward stuttering start down the road, she was impressively smooth on the manual. Today she has skills like a rally driver. I would advise younger manual drivers to do the same to for their potential mates while they still have the chance.

There are many other benefits to manual transmission expertise besides preserving your motoring expertise. You also get to keep a lot more of your money. An automatic transmission adds about a thousand dollars to the price of a new car. How long does it take you to save up a grand? I’ll bet it’s longer than it would take to become proficient on a manual transmission, which for most people happens with under 8 hours of on-road practice. Over a lifetime of driving, you will save yourself thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Selecting the manual also shaves close to 100 pounds off the weight of your car. Most cars have a power-to-weight ratio of about 20 lbs/horsepower. So you are effectively adding 5 horsepower to your vehicle by unhooking the equivalent of a large bag of concrete mix from the undercarriage. A lighter car also handles better and gets better gas mileage. With an understanding of internal combustion engines, you can keep the engine under higher load and lower RPMs during parts of your drive when an automatic would automatically go into a torque-slipping downshift . You are also liberated from the towtruck or the jumper cables if you ever leave your lights on in the parking lot and return to a dead battery, thanks to the “Bump Start” technique which is possible in manuals but not automatics. I’m not sure how many times I have thankfully bump-started manual cars and motorcycles over the years, but it is surely over a hundred.

You also get longevity. Automatic transmissions, with their incredible mass of gears, fluids, and computers, tend to wear out or malfunction before the rest of the car, and cost thousands to replace. A manual, if driven properly and maintained only very occasionally, can last a lifetime. In 2005, a friend of mine lent me his 1984 Nissan pickup truck. It still worked perfectly and the loan period ended up being almost six years. Last month I returned it to him, still in perfect working order, and shifting just as smoothly as the day it rolled off the line 27 years ago.

So it’s time for us all to celebrate manual transmission cars. If you already drive one, congratulations! If you don’t, be sure that the next car you purchase is manual if at all possible. Electric cars and Priuses don’t come with manuals, and the model of minivan I use for construction was unfortunately never made with one, but luckily the most appropriate cars for YOU out there are mostly available with manuals. Fuel-efficient Honda, Toyota, and Subaru wagons and hatchbacks, bought on the used market, with manual transmissions. Ahh.. proper motoring, done in moderation.

But beyond all of these practical benefits, the Manual Transmission makes me happy because I can already see my own son starting to watch me shift as we drive, and copying the motions as he sits in the driver’s seat shifting himself when the car is parked. Another real driver is in the making.

  • Melissa M. February 11, 2015, 7:53 pm

    I’ve just discovered this wonderful blog and absolutely love the advice and stories here. I bought a new subaru crosstrek hybrid in march 2014, currently has 11500 miles on it and after reading this blog it seems that was a mistake when it comes to saving money. I did pay for it with cash, and i got about $4k off msrp by buying it through a friend. I’m setting the ground work to grow my mustache and wanted to know: take the hit of depreciation and sell for a used car or not.

  • FJ40Jim March 5, 2015, 11:46 am

    Been reading for a few days, first post on MMM.
    As an automitive perfeshenul, I can tell you the average auto tranny means more initial cost, shorter lifespan, higher average repair cost, worse MPG, and it’s always in the wrong gear. It’s true some new cars get better MPG in the automatic vs the manual version, but that is often because of bad choices by engineering. Suzuki SX4 is one where the manual version has a much shorter final drive, so more acceleration, Yay! But driving down the highway spinning the engine at 3000RPM kills the highway MPG.
    I wander around the Self Serve Junkyard a lot (the manly equivalent of thriftstore shopping) and am always amazed at the number of perfectly serviceable cars that are junked due to a bad auto. A $4000 repair bill for a car that has 140K miles is more than the average consumer drone can stomach.

    • Mr. Money Mustache March 11, 2015, 8:13 am

      Oh, if only I could swap out the 5th gear on my Scion (or add a transmission with a 6th) that had a 50% higher final drive ratio. I’m even higher than 3000RPM on the highway and the noise and fuel consumption could be so much lower if they only did that.

      Then again, the car didn’t even have cruise control as an OPTION, so I’m not sure if they expected anyone to take the xA on an American highway at all. It’s a pure-Japanese design with very few changes for import.

  • Jason Beck March 27, 2015, 11:52 am

    The featured image, being that of a Nissan 370Z Nismo, has inspired me to go out and get me a 370Z 6-speed!

    (Just kidding, but I’ve wanted a Z from the moment they were revealed back in the early 2000s. I still want one!)

