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Not So Standard Anymore: The Manual Transmission is Almost Dead

Nov 21, 2016

We knew it was happening, but the actual extent of three pedal abandonment remained somewhat elusive. It was more of a feeling than a grim statistical representation. Now we have a number, and it’s dismal.

 

The Los Angeles Times reports that an Edmunds study has shown that that less than 3 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. come with the transmission that many — ironically — still refer to as a “standard.”

Manual transmissions used to be the only game in town. Even after automatics gained traction in the automotive landscape, the stick typically offered superior fuel economy and a better sense of control. None of this remains true in today’s world of continuously variable transmissions and dual-clutch automatics. (Still great for rocking your car out of deep snow! – Ed.)

While the traditional manual does offer a level of driving involvement that’s impossible to replicate, U.S. automakers haven’t quite made sense of how to effectively market the act of added participation. Edmunds says that 47 percent of all new models sold in the U.S were offered with both automatic and manual transmissions in 2006. That number dropped to 37 percent in 2011 and is only 27 percent today.

The actual number of vehicles leaving the dealership with three pedals is much lower than that. Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury claims that the percentage of vehicles leaving the lot with a stick now mirrors third-party election results.

“That number is never going to go back up,” Drury said. “The trajectory is down, headed for zero.”

What happened? A quarter of all vehicle sales in 1992 America were shift-it-yourself and the manual has remained fairly popular in most of Europe and Asia.

Technology tells some of the story. Selecting your own gears no longer yields better economy, a faster lap time, or even a guaranteed lower MSRP. Automakers realized that there was a demand for automatics and kept making them better, for less money. As that demand grew, the U.S. market simply saw fewer sticks.

After a few decades America was left with the manual occupying a niche market and a public that grew up not needing to know how to operate a clutch. If you’re under 30, consider the lengths you had to go to learn to drive stick and how easy it would have been to just not have bothered.

For me, the basics of clutch engagement were learned via years of motorcycle ownership and badgering my father to let me repeatedly stall his Mustang SVT. While I would have preferred something much less daunting to begin on, I didn’t know anyone with a manual Ford Ranger or Civic DX who would let me practice.

That’s an even bigger problem for today’s young drivers — one that’s unlikely to change. Taking an informal survey of 10 local driving schools, the LA Times found only one that offered any instruction on driving stick, with just a single instructor knowing how.

So, that leaves us with a gradually shrinking minority asking for non-automated gear selection and automakers that know it isn’t going to be cost effective. Manual transmissions now appear on two different types of cars: unexciting base models of economy vehicles you hardly see at dealerships (e.g. Chevrolet Cruze), and more impractical enthusiast focused cars (e.g. MX-5). Although, with demand so low, expect the former to eventually dry up in North America while the latter continues to dwindle.

I wrote about how Ferrari claimed its abandonment of the manual transmission was related to performance concerns. And the company’s product marketing chief, Nicola Boari, stated that demand for manual Ferraris was “close to zero.”

While companies like Porsche and Subaru have maintained a loyalty to the three pedal lifestyle, it’s just a matter of time before they fall. After all, Lamborghini doesn’t offer a manual car anymore, either. Neither does Alfa Romeo or Mercedes-Benz. The question isn’t if this trend will continue but more of how long do we have with the classic gearbox design and what manufacturer will the next to abandon it.

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