How to Save Gas, $30,000 and Your Pride

A brash foursome of 90210-good-looking American college jocks barged ahead of us in line, only to be told that all the cars available had manual transmissions. That's the case in most countries of the world other than the U.S., where only 5% of us drive a stick shift. They glanced at each other with uncertainty, and then their fearless leader said cockily, "A stick? Cool man! How hard can it be?"

After waiting patiently, my wife and I finally got the keys to our rental car and headed out to the parking lot. There sat the four pushy princes in their five-speed Fiat, lurching forward a couple feet at a time, then stalling, lurch, stall, lurch, stall....

Smoke rose from the tires. A series of foot-long skid marks trailed off across the parking lot behind their car, looking like the "Tear Here" marks on the bottom half of your electric bill. The lurching motion became so violent at one point that the driver's Smith sunglasses flew off his face and smacked against the windshield.

The cool dudes inside the car were not amused, although the gathering crowd of locals was having a blast watching. As I smoothly slid our rental car into first gear and rolled out of the parking lot, I gave a friendly shoulder shrug to the onlookers and said something in quasi English-Greek, like "Yish! Crazy Americans."

Save Serious Cash

Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission might not only save you some major embarrassment in life, but it can also save you gas and some serious money.

Consumer Reports found that cars with manual transmissions get two to four miles per gallon more than the same models with automatic transmissions. If you drive, say, 15,000 miles per year, that's going to save you about $350 annually at today's gas prices.

But that's only the beginning of the savings. New cars with manual transmissions generally cost about $800 less than those with automatic transmissions, and a manual transmission is less expensive to repair or replace when the time comes. Plus, because you're using the car's engine to help you decelerate, manual transmissions are easier on the brakes, which means added savings on brake maintenance and repairs.

All told, you'll probably save about 5,000 gallons of gas and $30,000 or more by only driving cars with manual transmissions over the course of your lifetime. And with a little practice, driving a stick is easy, fun, and oh sooo cool.

This post from the Green Cheapskate by Jeff Yeager is republished with the permission of The Daily Green.  Check out more great content from The Daily Green:

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Guest's picture

I drove a manual for years, but finally gave it up after having more than enough of clutching to maintain 2 mph in New England traffic. With today's efficient 5 and 6 speed automatics, not to mention CVTs, manual transmissions are often no more efficient anyway. Granted, they are more reliable, make a decent theft deterrent, and some say are more fun. But I'd file driving a manual transmission under "good to know in a pinch," but not worth the $30k savings in exchange for the added aggravation. If I lived out in the middle of nowhere, it'd be a different story...

Guest's picture

Keep in mind that if you drive manual, you'll need one hand to work the stick. The other hand goes on the steering wheel, so you'll have no free hand to eat and drink in city traffic.

This is one of the reasons why drive-tru fast food is not as common in Europe as it is in America.

So going manual could help you lose weight!

Guest's picture

here, in quebec, we are half and half... and we take pride to be able to drive with a stick and be able to go to eat at the drive-tru... not easy, but doable !

Julie Rains's picture

I didn't realize that only 5% of (US)Americans drove stick shifts/straight drives -- I have been driving one since college and have to reorient myself to the controls of automatics.

Guest's picture

I've never owned an automatic and don't really like driving them. I feel like I am not in control of the acceleration and deceleration.

But I don't think you'll really save the money on a new car in the United States simply becasue of the lack of options. I wanted to buy a hybrid five years ago when I needed to get rid of my pickup for a car after my daughter was born, and the only manual transmission hybrid -- in cars supposed to get better mileage! -- was the Honda Civic. It was more expensive than the Prius, and cost the same as the automatic hybrid CIVIC.

I also couldn't find any reasonable economy cars with manual transmissions that were of any real quality. They just don't sell here in the US, so the supply/demand ratio makes them harder to find, harder to buy and even if the end price is cheaper the time and effort and selection make it at least a wash.

Guest's picture

It is possible to find good, fuel efficient manual, tranmission vehicles in the US as long as you're willing to buy new. It may take some time (or some trading by the dealer) but they are available. I bought a manual transmission Toyota Matrix two and a half years ago and had to wait a few weeks to get the vehicle. Had I been willing to buy an automatic, I could have driven it off the lot that day.

While I'm glad I bought the manual transmission, it does make it more difficult when going on trips and trying to share driving. If I'm the only one who regularly drives a stick shift, we're not taking my car. I've seen many people who say they know how to drive a stick or people who are convinced they can teach others to drive a stick in "5 minutes" just do horrible things to the clutch of various vehicles. I also do wonder how having a manual transmission affects resale value. It certainly decreases the pool of potential buyers if nothing else. Not a big deal for me, as I plan to drive the Matrix until the wheels fall off, but something to consider.

