Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I want a standard goddamnit

Since our BMW sedan is getting a little small for our growing family (2 adults, 2 kids, and 1 dog) and it keeps developing new problems, we've been looking for a replacement vehicle. Actually, since Chris is driving to and from work and I'll have preschool to deal with pretty soon we need TWO replacement vehicles, one for each of us.

Keeping in mind there are a couple more kids in the future, and we now have a dog to deal with so a sedan just doesn't cut it. Plus this is Phoenix; having air conditioned groceries in the summer is much more important than the impact of heating groceries in the winter. So I want a hatchback of some sort, whether it be a wagon (temporarily at least) or an SUV. And when I say SUV, I don't mean one of those obscenely expensive sedans with a lift and a tailgate. I mean an actual SUV which can handle being on a dirt road and hauling a standard trailer full of ATVs.

Now I've been driving standard since I was 17. I love standard; I love being fully involved in driving, picking the gear I'm in, and the sheer amount of skill it takes to drive a standard well. Hell, after driving that Chrysler I'm MORE attached to manual transmissions. I spent the entire drive going "shift and accelerate goddamnit!" The manual in the BMW is part of why I love it so much; on top of all that manuevability I have the ability to go up a 10% grade while accelerating because I control when the gears shift. Honestly I don't know how anyone could buy a sports car of any type without a manual transmission to play with, it's just so much more fun.

But preferences aside, there are some things which are just generally better done with a stickshift. Once again the 10% grades are a great example, since the average automatic doesn't shift at the right intervals to make any kind of good time up a steep mountain grade. There are 3 10% grades between here and my parents' house and I drive them 4 times every weekend. The ability to handle mountain passes easily and SAFELY is a top priority for me. The standard gives me more control, more torque, and good slowing and stopping power if I need it. Plus if I get stuck behind the average turtle-disguised-as-an-ore-truck I have both the ability to be in first gear behind it without using the brakes, and the ability to pass very easily once I shift gears. These are all safety issues for me, on top of preferences.

One of the other tasks particularly suited to a manual transmission is towing, for the exact same reason. Control over the amount of power and torque is something the average automatic doesn't offer as well as a standard. More control is always better in towing, and if I get an SUV I want it to be able to tow a reasonable amount.

So Chris and I have been looking at various vehicles for me with these criteria in mind; good to high quality, seats at least 5, room for cargo, reasonable engine and options, and a manual transmission. If you're thinking "good luck" you're right.

To say my options are limited is generous. Most car manufacturers who still offer manuals in the U.S. offer them in the lowest models only, i.e. the bargain models with the small engines. Now a small engine is great, until I run into those aforementioned mountain passes. Then I might as well have an automatic for all the good it does me. Even our beloved BMW only offers manual in the lowest of the models, and not at all in the 7 series. To get a manual BMW you either settle for the low models or buy a really high end sports car, which is completely unrealistic for me to begin with (not for Chris though, who only needs something that seats 2 if I have the family vehicle). Sure I can get a 525iT wagon with a standard transmission, but try finding one. They exist, sure, but they are hard to find.

SUVs are just as bad. Given the proud history of manual transmissions in 4x4s one would assume more would be offered. But they're not. Once again we're talking about the lowest of the models, all 2wd, no options. Most of the SUVs with standards suck (Geo Tracker for example) and have small engines which is NOT good for towing. The only SUV I even partially like that I can still find in manual is the Toyota 4-runner, which is a good truck and acceptable, but not really what I want. Toyota's FJ Cruiser comes in standard in its dedicated 4-wheeler setup, but it's in its first production year and two-door to boot. I'd love a Land Cruiser, or a Range Rover, but finding one that's not automatic in the U.S. is next to impossible.

Notice I say "in the U.S." because these lovely SUV's are sold new with standards everywhere in the world EXCEPT the U.S. Why is that? Given manufacturers and dealers who want to make as much as possible, it probably has to do with market forces. Very few people in the U.S. want the hassle of driving a standard, and since they don't sell dealers won't sell the cars. Everyone wants the ease of an automatic, it seems, except for dedicated 4-wheelers, towers (who still have standards in the heavy 2wd trucks), sports car owners, and me. Which unfortunately leaves me combing through the classifieds in search of that rare creature, the 525iT with a manual, and learning to accept that I may never find it, and may have to accept a vehicle with *shudder* and automatic transmission. It seems everyone else has, and that the era of manual transmissions and fully involved driving are gone.


Just call me Mel, everyone else does.