  • Linda June 22, 2015, 7:42 am

    I’m from Europe, and, when on holiday in Argentina I met a few other travellers, one of them American. We decided to rent a car and he proudly exclaimed: “Yes we can rent a car because I know how to drive stick!” Blisfully unaware that most Europeans have never driven an automatic car in their lives.

    I don’t own a car myself but for work I drive an emergency vehicle and while my company has both automatic and manual cars of the exact same brand and type, I really prefer the cars with automatic transmission. The work I do involves breaking a lot of traffic rules and driving at high speeds with surrounding urban traffic. The automatic transmission gives me more time to look around and anticipate without having to think about changing gears, and because of that I find myself driving better and smoother than in the manual. Acceleration is faster than manual as well using the kickdown. Automatic cars have improved a lot in terms of fuel consumption, the ones I drive shut down when waiting for intersections and are back up in a second. So fuel consumption is similar to manual, and better compared to people who don’t use their manual car in a the most fuel-efficient way (i.e. shifting gears early). Keep in mind these are very new cars (up to 2 years old) so performance is probably not typical for all automatic vehicles. Bottom line for me is that while I love the feeling of driving a stick shift I prefer a modern automatic.

  • Emma June 28, 2015, 4:45 pm

    Thank you for answering the mystery of why Americans fear their transmission going as the major cause for concern with their cars. I could never understand why this was the go-to expression for ‘car trouble’, but of course it’s because Automatics are so saturated over there!
    I don’t drive myself, but my partner can regularly get 80mpg in our little Toyota Aygo, with some coasting. And we can carry lino rolls 2m long, new computer chairs and wood 4 feet wide (to name a few things). Much more than that and we have to get delivery. But usually if we’re getting something that big, the delivery charge is nothing anyway. It’s great filling up once a month with a paltry £30 even though he uses it everyday to get to work. And because it’s so economical, road tax is just £20 for the year!

  • Forticus July 17, 2015, 5:42 am

    convinced manual driver here.
    But then … I recommended automatic shopping baskets to elderly relatives whoes attention and reaction gets weaker and leg pains stronger.
    On flight trips to foreign countries I get automatics only. There are other things to observe: wrong side traffic, wrong driving culture and wrong set ups, e.g. in 1991: a rainy night, main road crossing of Albuquerque, I stopped next to the traffic lights (standard setup over here). After a flashing car-light from the side I was shocked to find myself standing right on the intersection, the lights being on the wrong (far) end.

  • Alexandra Isenberg August 24, 2015, 2:47 am

    I am a Canadian living in Sweden and I HATE MANUALS. But unfortunately I have no choice in the matter and am forced to drive one here. Anyway, the point of my comment is to say that in Sweden we have this thing called “eco driving.” It involves tricks to plan your driving and use the clutch more efficiently so that you conserve gas. Sweden has very proactive environmental laws and apparently you can save up to 20% in gas if you eco drive efficiently. Obviously that 20% isn’t only good for the environment, it is also good for your wallet. And now all new drivers are forced to be well versed in eco driving as you will not pass your drivers test without being able to show that you can eco drive. Amazing! (Although annoying when you have been driving for 20 years and have to relearn how to drive the Swedish way…( And another note on the fuel efficiency of cars, we just bought a VW minivan (used, of course, but only a year old) and it’s gas efficiency is the same as what a Toyota Matrix uses in Canada. Laws are also very strict here on gas consumption and taxes are ridiculously high if you drive a gas guzzling car, so no one buys them.

  • Skippy January 25, 2016, 5:08 am

    I just thought I would chime in with my own fuel economy story.

    Back in 2013 I bought a brand new car (please don’t hurt me). A Suzuki Swift, in manual (for the ‘Muricans it’s a Fit-sized 1.4L hatchback). I got the mid range one because I wasn’t thinking that the 3 year old still-current-generation car WAS THE BLOODY SAME EXCEPT FOR SOME PAINT. Immediately after it’s 1000km service I loaded it to the nines and took a cross country road trip (3000km) and averaged 5.5l/100km with a/c on and the old ton happening every overtaking maneuver (Your 18 wheelers are sissy, google Australian Road Train for a real mans truck, simply too long to overtake without a warp drive). That trip cost me the same in fuel and servicing (I tallied up the per kilometer price of the car, including brakes and tyres on top of normal servicing) as a plane ticket would have, but I was two up with way more excess baggage than a flight and had better scenery.