And, as for eating while driving a stick shift, it is possible. It's not easy in city traffic, but it can be done. Of course, I have multiple t-shirts with Frostee stains on them that proves that I haven't completely mastered the art yet, but it is possible.

Guest's picture

I drive a stick shift, and have driving one for most of my 30 years on the road, in all kinds of traffic, including excessive stop and go. I regularly go through drive through's. It's never been a problem.

I once ran out of gas about 50 feet before the gas station. I am a girl and the vehicle at that time was a Ford Ranger. I was wearing sandles. I was able, without much effort, to push it up the little hill to the gas station by myself. Try that in an automatic!

I've also had my battery go on me, with no my car rolling, jumped in, popped it in second gear, and off I went to AutoZone for a new battery, which they installed for free. Try that with in automatic.

I've also drove several beaters with starters that were bad or gone out...again, get it rolling, jump in, pop it in

second gear....take off....try that with an automatic!

The worse thing that ever happened to me as far as the clutch was to replace the clutch, slave cylindar and throw out bearing in one repair. It cost $700 and those parts would last me, easily, another 10 years. I've had vehicles with excess of 250K on them, and never even got close to having a new transmission. Again, try this repair on an automatic.

Also, automatics need their fluid changed every year. It used to cost me about $100 to do that, again, in a stick, this is never going to happen.

I bought a brand new 2007 Toyota Corolla from the dealer. It was the only stick they had. My little car gets about 40 mpg on the highway, about 34 in city driving.

I wouldn't trade a stick for the world!

Guest's picture

I loved driving a stick shift car when I was younger. My husband taught me how to drive one in his souped up Ford truck 32 years ago, when I was pregnant with our oldest child. I had very good control of acceleration and deceleration with a stick. However, since I have gotten older, tendonitis and arthritis have set in and I can no longer use the stick. Too bad. I really loved the control I had with one.

Guest's picture

Driving a stick can be fun, but with people doing everything by driving, I like automatics better.

Guest's picture

Hi Jeff...

While I agree that the more you use the engine and transmission to slow the car, the less you spend on brake maintenance, I have always been under impression that this caused undue stress on the transmission.

And since new brakes are a bit cheaper than a new transmission, it is therefore a bad practice to use the engine and tranny to slow the car.

Feel free to correct me on this...

Guest's picture

Down shifting isn't hard on a manual transmission, especially if you math revs (only a extra shift to the clutch.) A automatic is better at down shifting, people just don't get involved to do it. But it can be hard on a auto if done without a transmission cooler for too long of a duration. It does add some wear to the engine, same as running it at a higher power, again insignificant saving thousands of dollars in brake changes over the life of the car.

Guest's picture

I've always wanted to learn how to operate a manual transmission, but with "5% of Americans" knowing how to operate one, it's very difficult to FIND someone who has a vehicle they are willing to let me learn on! If anyone has any ideas as to where I might be able to abuse a car for my learning purposes, let me know!

Guest's picture

I used to drive a manual, but like the very first replier said, it's a real hassle to be stuck in traffic with a manual, or, i might add, on a hill.

There's a hill on my daily commute with a stop sigh at the top and people always insist on riding right to your bumper behind you, even on the hill.

Guest's picture

The vast majority of people on this side of the pond (I live in The Netherlands) drives "stick shift" cars.
I'm sure it takes some getting used to, but so does driving an "automatic".
It does save money, I'm sure of that.

My 2800 pound Mercedes (:stick shift..) does 42 miles to the gallon (:diesel..) on the highway and just a little less in traffic.
On the German autobahn (no speed-limit there) it still does 37 mpg driving 110-120 miles an hour. (Not kidding!)
By the way, it's 15 years old, has 250.000 km on the clock and is still going strong; plan to just keep on driving it.

Very few cars ever get transmission problems even when reducing speed using the engine; rust usually gets them long before there's any serious drive-train problem...

Just my two cents worth..

(P.S. Diesel is Euro 0.99/liter
"Euro 95 Gasoline" is 1,375/liter)

Guest's picture

I "always" drove manuals. Until my back started giving out on me. Most of my driving is in-city, and I found that having to constantly push the clutch (and hold it in at stoplights) was aggravating my back. So I switched to an automatic. Yes, it doesn't always shift when I want it to, and I'm probably burning a little more gas. But my back is a lot happier.

With respect to hybrids, I'm amazed that you can get a hybrid with a manual transmission at all. For example, from my understanding of the Prius, the wheels are driven by the electric motor. The gasoline engine drives a generator, which charges the battery and/or powers the electric motor. There is no transmission, as we know it, at all. explains
- there is no "step" gearbox, either manual or automatic - the Prius does not use step gears
- there is no clutch or torque converter - the wheels are always firmly connected by gears to the ICE and motor/generators

Guest's picture

Automatic transmission vehicles have a number of distinct advantages over manual transmission vehicles.

