Drivers in Costa Rica are very attached to their manual transmissions. Until a few decades ago, automatic transmissions were as rare as a Cadillac in Costa Rica. The option of buying a new car with an automatic transmission instead of a stick shift is fairly new among Tico automobile dealerships.
There are many factors related in the dominance of manual transmissions in Costa Rica. The main factors are topographical and cultural. Ours is a mountainous country with an uneven road system that makes average drivers feel as if they are competing in a rally event. Very few Ticos learn to drive on automatic transmissions, although in the last few years some Ticos have gotten behind the wheel of auto-trans vehicles thanks to used car imports, mainly from the United States.
With Costa Rica trying to become a carbon-neutral country while trying to accommodate to a burgeoning car culture, it is important to consider the environmental impact of stick-shifts vs. automatic transmissions. The traditional assumption has always been that manual transmissions get better gas mileage, and thus do not burn as many fossil fuels as their automatic counterparts. This assumption is defensible only to a certain extent.
The concept of manual transmissions being better for the environment is based on one important premise: the proficiency of the driver at shifting gears. As explained in online magazine Slate a few years ago:
“If you’re lazy about shifting and allow your RPMs to soar unnoticed, then you might actually guzzle more gas than if your car were equipped with a well-engineered slushbox [American slang for auto-trans vehicles].”
The well-engineered automatic transmissions the Slate article refers to are at the heart of a recent opinion piece published in the online magazine Salon. That article presents recent quotes from other media sources:
“[…] computer technology has advanced to the point where “automatics have become so efficient that most of the time their fuel economy is on par with manuals — and in some cases even better.” USA Today notes that such a trend may eventually erase the long-term price differential between manual and automatic transmissions, meaning the manual will lose its frugal-chic appeal. Meanwhile, according to AOL Autos, new technology also boosts automatics’ overall performance (read: speed), meaning many driving aficionados have come to prefer the automatic over the manual.”
Online auto enthusiast site Jalopnik agrees with the above assessment to an extent:
“Continuously Variable Transmissions are becoming more popular as well, and are wildly efficient (as well as being one of the biggest Dutch contributions to motoring). So the idea that automatic transmissions are finally getting as fuel-efficient and performance-capable as manuals is absolutely dead-on.”
The Dutch contribution Jalopnik refers to could be found in the Daffodil line of small sedans manufactured in The Netherlands by DAF in the 1960s. The Daffodils were equipped with Variomatic gearboxes, which over the years have become greatly advanced. New auto-trans vehicles such as the Hyundai Accent SE get better mileage per gallon (mpg) than their stick-shift versions. Today’s advanced engineering even allows Ferrari high-performance vehicle to run faster with automatic transmissions.
In essence, the improved automatic transmissions of today offer improved performance, less weight, better mpg, and lower emissions. All these factors add up to a more eco-friendly driving experience that Costa Rica could definitely use; although, hybrid automobiles, plug-in electric cars and increased mass transportation solutions would work even better.
Would Tico drivers be more receptive to automatic transmissions? It’s hard to say from a cultural point of view. Learning to drive a stick-shift is almost a rite of passage in Costa Rica, and there are some cars that simply call for manual transmissions -such as economy vehicles and high-performance sports cars. On the other hand, luxury automobiles like the BMW Sport Utility Vehicles are becoming fashionable in Costa Rica, and standard gearboxes on luxury cars are awkward. As with any other consumer product, it comes down to marketing in the end.