Q. Should I buy a car with a manual or automatic transmission? I like shifting gears because I feel it provides more driving fun and better car control. And, no, I’m no fan of cars with automatic transmissions that you can manually shift, often with “steering wheel paddles.” I want a clutch. Also, isn’t it still true that a manual-transmission car delivers better fuel economy?  — J.E., Baltimore

A. I agree that driving a car with a manual shift and clutch is more fun. It gives you more of a “one-to-one” relationship with your car. But you likely will have a harder time selling a car with a manual transmission because most people of all ages drive one with an automatic. Keep in mind that many used cars are bought by (or for) young drivers, who never have learned how to use a manual transmission. An automatic often provides better fuel economy than a manual because many drivers keep the manual in too high a gear for too long, causing fuel economy to suffer. Most automatics are programmed to shift for maximum fuel economy during routine driving.  

Q. I notice increasing use of the CVT automatic transmission, which I read has no set number of gears. What’s the point of it? —J.C, Chicago

A. The CVT is an efficient, gearless continuously variable automatic transmission. A set of pulleys steadily increases or decreases the ratio of engine shaft to driveshaft speed, with infinite variability. It thus provides seamless acceleration, but automakers mainly like it because it increases fuel economy. Thus, a growing number of (mostly small) cars have a CVT. Some Americans dislike the CVT because they don’t experience any shifts, as with a conventional automatic, which goes from one gear to another. However, to satisfy consumers, some automakers are causing the CVT to pause at a preselected number of spots on its upward acceleration curve to deliver the familiar thrust forward of a traditional “step” automatic. I drove a Subaru Justy subcompact with a CVT at a media preview in Texas in 1987. But Subaru dropped the CVT in the U.S. market in 1984 because consumers weren’t interested in it. The CVT once could only work with small, low-power engines, but technology advances now allow its use on larger, more powerful models.   

Q. I’d like to buy a classic sports car from the 1950s or 1960s. I especially like cars from Italy because of their styling and lively personalities. Or should I get one from Germany or England? I live in California, where car rust isn’t the problem it is in northern, snow-belt areas of the country. — E.H. Hollywood, Calif.

A. Italian cars can be loads of fun, but often are lots of trouble to keep running. I owned a sleek 1960s Maserati Mistral sports car with fuel injection that even Maserati mechanics couldn’t fix. Its next owner promptly got rid of the injection and installed carburetors. Popular British sports cars from the 1950s and 1960s generally are strong, but were prone to rust and electrical problems. German sports cars from those decades are your best bet if you want reliability, but service and parts can be very costly. Don’t forget that you’re interested in pretty old cars. Don’t take anyone’s word that a car has been “restored” unless they have plenty of proof. And don’t think that all “California cars” are rust-free.

Q. How can I check a car for water damage? — J.S., Kansas City, Mo.

A. Examine the car’s carpeting and upholstery to make sure it matches the rest of the interior and fits well. If not, the original material may have been replaced to conceal water damage. Reach under the dashboard to bend the wires and make sure they’re flexible. Wires that have gotten wet often will crack after drying. Look below the seats and inside the trunk and glove compartment for signs of mud and rust. Test the headlights, turn signals, windshield wipers, radio, heater and air conditioner. A flaw in these systems could indicate storm damage. It’s always a good idea to have a mechanic check out a car before you put any money down. 

Q. If I’m taking a long trip and thus not driving my car for several months. Should I fully fill its tank with gasoline, or will half a tank or less do? — F.K., Ann Arbor, Mich.

A. Give it a full tank to prevent condensation from temperature changes. You don’t want your car’s fuel becoming contaminated with moisture. 

Q. Is there any problem using cheaper, off-brand gasoline? — J.A., Dallas

A. It may not contain the additives used by name-brand gasoline to keep the engine clean from performance-robbing engine gunk (carbon deposits) left by lower-quality gas. The latest information I’ve received about gasoline is from Shell, which says it has launched new “Nitrogen Enriched” gas that contains a “unique, patented cleaning system designed to seek and destroy engine gunk in all three grades of gasoline.”  I use a variety of name-brand gasoline in my cars.   

Q. Why are the main reasons that cause people to buy cars? — M.S., Arlington, Va.

A. A recent study found that gas mileage is the most influential reason for buying a particular 2012 model, surpassing the influence of other key reasons such as  reliability, the “deal” and exterior styling, which were the most influential purchase reasons in 2010. But I’d take the 2012 findings with a grain of salt because do you know anyone who would buy an unreliable car? 

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