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Does Anyone Actually Use the Manual Shift Mode in an Automatic?

Hello, Overstereos, and welcome to this week’s version of Ask Doug, everyone’s favorite weekly feature here on the site, where you "Ask Doug" various questions, and Doug provides truly wonderful, highly competent answers, except when he doesn’t want to.

If you’d like to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just email me at and be sure to ask me a nice, juicy question about cars, so that I can ignore it and instead pick a question from someone who said something nice about my hair.

This week’s question comes to us from a reader I’ve named Todd. Todd writes:

I recently sold my manual 2013 FIAT 500 Abarth and purchased a 2010 Saab 9-3 SportCombi equipped with "Sentronic" transmission. (I had to look up what silly portmanteau Saab has given their manumatic transmission.) I do miss driving manual transmission, however, I have begun using the Sentronic feature as I like how it allows me to downshift when I pass other motorists on the highway, and I use it nearly every time I drive — I feel it keeps me more engaged with my driving. My question is: How many drivers with cars equipped with manumatic actually use this feature, and what are their reasons for doing so?



First off, Todd, you sold your FIAT 500 Abarth in order to get a Saab 9-3 SportCombi? What happened there? You sold one of the coolest hot hatchbacks on the market in order to get an orphaned vehicle with a design that first debuted when I was in middle school? Did you do this willingly? Did your spouse make you do this? Are you currently being held captive by some sort of kidnapper who is forcing you to make horrible decisions? Blink twice for yes.

Anyway, now we move on to your question, which is: Does anyone actually use the manual mode on automatic transmissions, and if so, why do they do it? Well, this is an interesting question, and I’m glad you’ve gotten away from your horrible-decision-making kidnapper for long enough to ask it.

Here’s my take on these little "manual shift levers" for cars with traditional torque-converter automatics: They’re generally useless, but sometimes they can be very, very, very helpful. For instance, my daily-driver Range Rover has a manual mode for its automatic transmission, and I virtually never use it — largely because it’s an automatic car with a modern computer, and it knows when to shift. But for the few times where it doesn’t know when to shift, the lever is a lifesaver.

Here’s what I mean. When I’m driving my Range Rover on a steep hill, I traditionally use the little lever to downshift a couple of gears in order to let the engine do some of the braking, rather than the brakes themselves. This is a trick I learned when I grew up in Colorado: Coming down the Pikes Peak Highway or the crazy road up Mt. Evans, both likely well-known to car enthusiasts, you’d get your brakes too hot if you rode them the whole way down. The best solution, then, was to put the car in a lower gear — something you accomplish today with manual mode.

Another reason I sometimes use manual mode is if I want a sudden burst of acceleration. When I put my foot to the floor in my daily-driver Range Rover, it can be surprisingly slow to respond — but if I move the shift lever over to manual mode and drop it a few gears right before I know I’ll need the power — waiting to turn right on red, for instance, or approaching a situation where I need to pass on the opposite side of a rural road — it can be highly useful.

As for using it on a daily basis, however, I’m afraid you’re alone in that, Todd: I use mine about once a week, if that — and while it’s nice to have, I can’t say that it’s a feature I’d really miss if it went away. You, meanwhile, seem to miss your manual transmission. Perhaps you should ask your kidnapper if the next Saab you buy can have three pedals. Find a car for sale

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