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driving concerns

What's the purpose of standard mode in an automatic? Is it just for people who want to pretend they're driving a stick? I rented a Fiat 500C and couldn't figure out how to get the darned shifter out of manual (so the engine revved like crazy when I started from stop lights until I figured out I had to shift up). I've never driven a standard. Can't the automatic shift gears way more efficiently anyway? Do serious drivers ever use this feature? Or, is it really just a gimmick? – Chris, Toronto

If you like control and power, a simulated stick isn't just schtick, experts say.

"Manual modes are great way to provide an additional element of control for the driver, even in everyday driving," says Engineering Editor Jay Kavanagh. "It's a very useful feature for savvy drivers."

Manual modes let drivers shift gears using paddles or switches (kind of like switching gears when playing Pole Position). But, like in all automatics, there's no clutch. With Fiat's autostick, keeping the stick to the right keeps it in automatic. When you pull the stick to the left into the manual shift gate, it acts as a switch to shift up and down. If the manual mode is off, then the car's fully automatic.

And why would savvy drivers want to tie up their latte-holding hand to shift if the car already does it for them?

"With so-called 'paddle shifters,' drivers get to both simulate the manual gear-selection aspects of a standard transmission, and extract more power from their engines." says Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver. "Choosing, for oneself, the right gear for a corner is also a boon to the enthusiastic driver -- so, not just a gimmick."

But squeezing more power from the engine will probably cost you more at the gas station.

"Generally speaking, the higher you rev your engine, the more power you produce. So holding a gear longer delivers more horsepower," Alterman says in an email. "It also eats more gas – and while there are a few automatic-equipped cars that can post better overall fuel economy than the corresponding manual, they won't when you're shifting them this way."

Fiat's autobox is designed for the automatic-loving, standard-fearing North American market.

Chrysler Chrysler

"For a small engine like the 1.4-liter MultiAir, being able to keep the car in a desired gear enables the driver to maximize the torque curve to his or her benefit, says Chrysler Canada spokesperson LouAnn Gosselin in an email.

Automatic transmissions are required to have L -- a low gear setting, Gosselin says. The manual mode provides that.

Kavanagh says manual modes also make it easier for the engine to do the braking instead of the brakes – so you can downshift the car as you approach a red light.

"Or to be in a lower gear in anticipation of the need for a quick getaway," he says.

It's still not the same experience you'd get from a standard – for one thing, there's no grinding. The car still makes decisions for you. In the Fiat's case (not to single out the tiny Italian, but you mentioned it) it upshifts automatically when the tach hits redline. Again, keep it off if you don't ever want to worry about it. But sometimes shifting can be a fun way to feel a bit more in touch with the car, and the road.

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