The decline of manual transmissions in two graphs — and proof they're coming back

That manual transmissions in vehicles survive in now-permanent status of endangered species-dom will come as no surprise. Despite all the driving benefits and sense of control a manual brings, even most sports cars now sell more automatics than sticks when they offer their drivers the option. (And when they don't, like the Dodge Viper, they don't sell well at all.)

Today, in its annual report on U.S. vehicle fuel efficiency, the Environmental Protection Agency provided a clear snapshot of just how endangered manuals are in two vivid graphs — along with a surprising sliver of hope for those who prefer three pedals to two.

The EPA keeps track of transmissions, engines and other vehicle technologies as part of its mandate to measure vehicle fuel economy — it's up to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enforce the rules that call for a steady rise of efficiency toward 2025. In 2013, new cars and trucks together averaged 24.1 mpg — a 0.5 mpg increase from 2013, a bit slow considering how far the industry has to climb. That imaginary average vehicle weighed a hair over two tons and had a 227-hp engine; Mazda was the most fuel-efficient full-line brand, while Chrysler-Fiat was the least (thanks to Ram and Jeep.)

Manual transmission usage
Manual transmission usage

These charts from the EPA's report show the production shares of transmissions going back to 1980. The numbers are the gears; the letters "L" and "A" are for automatics, with "L" standing for those with a lockup torque converter, the standard in most vehicles. The green section for "M" shows how modern five-speed manuals peaked around 1987 for cars at 25 percent and in 1990 for trucks at roughly 30 percent, before the great decline set in. (Four- and three-speed manuals had been on the way out long before.)

While car buyers have shunned stick shifts, there's at least a core of holdouts who want to choose their own gear the old-fashioned way; it's still unthinkable to imagine a Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro without at least a manual option. But in trucks, manuals are all but extinct; all half-ton models (F-150, Chevy Silverado, Ram) are automatics only. That bump marked "L8" in the top corner of the car and truck charts represents Chrysler's bet on 8-speeds as its major fuel-economy move, even in its lowest-cost models.

The hope I mentioned? You can see that the line for manuals in cars has stopped shrinking — and sure enough, buried deep within the spreadsheets of the EPA's report, lies the data that shows manual transmission cars hit bottom and have started to come back — from 311,618 in the 2011 model year to 452,232 models built in the 2013 model year. The EPA's forecast says manuals should grow again among 2014 models to 6 percent of production. It's still a small share of the market, but it shows there's a growing audience of drivers who doesn't mind having more control over their machines.