What is happening to the manual transmission? That’s the question more driving enthusiasts are asking as fewer and fewer automakers offer three pedals.
Manual transmissions used to be popular for their lower up-front cost, better fuel economy, generally greater durability, and greater driving involvement for enthusiasts. Only now, nobody wants to be involved. “You used to have all these check marks why you buy a manual transmission,” says Paul Seredynski, Ford’s manager of performance and powertrain communications. “Those are all gone now,” he says, because automatics have gotten so much better. “The vast, vast majority of people want automatics.”
The epidemic has worsened to the point that Car and Driver magazine, has started a campaign and developed its own Twitter hashtag to #SavetheManuals. As much as we’d like to see their efforts succeed, the campaign hasn’t gained much traction with the major auto manufacturers. However, one glimmer of hope may be Porsche, who recently announced they will be bringing the third pedal back to select 911’s.
The latest figures, coming from EPA statistics, show only about five percent of cars are sold with a stick shift. At the peak of the manual’s market share, in 1987 for cars, and roughly 1990 for trucks, about 25 and 30 percent respectively were sold with a stick. They’ve seen a steady decline since. Now manual transmissions are relegated mostly to sports cars, such as the Mazda Miata and the Ford Mustang. They are even getting hard to come by in exotic cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. You can get one in a smattering of compact cars and a single mid-sized offering in the Mazda6. A few small SUVs also offer manuals, but mostly on loss-leader two-wheel drive models. You can’t even buy a full size pickup with a manual transmission any longer. “Manual transmissions make up a fairly small number, and that number tends to decrease rapidly as you move up the model line-up for any car,” says Michael McHale, Subaru’s director of communications. Most of the manuals you see in the truck market are relegated to the small to mid-size trucks, typically with the smallest engines as well. One standout is the Toyota Tacoma, which still offers their TRD off-road model, with a V6 in a manual transmission.
Many of the benefits that defined the manual transmission, have been surpassed by the automatic. Automatics now have quicker shift times, more gears for better acceleration, quieter and more-efficient highway cruising, shifters that allow manual gear selection in an automatic transmission, and lockup torque converters that improve fuel economy by reducing that irksome slipping when you step on the accelerator. Most of the modern automatic transmission in cars today have at least six speeds, with eight, and even 10 becoming the standard.
Automakers are pushing to develop better and better automatic transmissions as they chase every last fraction of mpgs to meet ever tightening Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards passed by the EPA. Automatics give engineers better control over how every drop of fuel is used in every revolution of the engine, and every molecule of pollution that comes out the tailpipe. Every stick shift they sell that gets worse gas mileage than an automatic drags down their average fuel economy. If they don’t meet the steadily increasing targets on the way to an average of 39.4 mpg by 2025, automakers face big fines.
As drivers encounter more of these excellent modern automatics, fewer are interested in learning to drive a manual. The numbers are vague when looking for a percentage of people who at least know how to drive a stick, but they range from a high of 60 percent to a low of just 18 percent. On one recent trip to a high-end restaurant, the local valet didn’t even know how to drive my car, and had to call over another valet that could drive a manual transmission.
That trend is accelerating with help from a multitude societal factors such as traffic congestion, advanced infotainment systems, and even autonomous driving. Even drivers who might prefer a manual are thinking twice before buying one to sit in traffic on their daily commutes. All of the gadgets and distractions that exist in modern cars, makes the additional step of controlling the gearing of a car simply to distracting to the “Millennial” generation.
With so few people buying sticks depreciation has also become a big issue. Resale values can be $2,000 less for a manual than the same car with an automatic, according to residual statistics. Few dealers stock them because they can be extremely difficult to sell.
With that said, we at Project Speed, still prefer the manual transmission to an automatic, even in traffic. Growing up in a household where my father drove nothing but manual transmission cars and trucks, its a skill I grew up with at an early age. I took my driving test with a manual, and learned to drive with a manual. I can’t fathom purchasing a sports car that didn’t have a manual transmission. While that eliminates many of today’s high-end cars, Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, etc… its a choice I’m willing to live with, to enjoy the car I drive. Driving is more than just getting from point A to point B. Driving is an experience, its something that has to be felt, and managed on the fly. Having an automatic, even a dual-clutch system, like the famed GT-R, lessens the driving experience.
There’s a joke going around about the best automotive anti-theft device on the market. The punchline? A manual transmission