The stick shift is dead, long live the stick shift
New York — The news of a five-door Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo rocked the New York Auto Show last week. A Porsche station wagon? Hell must have frozen over.
But the indignation from performance purists was tempered by the fact the German sports car manufacturer was bringing back an old friend: the manual gearbox in its Porsche 911 GT3 track animal.
Porsche isn’t the only automaker making manual news as the stick defies its long-predicted demise. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of the stick shift has been greatly exaggerated. In the last year Ford, Honda and Hyundai all have touted their manual options as automakers vie for an important niche buyer: the enthusiast.
News that the 911 GT3 was stiffing the stick back in 2014 seemed the nail in the coffin for a transmission option viewed by many as an anachronism in the 21st century. Stick take-rates peaked at 25 percent for cars in 1987, according to EPA figures, and have plummeted to between 3 percent and 7 percent over the last decade. In 2016 just 3.8 percent of sales were manual, according to Edmunds.com.
Once a rite of passage for 16-year-olds to master, the stick shift used to boast better fuel economy and better acceleration than its automatic counterpart. But with the advance of modern, multi-ratio automatic gearboxes, the stick’s advantages have melted away. Automatics do everything better, it seemed.
Except, automakers are learning, stoke passion.
Porsche’s state-of-the-art, dual-clutch, seven-speed PDK automatic transmission vaulted the 2014 GT3 to performance heights unseen by its manuals. Lightning-quick, 100-millisecond shifts, head-snapping launch control, and 3-second zero-60 acceleration — more than a half-second quicker than the previous generation’s stick. But purists complained that the technology was removing the fun factor from the legendary driver’s car.
“Though a lot of our customers want the performance advantage of the PDK, there are still some who want the engagement of the manual over the lap time,” says Porsche Product Experience Manager Frank Wiesmann.
So the 2018 GT3 will offer a six-speed manual for 2018 as well as its automatic PDK. The decision was encouraged by Porsche’s positive response to the recent Porsche Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder performance models — both of which come exclusively with sticks.
Honda showed off a whole lineup of manual Civics in New York — including its top-trim, 305-horsepower Type R hot hatch that comes with stick only. The entry-level, $21,300 Civic Sport will come with a manual option, as will the 205-horsepower Civic Si. All three Civics are performance-minded, with the Sport manual a gateway drug to nascent enthusiasts who want to take their Honda to the track and to work.
“A manual transmission in a performance vehicle contributes to the credibility of the product. It’s how you know a Type R, for example, is a hot hatch,” says IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley.
She adds that the move to manuals is also part of a healthy sales market where “automakers are trying to find ways to be more competitive.” Edmunds.com says the percentage of vehicles offered with manuals has climbed from 19 percent in 2012 to over 27 percent today.
As consumers move to SUVs, Ford is trying to keep its small cars competitive by offering performance variants of its hatchbacks — so-called “hot hatch” Focus ST, Fiesta ST and Focus RS models. Sales for the trio — which come in manual only — were up over 21 percent last year.
“Performance cars are the exception to the rule on the sale shift out of cars and into SUVs,” says Ford spokesman Chris Terry. “They are bought by people who want to drive, who want to get the most performance enjoyment out of their vehicles. These are anti-SUV people.”
Eager to make its mark in the enthusiast world, Korean-automaker Hyundai last year introduced the 2017 Elantra Sport featuring a 201-horsepower turbo engine, sophisticated dual-clutch automatic transmission — and a stick. Hyundai showed off the manual version to media at an autocross course in Indiana.
The Sport’s stick has been a success, with a consumer take rate of 25 percent. Hyundai’s three-door “hot hatch” Veloster Turbo has achieved similar success since its launch as a 2012 model.
“Manual transmissions have become a tool to attract enthusiasts rather than price-point or fuel economy,” says Mike Evanoff, chief of Hyundai product planning. “The manual take on the base, non-turbo configuration is much lower.”
That conforms with Ford’s experience, which says the take rate for base price, non-performance versions of its Focus and Fiestas is a lowly 5-6 percent.
In courting performance customers with manuals, Ford says they are bringing in a younger, more affluent, more educated buyer who also tend to be evangelists for the brands they adopt.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.