Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Elusive Modern Manual Transmission Part 2 - Nissan

This is the second installment of my search for a modern manual transmission; for the full journey be sure to start with the first installment.

I'd love to hear your comments, but to avoid spam I do have comment moderation enabled. I promise to review and publish your feedback quickly.


On that first fateful day after the discovery of rust on the A-pillar of the Saturn we decided to drop by a nearby Nissan dealer to see what options were a fit for me. At this point I hadn't really done any research but I did have a general sense of what I was looking for. The experience with this particular Nissan dealer wasn't great so I won't be mentioning names or locations.

We arrived at the dealer at about 6PM on a weeknight in July. The dealership didn't seem very busy but it still took almost 20 minutes for them to identify a salesman who was available to work with me; while I remember his name I'll call him John (Doe) from here on (his name was not John, and I'm sure John is a great salesperson, if he exists). I explained what had happened to my car and what I was looking for to John:
  • four door small to mid-size sedan
  • manual transmission
  • power windows and locks
John and I discussed how timing wasn't a big concern since I worked from home and drive my own car less than 5,000 miles annually (its my wife's car that gets the mileage). We also discussed that I was early in my search and that since I hadn't shopped for a sedan in -- well, pretty much ever -- I did want to make some time to look at other brands as well.

John expressed that my options would be very limited but didn't seem to be completely sure which vehicles offered manual transmissions. He did some digging and found that both the Sentra and the Versa might be options; the 370Z also offers a manual but doesn't fit my requirements.

After a bit of research John identified a used Nissan Versa on their lot for the "sale" price of $9,999. The car was a 09 with about 47,000 miles on it.
Initially I didn't think much of the older Versa and that really didn't resolve itself on closer inspection. The 2009 was really a pretty ugly car that this image doesn't even do justice for. The trunk on these looks like its about two feet taller than it reasonably should be. The front isn't so bad but the car does have a very "economy" look. At this point my thought was "here's a cost effective option on a recent car, this could work". On sitting in the car though their were several issues I couldn't get past:
  • it was really hard to see out the back window and backing up would be difficult
  • the shifter was coated in some mildly sticky substance
  • the plastic coating on the steering wheel was starting to chip off
  • the paint on the stereo surface was chipping off
  • there were several faint but visible stains of unknown origin on the seat surfaces
  • this car had already been detailed by the dealership

At this point this was a 4 year old car with about half of its lifetime mileage on it that wasn't "previously owned", or even "used", this one was "previously neglected". Brand new this car had an MSRP of between 9 and 13k and on light examination was already resembling a blobfish (maybe that's mean to the blobfish). After a few minutes of contemplation I decided I wasn't even interested in driving it. I exited the car, put some hand sanitizer on, and contemplated burning my clothes when we got home.

John identified that there was a new Versa on the lot with a manual transmission with an MSRP around 13k. The 2013 Versa is a much nicer looking car though it does still carry some of that "economy" look of the previous generation. I expressed that I was definitely interested in taking a closer look. John seemed conflicted about searching for the car and started to say we could make an appointment to come back but then decided to walk the lot with us in search of it. We spent about 5 minutes looking before he gave up and decided it must have been sold already. It seems like the new Versa should be an excellent value, offering a lot of car for a low price but I really can't say that here since I didn't actually get a chance to get in-depth on this car.

We went inside the dealership and discussed my search a bit more. We exchanged contact information and John promised to follow up if he found the car or something else meeting my requirements came in. All told we were with John for less than an hour.

Several points of this experience could have been better:
  • After reaching out for a salesperson the receptionist could have directed me to the information wall, a waiting area, or even suggested I look around. The walk-in experience just wasn't as welcoming as it could have been. After a few minutes, I decided to walk the lot a bit and familiarize myself with some of the available vehicles.
  • The used Versa, while it could have been a good option, the price was not even close to fair for the condition of the vehicle.
  • It was never suggested that I could order the specific vehicle I was looking for or that they could search for it for me at other dealers.
  • The inability to locate a vehicle in the inventory in a reliable and timely fashion seemed kind of odd, this was compounded by the fact that the lot was not very big.
  • After it became an issue of searching for the vehicle I was looking for, John seemed less enthusiastic about helping.
  • There was no follow-up call offering additional information or asking if I had any questions.


I think Nissan builds some great cars. The Versa, and Sentra might have been real contenders if I could have actually seen or driven them. The Altima and Maxima were where my initial interest was, but ultimately neither offers a manual option anymore. The experience with one dealer hasn't soured me on the brand but I have since seen some cars I'm more excited about which knocked the Versa and Sentra out of the running.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Elusive Modern Manual Transmission Part I - Introduction

Over the next few weeks I'm going to publish a series on my search for a new (or newer) car with a manual transmission. While my quest has now all but come to its conclusion I want to share the experience from my search with others. At the end of this series I will share my final selection along with some personal images I'll be taking at delivery. This is mainly aimed at those folks who still appreciate the feeling of rowing the gears, understand the bond between human and machine that only a manual can offer, and recognize that the journey is often more important than the destination.

Saying Goodbye to a Different Kind Of Car

At 34 years old, I still drive the second car I've ever had, and the first car I've ever actually owned; a 99 Saturn SL. We've had the car for 14 years, just 4 days longer than my wife and I have been married. While it was our car originally, it became my car by default when we added a second vehicle to our household. Of the 149,000 miles on it now I probably drove somewhere around 148,900 of them. This car carried us on our honeymoon, through the entirety of my College/University Education, the birth of my children, 5 jobs and 3 career positions; from living in my in-laws basement through an apartment and two homes. I've had this car longer than I've known most of my closest friends. Needless to say, saying goodbye is going to be like saying goodbye to an old friend.


