The Straight Dope

My wife and I are at somewhat of an impasse. We debate (intermittently) whether or not braking a manual-shift car should be done solely with the brakes (meanwhile putting the car into neutral) or by gradually slowing down the car by downshifting -- that is, shifting from fifth to fourth to third, et cetera, and allowing engine compression to slow the car. Which is better for the car: downshifting and braking or braking while in neutral? I guess what I am trying to determine is, which will need to be replaced first, the brakes or the clutch? -- Gearheads, East Brookfield, Massachusetts

We have a problem here. On the one hand, the pretty much unanimous opinion of people in the automotive business is that downshifting to slow the car is a completely stupid and pointless practice that increases the risk of a premature (and expensive) clutch job. On the other hand, I always downshift myself. So you have to ask yourself who you're going to believe: (a) the massed weight of expert authority, or (b) those automotive schmucks? I'll merely lay out the facts, and you can decide for yourself.

Among the more vocal proponents of the don't-downshift school are Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of the radio show Car Talk. These guys admit you should downshift when driving down a long hill; otherwise your brakes heat up so much that the brake fluid boils, and you lose your ability to stop the car. But on all other occasions, they argue, downshifting does nothing but wear out your clutch faster. A clutch job is expensive; a brake job is cheap by comparison. The proper way to stop is to rely solely on the brakes. Don't put the car into neutral right away, though. Wait till you get down to ten or fifteen miles per hour or just before the engine starts to lug, then throw in the clutch and shift into second in case you need to accelerate. When you come to a full stop, shift into neutral and release the clutch. Numerous mechanics, auto engineers, and auto buffs echo this view.

OK, fine. But let's consider the advantages of downshifting:

*It's fun. Face it. This is the main reason anybody drives a stick-shift car in the first place, as opposed to an automatic like a normal person. You get to shift gears like Al Unser, Jr. and tame a hurtling hunk of steel, even if all you're doing is going to the corner for a box of baby wipes.

*You have more control over the vehicle. This is the fallback contention of most downshifters once they realize how feeble the conserve-the-brakes argument is. By downshifting you're always in the appropriate gear for the speed you're traveling. Suppose you were a brakes-only type of guy doing 40 miles per hour in fourth gear. You see a red light ahead and brake down to 20. Suddenly in the rearview mirror you notice a runaway cement truck bearing down on you. You want to accelerate out of harm's way, but you lose precious time shifting from fourth to second and get creamed. Whereas if you'd been downshifting and were in second already, you could accelerate immediately and... crash into the car in front of you. All right, so maybe this isn't the ideal illustration. But you see what I'm getting at.

Besides, we have to ask ourselves, how much harm can downshifting do? Sure, you're putting twice the wear on your throwout bearing and other critical clutch parts. But it's not like they make these things out of plastic. Why, I've been downshifting my Toyota since the day I drove out of the new-car show room and I.... Well, come to think of it, I had to get the clutch rebuilt at 85,000 miles. However, this was just coincidence. Everybody knows the '87 Corolla had clutch problems.

Hey, I'm not claiming I've got an airtight case here. Tell you what: I won't hassle you about tapping the top of your soda can to keep the fizz from exploding, and you don't hassle me about my idiosyncrasies with the clutch.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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