Photo credit: Surajram Kumaravel, Flickr.
If the companies that sell cars in the United States had their way, all their vehicles would have automatic transmissions for one simple reason: Because it’s cheaper.
But if the car enthusiasts in the United States had their way, all their cars would have manual transmissions. Their reasoning is simple, too: Because stick shifts are more fun, at least for drivers who know what they are doing.
For the manufacturers, it’s expensive to certify a manual-equipped car, and to offer a mix of cars with both manual and automatic transmissions. That’s not profitable when 95 per cent-plus of the vehicles they sell—or in many cases, all the vehicles—have automatics. BMW recently announced that even its high-performance “M” range would eventually be stick-less. The reason? Declining sales.
Yet for drivers who value control, involvement, and achieving a certain kind of karmic connection with a hunk of steel and glass and plastic, the reasoning is that simple too.
Technological improvements are probably to blame for the radical abandonment of the stick shift in the States in the last two or three decades, and, conversely, the rapid adoption of the automatic. In 2014, less that four percent of all the passenger cars sold in the U.S. were manuals.
For decades, the three or four-speed auto—nicknamed a “slushbox” by its detractors—was a rather joyless mechanism that appealed to owners who mainly needed a car to get from point A to point B. In traffic, it just sat there while you just sat there. Press the throttle and the car moved (often with a clunk or a jerk). Press the brake and it stopped. This action, or non-action, was especially appealing to many young drivers, who understood that it took more learning and practice to smoothly operate a car with three pedals. “I’m nervous enough taking a road test,” was the idea. “Why complicate things?”
These days, the “slushbox” has evolved in a semi-magical assemblage of gears and wheels and electronics. They shift without drama, and indeed many can up or downshift gears more quickly that the most practiced manual driver. Some of these are called “dual-clutch” transmissions, and they live in Porsches and Ferraris as well as in Acuras and Fords.
There are other benefits as well to today’s automatics. They achieve fuel efficiency numbers as good and often better than manuals, one reason that sticks have begun losing favor even in Europe, where gasoline is so expensive. Some of today’s automatics have up to nine forward “speeds,” or gears, and various other mechanisms to improve efficiency.
When manuals were offered in abundance, automatics were options that cost upwards of $1,000. Today, because of the demand for self-shifting transmissions, the cost of this “option” is usually built into the car’s sticker price.
For those who still insist on manually switching gears, many high-end cars offer automatics with so-called sport modes and paddles on the steering column—a contraption borrowed from Formula 1 race cars—to shift up and down.
Of course, for the purists, that isn’t shifting at all. Take the MINI brand: it’s an anomaly among car offerings.
“The take rate on manual transmission Minis across the range is in the 20 percent range,” says Patrick McKenna, head of product planning at Mini USA. Automatics are a given in Los Angeles or New York, cities with ultra-clogged traffic, he said. “An engineer would tell you that a dual-shift on paper is the best choice, it actually shifts faster than a manual. But in the U.S, the manual really just makes a Mini more fun to drive at all speeds. It defies some rational elements, but its customers have the kind of passion for driving that makes it work.”
Personally, I will miss the manual when (not if) it’s gone. Some time ago I owned a Mercedes-Benz two-seater, the very last model offered in the U.S. by Mercedes with a stick shift. I realized it was something special when a young service advisor at a New York Mercedes-Benz dealer oohhhed and aahhhed over it. “Take it for a drive,” I suggested; me, the big shot.
“I’d love to,” he said. “But I can’t drive a stick.”
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