Today: why first gear matters. A lot.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2009

Dear Tom and Ray:

My wife and I recently bought a 5-speed Saturn VUE. Whenever she comes to a complete stop, she puts the car in second gear and takes off in second gear. When I ask her why she does that, she says it is better for the car, and that's the way her dad taught her to do it. I say that it isn't better for the car, because it forces the engine to spin at higher RPMs, putting more wear and tear on the engine and clutch. Now, I know I will lose this argument no matter what, because dads always know best. But I'd still like to know what you think.

-- Jeff

TOM: Jeff, keep in mind that we're car mechanics, not marriage counselors. So we take no responsibility for what happens should you use this information in an actual family setting. But here it is:

RAY: Her dad has his headlight in his taillight socket. You're 100 percent right, and her dad is 100 percent wrong.

TOM: Trust us. If you didn't absolutely need a first gear to start off, those cheapskate car makers never would have spent the extra $20 to give you one.

RAY: The thing that wears out a clutch more than anything else is starting off from a dead stop. That requires the greatest amount of gas and the slowest release of the clutch pedal. And that combination -- gas and time -- is what kills clutches.

TOM: When starting in second gear, you have less of a mechanical advantage than you do in first gear. That means you have to compensate by giving the engine more gas and letting your foot off the clutch even more slowly to avoid stalling. That's first-degree clutch assault, with intent to ruin.

RAY: By comparison, the other shifts -- from first to second, second to third, etc. -- cause almost no wear and tear on the clutch, because the car is already moving.

TOM: So maybe that's the diplomatic way out of this, Jeff. Use the Federal Reserve theory of clutch wear. Tell her Dad was right in his day about skipping first gear. But due to inflation, now it's better to skip second gear. Good luck. And be careful!

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