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I recently bought a five-speed ' Toyota Camry for my...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



I recently bought a five-speed '89 Toyota Camry for my son. It needed a new clutch, so I took it to a very reputable foreign-car garage. The owner made an interesting comment: "Almost all the cars we work on are automatics ... we don't do many clutches anymore." I was shocked. I figured that if anybody would be good at repairing cars with manual transmissions, it would be these foreign-car guys. I'm planning to buy myself a new car soon, and I assumed I would get a five- or even six-speed. Now I'm wondering if there will still be good mechanics who can work on those cars in six to seven years, when I will need a clutch. Must I buy an automatic? -- Linda

TOM: Fear not, Linda. It's true that automatics represent about 90 percent of all cars sold in the United States these days. But I think you'll always find somebody who can replace a clutch for you.

RAY: Clutches are easy to replace. It's a job we even let my brother do. It's not like rebuilding a carburetor, where you have 100 pieces smaller than a gnat's rear end and you're working inside a small, dark hole. It's a job that -- even if he does it only once a month, or once every six months -- a mechanic would have a hard time screwing up.

TOM: Do you want to reconsider that last statement?

RAY: I said he'd have a "hard time." I didn't say it was impossible to screw up a clutch.

TOM: The reason there are fewer and fewer stick shifts being sold is that automatics are better than ever. Five-speed automatics are becoming common, and six-speed, seven-speed and continuously variable (infinite number of speeds) transmissions are working their way into the marketplace. So the advantage that manual transmissions had in terms of gas mileage has basically disappeared.

RAY: And the cost is pretty much a wash. You pay more for an optional automatic transmission when you buy a car, but automatics often last the life of the car, so you'll never need to pay for a clutch job down the road.

TOM: So economics aren't really an issue anymore, and the choice comes down to driving preference.

RAY: And while some people -- like you, Linda -- enjoy shifting, I guess most people in the United States would rather have their right hand free to change the radio station, drink their coffee, make patterns in the velour on the passenger seat or formulate hand signals for other drivers.

TOM: But for many years to come, there will be a sizable minority of folks who are committed to shifting for themselves. And as long as they exist, there will be people doing clutch jobs.

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