For older drivers, who are already hampered by things like slightly poorer vision, slower reaction times, ect, automatic transmissions make driving possible. An older neighbor of mine traded in their stick shift vehicle last year for one with automatic transmision. He told he wished he had done it many years ago.

Manual transmission vehicles are also more likely to need transmission repair. No small thing since transmision work is among the most expensive repairs one can incur.

Friends or family can use the vehicle if it is an automatic transmission. Perhaps not if it is a stick.

Automatic transmission vehicles are easier to sell and typically retain more value than manual transmission vehicles.

Always a flip side to consider.

Guest's picture

Friends or family can use the vehicle if it is an automatic transmission. Perhaps not if it is a stick.

i consider this a benefit...others would likely damage my car, or spill something in it, or hop a curb in it, or any one of a number of other things that i would NEVER do. the less people who can drive my car, the happier i am.

Guest's picture

A lot of this is true, but I've never heard of anyone needing to repair a manual transmission, and if they do, it's not an expensive fix. Automatics tear up all the time and the repairs are always in four figures.

Guest's picture

Had an automatic. Got a manual. Never going back.

Notes on other comments:
Even without engine braking, I still use my brakes less. A lot of times clutching is all you need.

Manuals are less likely to need transmission repair as well as being cheaper to replace/repair.

I'm seconding that it's a benfit that other people can't drive my car.

Jeff Yeager's picture

Thanks for the comments.  It great to be blogging on Wise Bread again.

Yeah, I hear ya on the pros and cons of friends/family being able to borrow your vehicle.  I specifically bought a pickup truck with a manual transmission so that my neighbor - who can't drive a stick - wouldn't borrow it like he did my old (automatic) truck. 

Stay Cheap!

-Jeff Yeager

Guest's picture

Well, here in Spain, you cannot get a driving license if you are not able to drive with manual transmission. In fact, I have NEVER seen a car with automatic transmission in my whole life over here.

Oh, by the way, if you eat or drink or use your mobile while driving, the police stops the car and you get a HUGE fine.

Guest's picture

What a great observation; most people don't think much about the added gas-mileage benefits of a manual transmission auto. They should!

In addition to driving a "stick," here are more tips for saving gas:

How To Save Gas

Happy fuel-saving!

Guest's picture

In a few months, I'll turn 35 years old. It will also mark 20 years of driving and every vehicle I've owned, to date, has had a manual transmission!

My grandfather taught my mom how to drive in his 1960s lumber delivery truck. When I started kindergarten, mom began driving a school bus and for the first 8-10 years, all local school buses were manual shift. She taught my older sister to drive a stick shift. Then she taught me to drive on my sister's 1985 Nissan 300ZX which had a manual transmission (and a very difficult clutch).

When I chose my first car, a 1985 Honda Civic 4-door, it had a 5-speed manual transmission. It had a 1.5L 4-cylinder engine good for 74hp and up to 40mpg on the highway. For comparison, I test drove the same model with the 3-speed automatic, the only other transmissison option at the time. It was AMAZING how much difference the transmission made in the otherwise identical cars! With the stick shift, it had quick acceleration and passing power was never more than a shift or two away...even with a few friends along and the A/C running! In comparison, when I drove the automatic version, I seriously thought I had left the parking brake set for the first few minutes! I was also shocked that above 55-60mph, it was locked into 3rd gear and there was no passing power to be had!

Times have changed a lot in 20 years, but most compact cars with manual transmissions accelerate 0-60 1-2 seconds faster than their automatic counterparts. A lot of them have very similar EPA fuel economy ratings, which seemingly negates one of the biggest benefits of shifting for yourself...but a skilled driver can still extract better fuel economy from a manual than an automatic!

I currently drive a 2006 Mazda3 s 5-door with a 5-speed manual. I saved $1100 at the time of purchase and routinely get 3-4mpg better fuel economy than the automatic version of my car. I just passed 70k miles and have the original disc brakes all around and the clutch and shifter work as perfectly as they did when it was brand new! Meanwhile, automatic Mazda3 models are requiring $2k+ transmission replacements at 110-125k miles!

Guest's picture

When you drive a car with manual shift and you are on a slightly downhill slope, put it in neutral and let it roll. Your RPM will be at idle while you still make good time. However, please don't try this on a steep slope. Your car might pick up too much speed and it will become hard to control. You might even want to put it in lower gear (to use the braking power of the engine). The car still will hardly use any gas (unless you step on the gas pedal).
For automatic cars, I usually just take out the overdrive to use the engine for braking (saves brake pads).