The PDK transmission in the Porsche 718 Cayman GTS.
Image: Kristen Lee (Jalopnik)

As Jalopnik’s resident car buying expert and professional car shopper, I get emails. Lots of emails. I’ve decided to pick a few questions and try to help out. This week we are discussing the best automatic transmission for someone who prefers a stick, the risks of a branded title Jaguar, and unexplained dealer fees.

First up is a two-part question that should resonate with most Jalops:

“Hello! I have a two-part car question that I think would be of interest to most Jalops, judging by how often they come up in comments.

Given the apparent death of both wagons/hatchbacks and of manual transmissions, I’m wondering: (1) is it possible to make a small CUV more car-like with changes to suspension or ride height or whatever, and if so, which ones would be good candidates? and

(2) if you love manual transmissions but had to use an automatic (or DSG-type), what are the best transmissions out there for feeling connected to the car?”

These are really good questions. The modifying-the-crossover one is tricky because while this is possible, it’s likely not worth the cost. I’m sure you could take a Mazda CX-5 that already handles fairly well, drop it a bit and firm up the suspension. In order to do this right: you need the right parts, it won’t be cheap, you are probably going to sacrifice some livability and it’s still not going to be on the same level as a hot hatchback. If your budget allows for it, get a crossover like a Porsche Macan that handles way better than you expect for that kind of car.

Now onto the automatic transmission question. We can all agree that no automatic regardless of configuration, is going to replace the sensation of driving a manual. But some automatics are clearly better than others. Like the scenario above, it depends on the budget. If you can afford a car with Porsche’s PDK, that is probably the gold standard for an impressive setup with only two pedals.

A more affordable version of that is Volkswagen’s DSG on the GTI and Golf R and others, though I will say that while the DSG shifts very fast, when put in manual mode there isn’t much of a tactile sensation to clicking the paddles, rather it feels more like pushing buttons on a video game controller.

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I actually prefer the ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic used in many BMWs, Jaguars, Land Rovers, the new Toyota Supra, numerous Fiat Chrysler products and even Bentleys. It’s everywhere for a reason—it’s great. When you pull those paddles you feel a distinct click and shift, gives the sense of more control. That is mostly in your head, but you get the idea.

Next up: at what point is a cheap Jaguar wagon just too risky?

I like the idea of the Jaguar XF Sportbrake but it’s out of my price range I found a Sportbrake that is significantly below market with a price of around $42,000 and essentially new.

Here’s the catch - it’s been rebuilt, as in it has a branded title. The dealer selling said - “This particular Jaguar came from a dealership in Tulsa OK. The water damage was so light we had to repair absolutely nothing. Worst case scenario the carpets were a little damp.

I’m skeptical. What do you think?

So the damage was so minimal they had to give it a branded title—something that’s had an insurance incident on its record? You are correct to be skeptical. Buying a Jaguar is enough of a risk on its own, couple that with a car that likely had serious water damage and a branded title that is a cat I would run away from. Furthermore, as I mentioned in a post this week, it is possible to score a new one without the title issues for not much more than $42,000.

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The larger point here is that if a car is already beyond your budget, don’t stretch your dollars for a risky purchase. Either pony up for a quality example or scale down to something that is more appropriate for your payment range.

And finally, what is an “encumbrance fee”?

“I recently purchased a used car and was charged an encumbrance fee of 25.00 in PA. I did finance the car is this normal? Thank you”

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Every state has various ancillary documentation, title, and loan fees for car transactions. The regulations on these fees vary wildly from region to region. Some states like New York have strict rules as to what documentation fees a dealer can charge, other areas have no such regulations and if a dealer wants to sock on another $1,000 to the price to push the paperwork they are legally able to do so.

A quick search reveals that this encumbrance fee in Pennsylvania is likely related to the lien on the car for financing the purchase, and $25 doesn’t seem like an excessive amount of money.

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In the grand scheme of dealer fees, I wouldn’t stress about it.

Got a car buying conundrum that you need some assistance with? Email me at tom.mcparland@jalopnik.com!