Stick shifts are an endangered option
Stick shifts are disappearing from automaker lineups. Available in nearly half of new models in the U.S. a decade ago, the manual transmission is going the way of the rumble seat, with stick availability falling to about a quarter this year.
Once standard equipment on all motor vehicles, preferred for its dependability, fuel efficiency and sporty characteristics, the four-on-the-floor and the three-on-the-tree are disappearing from major car manufacturers’ lineups — and subsequently from the sprawling auto show’s floors.
This is as true of everyday sedans as of souped-up sports cars. Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Lexus, Chrysler and Buick no longer offer a single model with manual transmission. Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac and GMC offer only one.
“It’s a disgrace,” said driving enthusiast and Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. “Yes, it’s more troublesome and expensive for the automakers. But it’s completely inexcusable that Ferrari doesn’t even offer a manual.”
In 2006, 47 percent of new models offered in the U.S. were available with both automatic and manual transmissions, according to a study by Edmunds.com. By 2011, that number had dropped to 37 percent. This year, the number has fallen to 27 percent.
Sales figures are even lower. Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury said fewer than 3 percent of U.S. car sales are manual vehicles — compared with 80 percent in some European and Asian countries, and down in the U.S. from 7 percent in 2012 and 25 percent in 1992.
“That number is never going to go back up,” Drury said. “The trajectory is down, headed for zero.”
For decades, almost all automakers offered almost all their vehicles with a choice of automatic or manual drive trains. The stick shift had so long been the standard that a manual transmission was actually known in the industry as a “standard” transmission.
Driving enthusiasts and bargain hunters preferred them, because cars with three pedals on the floor tended to perform better, get better gas mileage and cost less to buy — sometimes up to $1,000 cheaper.
But as automakers perfected the automatic transmission, and learned to make it less expensive and more dependable, drivers became accustomed to the relative ease of leaving shifting to the car. Automatics gradually became the preferred option, and automakers began offering them in fewer vehicles, saving them money because they no longer had to manufacture two drive trains.
Ferrari’s product marketing chief Nicola Boari said the company decided to end all manual transmission production because demand was “close to zero.”
Among the reasons: Cars equipped with the modern, more sophisticated automatic transmissions now get better gas mileage than the manuals, fewer young people are driving — relying on public transportation or ride-sharing services — and fewer are able to operate manual transmissions.
Georgia Vassilakis, 21, learned to drive stick when her Ford-employee mother brought home a manual transmission Fiesta. Few of her friends, Vassilakis said, can drive a stick. All are surprised that she can.
“For people of my age, it’s as if I knew how to speak Latin,” she said.
Several companies still offer sticks in selected models, where they used to offer them across their entire line. Ford, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Kia, Subaru, Volkswagen and Hyundai sell a handful.