As cars go, our Saturn was pretty basic, and by comparison to the options available today it was positively archaic. Ours was the base model with Air Conditioning and NY emissions so it included the following features:

  • AM/FM radio with 2 speakers
  • manual windows and locks
  • manual transmission
  • and even... manual steering :-o
  • The ability to carry a 10ft board with a child in the back seat and the windows/trunk closed
For me, the only point of real weakness here was the lack of power windows and locks; unless its a classic car I will never, ever, ever tolerate that on a car I own again.

The stereo situation was easily remedied with a couple of $30 speakers from Walmart and 30 minutes of installation effort (the wires were already there). For christmas my brother and sister bought us a trunk-mount cd changer which made our automotive sound system ready for the 21st century. After the CD changer wore out, I replaced the unit with an in-dash JVC system that allows for both aux and USB inputs. The new system even has a remote control just in case you are sitting in the trunk and can't quite reach the controls.

The manual steering always took a bit of effort in parking lots at low speed, but its one of those things you get used to. At anything above 5 miles/hour it feels sporty and greatly enhances the feel of the road and the connection with the car.

Manual Transmission

Probably one of my favorite features of the car, and one of the contributing factors to the longevity of my ownership, would be the manual transmission. When I first got the car I didn't actually know how to drive a manual transmission and this was the car that I learned on. The clutch has always been forgiving, and while I stalled it a lot those first couple weeks, I never found myself frustrated or wishing for the automatic version.

While I've driven more refined transmissions (BMW, Mazda) the shift is sporty with a solid feel. Combined with the relative low weight the car can leap off the line. The manual transmission also returned a class leading 30/40 fuel economy something that is just recently being eclipsed by more modern alternatives. My average fuel economy used to hover around 38MPG in combined driving with a peak of 44MPG on a trip to Cleveland. In the past few years that has dropped closer to 32MPG mainly due to the introduction and expansion of ethanol fuel additives.


Saturn's had a real inconsistent reputation throughout their history; in fact, my wife had an L200 that we were relieved when the lease was over and we were able to turn it in. That said, the SL series' built from 97 to 03 had an excellent reputation. A lot of them are still on the road today and that can't said for the Ford Escorts, Dodge Neons, and Chevy Cavaliers of the same era. I've had to do so little maintenance that I can actually provide the full list right here:
  • 3 sets of tires (almost on the fourth)
  • 2 sets of front rotors and 3 sets of front brake pads
  • 2 batteries (my fault for letting the charge run down)
  • 3 light bulbs (two of them weren't actually needed)
  • 1 pair of front wheel bearings
  • 1 pair of front tie rods
  • 1 wiper motor
  • typical plugs, oil, oil filters, and air filters
  • 1 welded exhaust linkage
  • 2 muffler strap replacements
  • 2 AC system charges
  • 1 headliner
The great majority of this work I was able to do by myself and I'm entirely convinced that this would be the car that MacGyver would own.

Why The Change

In June I needed to have the windshield replaced due to a crack running from the drivers side. When the old windshield was removed they found that the prior installation (2004) had been done poorly and the frame on the A-pillar had some rust infiltration. Initially it appeared that the work necessary to correct this would probably easily exceed the value of the car. The glass company was able to identify a body shop where the necessary work could be done and they handled the repair under their warranty program for the original installation.

At this point we discussed the situation as a family. While the timing wasn't ideal we came to the conclusion that it was probably time to work on replacing my car. We realized that the car while still running well was probably going to need some money spent on it over the course of the next year including tires and rear brake drums. We also realized that this was just the stuff we knew about and that it was very likely that there would be more that was necessary. We didn't want to get into the slippery slope where the more you spend the longer you try to keep the car to get the value from your repairs.

What I'm Looking For

The features I'm looking for in order of importance are:
  • Manual Transmission (this is an absolute requirement)
  • Four doors (hatchbacks and coupes need not apply)
  • 60/40 rear folding seats
  • Rear passthrough/trunk wide and deep enough to carry a bicycle
  • Same size or larger than the Saturn
  • Power windows and locks
Other items will strongly weight my final decision
  • Safety Features
  • Technology Group
  • Sporty Feel
  • Fuel Economy
  • Versitility
  • Reliability/Manufacturer Reputation
The Saturn has always been a blast to drive, easy to maintain/repair, and cost effective to operate. Its one of my mother-in-law's favorite all time drives, and if she could get away with owning a smaller car, with all the grandkid toting she does, its a safe bet she'd be at the front of the line to take ownership of this next. Needless to say, the new car has some mighty big shoes to fill.

Having driven my car as long as I have its become a familiar and comfortable place for me. In fact, after the windshield repair I took my car out for a long drive as sort of a way to contemplate my decision and begin to say goodbye. I've decided that in consideration of all factors time is on my side for this search; since I plan to drive the new car for several years I'd better take the time to get it right.

As part of my journey I spent long hours online researching what my options were and was shocked by just how limited they are. Once I'd identified the options that fit my needs I took most of them for a drive and I captured my thoughts about each vehicle to share. I look forward to sharing my journey with you.