    But back to the point. I used the instantaneous fuel consumption guage to figure out my over-run fuel cut rpm and basically prioritised high load acceleration and maximum coasting time *just* above that rpm (1100rpm with the a/c off, 1400rpm with it on). I was able to get 6l/100km, around town, delivering pizza quite quickly (I was on the clock, economic doesn’t have to mean slow) with the a/c on. A/c off was 5.5 on the same duties. The kicker is I let my stepfather borrow my can for two hours. He raised my whole tank average to 7.2l/100km in almost 30km of driving. I’m assuming by that, that his average would have been close to 10l/100km. Cost for 20,000km of driving @$1.60/l for my stepfather $3200. For me $2304.

    That’s $900 in fuel savings alone, in one year, from driving the car properly. According to your ‘stachian calculators I could save 12,900-odd over a decade from just a different driving style. Imagine if I had have just bought the 3 year old model?

    Just for laughs I’ll use the numbers from a typical large australian family car (which I also owned, and converted to manual after the auto failed because I’m more badass than most home mechanics). 15/l100km around town. $4800 fuel cost. $2500/yr in savings with the swift, minus the $100 in beer and fuel for borrowing my mates truck twice when I need to tow something. $2400/yr . $34,000 over a decade.

    *in other mustache growing news I now have nothing and am starting a new career, through university. No car, 5 bikes for various purposes (road bike, commuter, super-comfort-grocery-carrier, obligatory cheap MTB, and a recumbent trike that can tow 50kg of trailer and tools all around the hilliest city I know of, Dunedin, New Zealand), within 10 minutes ride from campus and 5 minutes ride from work. I shall apply your principals to my new career direction and hopefully get it right this time. Certainly dropping my $30/wk energy drink habit, because I’ll need that for a raincoat…

  • AbeFM April 22, 2016, 10:22 am

    When I had a friend visiting from Germany, she was applying to be a professor here in Santa Barbara, she rented a car. Even being older than 30 having lived in four countries she’d never actually driven an automatic before.

    for about 20 minutes we did circles around the parking lot with me man in the parking brake to keep the car running away from her unexpectedly we taught her how to drive an automatic . So I suppose another argument for having a manual transmission is to lend your out of country friends because apparently they can’t rent a stick shift if wanted.

  • Lisa July 18, 2016, 11:23 am

    I live in an apartment three blocks from my office, so I walk to work, which is wonderful. I have a 10 year old MINI that I keep for weekend use or if I need to go somewhere outside the range of where I can reasonably ride on my bicycle (thanks, MMM!) My MINI is a manual, which I love because it is what (to me) makes driving fun, along with the convertible roof. I never realized how rare the manual transmission has become until I moved into this building. Due to construction issues with the building’s garage, there is a mandatory valet service to park all cars. The valet service keeps a sign by my key noting that my car has a manual transmission. I asked them why. The answer: because they typically have only one valet per shift who knows how to drive a stick shift. The rest of them don’t know how to drive my car.

  • Be September 26, 2016, 11:57 am

    I hate cars. I miss my little motorbike (125cc).
    He could have been lying but the person who sold me my current car said that automatic transmission was cheaper in the model I was buying (VW Jetta).

  • Becki December 15, 2016, 4:14 pm

    Yes! I have only ever driven manual, I also started on a CRX, ahhh, I miss that car. In fact, when my husband and I were first dating he bought a manual car so I could drive it. I hate automatics. It doesn’t feel right, I need the control a manual gives you and I always have to sit on my left foot so I don’t slam on the brakes :0)

    I too buy and sell my used cars on Craigslist and haven’t ever had trouble getting a manual. It took a little longer when finding my Fit but it’s worth the wait.

  • FMaz January 10, 2017, 12:02 pm

    Makes me wonder what’s your take on a Tesla Model 3?

    It’s 100% electric with a battery recycling prigram so it’s very good for the Earth, but it is also double the price of a manual and is fully automatic (electric engines).

  • sam April 10, 2017, 1:53 pm

    “Because of this trend in the car industry, most people don’t even learn to drive a manual, which in my book means they don’t know how to drive at all”

    You sound like my Dad. The first time I got my DL in USA I called him and shared the news happily. His only question was ‘Manual or automatic?’ and when I said Automatic, his reply was ‘That is not called driving’.

  • Garrett June 30, 2017, 11:43 am

    I drive a 2009 Prius, which as you mentioned, doesn’t come in manual. I bought it for Uber, Lyft, and Veyo, so I put a lot of miles on it (I know that that much driving is not very Mustachian, but it’s helping me make decent, flexible money right now). I currently average 47.5 mpg, but that average keeps going up over time as I learn more and more about hypermiling (I imagine I’ll break 50 soon). For my use case, do you think I’d be better off with a manual transmission, or my hybrid?

