Well, I’m now staying down near San Jose again. I’ve rented a car again (this time out of my own pocket) and despite going for the cheapest option, Hertz have given me a Mazda (prounced in American English with a long a, according to the TV) with a semi-automatic option on the shifter (I think technically it’s actually Tiptronic, which is subtly different).
The first car - a Toyota which I gave back a week ago - had just standard automatic transmission, and was straightforward once I got the hang of it (never having driven an automatic before). This car is easy too, despite the even sloppier handling. The semi-automatic option is interesting though. I’ve tried flipping it across from ‘Drive’ (handle the gears for me please) to ‘Manual’ (pull stick toward you to change up, and push stick away from you to change down). And it sure does work. It’s even clever enough not to let you do stupid stuff (like downshifting when that would blow the engine, or upshifting when that would stall the car).
But I soon gave up. Partly because the gear ratios are apparently quite different in an automatic - leave it to its own devices and it will happily drive in 4th gear (out of 5) at 25mph. But partly because I also began to see the appeal of the automatic shifting. Sure, you lose some fuel economy. More seriously, you lose some control (although as I discovered, once you know the speeds at which it shifts, you can encourage it to do so using the throttle). But it is technological progress - like address books on mobile phones or automatic metering on cameras, it hides an interface that should never have been exposed, and only ever was because the technology was imperfect. Maybe it’s time we in Europe took another look at automatics.