Stick versus automatic when learning to drive

Dear Car Talk:

I’m a single mom, and I have four children (three boys and a girl) who will all be driving in the next two to five years. I want them to learn on a manual transmission. I did, and I believe (of course) that it made me a better, more knowledgeable driver. But above and beyond that, my No. 1 concern is their safety. Do you think it is safer for them to learn on an automatic car, which might be simpler, given all the modern world’s distractions? Or would it better to have them learn on a manual-transmission car, which keeps them constantly mentally engaged in the driving process, and therefore more focused? Is knowing how to drive a car with a manual transmission still something every “real man” needs to know how to do (in which case my daughter as well, obviously)? Or are automatic transmissions so ubiquitous that it’s more like insisting that my children know how to shoe horses? I currently have a 2001 Honda Odyssey and a 1996 Honda Accord, both automatic transmissions, so deciding on a manual would mean an investment. But if you think it’s worth it, well, that’s why I’m giving myself two years’ lead time in asking. Kindest regards - Karen

Ray: Have you considered getting the kids a group application to the circus, Karen? I hear that those Volkswagen clown cars are stick shifts. I’d let them learn on Barnum and Bailey’s clutches.

Actually, I think I’d lean toward letting them learn on an automatic. For one thing, it does remove one complication - shifting gears - that itself can be a distraction for a new driver. And taking gear-shifting out of the equation allows them to concentrate on learning to steer, brake, accelerate, merge and hold their Pumpkin Spice Latte in one hand while texting with the other. You add a manual transmission to the mix, and they’ll have to learn to hold the drink with their teeth. And we all know how many accidents are caused by crotch burns when they drop those drinks.

But the factor that really pushes me to the automatic solution for you is that you don’t have lot of money to spare. If you were to trade one of your cars for a stick-shift model, that would cost you some bucks right there. But worse, with four teenagers learning to drive, you’d have to sign up for the Clutch-of-the-Month Club. And clutch replacements now average about a thousand bucks.

Once they’ve mastered the basics, then I think it’s a great idea to give them the skill of driving a stick shift. It is becoming less and less likely that they’ll need to drive one, these days - stick-shift purchases are well down into the single digits as a percentage of new-car sales. And none of the electric cars coming out have stick shifts.

But every once in a while, we do hear about a car thief who gets caught because he breaks into a car but can’t drive a stick. And I wouldn’t want your kids - or, by reflection, their mother - to be subject to that embarrassment.

So once they’ve all learned to drive well, then you can get yourself a car with a manual transmission. Offer to teach any of your interested children to drive it. By then, they’ll have a little experience, be a little more mature and be a little less likely to fry your clutch in one afternoon of hill starts.

They also may be much more motivated to learn, because why? It gives them the opportunity to borrow Mom’s car! And with the four of them fighting over the use of the other, automatic car, I bet you’ll do some brisk business in driver training. Best of luck to the whole family!

Making sense of tire pressure numbers

Dear Car Talk:

My son’s car is a 2010 Camaro. It has Pirelli all-season tires on it. We have an argument about how much tire pressure these tires should be riding on. The sidewalls of the tires say 50 psi, but the service tech said to put in only 35 psi. We put in 35 psi, and the car rode rough. We put back in 50 psi, and my son says the car rides better. The 50 psi seems like an awful lot of air. But it’s on the side of the tire. What’s the right answer? - Larry

Ray: You might have a medical situation on your hands, Larry. If your son thinks the car rides better with 50 pounds of air in each tire, I’d rush him right over to the nearest 24-hour tuchus specialist to make sure he still has sensation in both butt cheeks.

Fifty psi is a lot of pressure for a passenger-car tire. That number is on the sidewall because it’s the tire’s maximum allowable pressure. That means you can put up to 50 pounds of air in that tire without worrying about the tire exploding or deforming to the point where the car won’t handle safely.

But the maximum pressure - that number on the sidewall - is not the same as the recommended tire pressure. And that’s the number you’re looking for.

You’ll usually find the recommended pressure on a sticker inside of the driver’s door pillar. That number probably is closer to 30 or 35 psi. That’s the pressure at which the manufacturer believes the tires provide the best balance of handling and comfort. And that’s what I’d use.

Driving with 50 psi in your tires is like driving on four round boulders. You’ll feel every piece of chewed gum that someone else has tossed out his window. The tradeoff is that you’ll get slightly better mileage. But for most people, trading off so much comfort for a little more fuel economy is not worth it.

But if he likes it at 50 psi, he’s free to drive with 50 psi; it’s probably not unsafe. Plus, with his head banging on the roof over all those bumps, he’ll never fall asleep at the wheel!

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