  • MMM/Minimalist in Training October 11, 2017, 3:28 pm

    Since discovering minimalism, and eventually MMM, I’ve decided on making my next vehicle a hybrid. I was flabbergasted to find there are exactly… ONE model of hybrid manuals! I’ve never owned a Honda, but the Honda CR-Z is officially my next saving objective (I’m thinking the 2013, selling for $12-8, which I won’t be buying until I move back to the states in 2020.) If it’s possible to have a manual hybrid… why aren’t there more?!?

  • Anders April 17, 2018, 4:41 pm

    Came across this one. A bit outdated.

    The latest automatic transmissions which use the CVT transmission technology (CVT) actually get better gas mileage than manual transmissions The reason is that CVT have infinitely variable gear ratios so can minimize the engine RPM and therefore gas consumption in all conditions. This is compared to manual transmissions which have say 6 speeds.

    Personally I drove manual transmission cars as my main car for 16 years. As a rabid skier at the time I found it painful to drive a manual in stop and go traffic with sore legs at the end of a long ski day. Also was mountain biking to/from work at the time. I then bought an automatic AWD car. Still driving it to this day with 199,000 miles. The automatic transmission on this car is widely known to be bulletproof and I have the trans fluid changed every 15,000 miles. No other transmission service required.

  • S Parsons August 9, 2018, 10:54 am

    I recently purchased a Toyota Tacoma and was surprised to learn they are now all automatics. The best theft deterrent is now a manual transmission.

  • Alyssa July 17, 2019, 1:12 pm

    My dad shares your sentiments that driving stick is the only real way to drive. He made sure my twin sister and I learned to drive stick and we were both supposed to take our driving test in his old manual ’89 Ford Escort (this was in 2011). My sister somehow got my mom to take her, so she took her test in an automatic, but I managed to pass the first time just fine in the manual ;) Unfortunately, our younger sister was taught to drive by her husband (she didn’t actually get her license til they were already married), so she’s the only one in the family that doesn’t know how to drive stick.

    Funny story about my husband and driving stick: On our first date, I asked him if he drove stick and he said he did, but in a way that made me question whether or not he really could. So I had to make sure he wasn’t blowing steam and had him drive my car home – which was about a half hour up a dirt road coming off a trail in the Superstition Mountains (thinking back, I was wayyy too trusting towards this guy – but that’s worked out well for us since). He did pretty good (only stalled twice) considering his previous experience was only a handful of times, 3 years previously ;) Now that we’re married and he’s been driving my car a lot more, he’s gotten a lot better than that first time! But it’s definitely nice knowing we can share vehicles now :)

  • Greg November 29, 2022, 3:45 pm

    Music to my ears. Most of the 37 vehicles I have owned over the years (all pre-owned) have been manuals, including the first five. But, they are getting darned hard to find now and the selection excludes many nice models. Doing all my own repairs saves bucks but the endless parade of gizmos and gadgets only add weight, cost and headaches when they fail.

  • Andrew G. September 10, 2023, 11:34 pm

    Good thoughts as always.

    However, I would be careful on advising bump starting cars with manual transmissions. During bump starting the stress on the timing belt or chain is much greater than during normal start with the starter. Actually if it is timing chain driven it is rather safe however if it is a timing belt chances are that it may snap. The most susceptible to this kind of failure is a diesel engine where cylinder compression is much higher but I have seen gas engines with broken timing belts from bump starting. For most engine designs it means catastrophic failure where valves collide with pistons and something has to give – broken/bent valves, broken rocker arms etc. Usually repair is not economically feasible and engine gets replaced which you can imagine is not cheap. So if I could throw my 5 cents – bump starting carries very high risk to reward ratio. That being said it can be done but it is good to be cognizant of risk involved before making decision.



Leave a Reply

To keep things non-promotional, please use a real name or nickname
(not Blogger @ My Blog Name)

The most useful comments are those written with the goal of learning from or helping out other readers – after reading the whole article and all the earlier comments. Complaints and insults generally won’t make the cut here, but by all means write them on your own blog!


welcome new readers

Take a look around. If you think you are hardcore enough to handle Maximum Mustache, feel free to start at the first article and read your way up to the present using the links at the bottom of each article.

For more casual sampling, have a look at this complete list of all posts since the beginning of time or download the mobile app. Go ahead and click on any titles that intrigue you, and I hope to see you around here more often.

Love, Mr. Money Mustache

latest tweets