Graveyard shift: Manual transmissions on the way out
The tween riding in the back seat finally asked, “What is that thing you keep moving up there?”
She had never seen “that thing” known as a six-speed stick shift, a manual transmission, a manny tranny, a handshaker, a millennial theft deterrent.
Manual transmissions account for just 2 percent of all vehicles sold in 2018, according to data from Edmunds.com. In 2006, 47 percent of new models in the U.S. were offered with automatics and manuals. Now it’s down to 20 percent and dropping sharply.
“For automakers it will be simpler when the manual dies,” said Ivan Drury, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “It’s kind of a hassle for them to offer both, same with dealers. Given the market forces, it’s going to go away.”
Not too long ago, when push-button AM radios were infotainment and there were cigarette lighters instead of USB ports, all cars had manual transmissions. In the ’50s during the boom of babies, cars and America, GM’s Hydra-Matic automatic transmission made driving accessible to everyone.
In the half-century since, automakers and suppliers have advanced the automatic into something drivers never have to consider. Modern automatics are quicker, more efficient, much easier to operate, and better than most drivers. Call it progress, the inevitable inexorable direction of taking control from the driver for the sake of automation.
As consumers preferred the automatic, automakers stopped offering the manual to cut the costs of offering two powertrains. “We have seen that buyers aren’t asking for them,” said Mark Gillies, spokesman for Volkswagen. “We had a manual option in the old Tiguan, but almost no one took it.”
There are few utility vehicles with a manual, including midsize pickups in the aging Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, as well as the six-speed manual in the new Jeep Wrangler. The remaining manuals are in subcompact commuter cars or sports cars.
“In our value vehicles, there is still a market for cost efficiency with a manual than a little higher priced automatic,” said James Bell, director of corporate communications for Kia.
Yet for some enthusiasts or iconoclasts and everyone we spoke to for this article, there’s no other way to drive than with a manual. The numbers and the logic don’t matter. Rowing your own gears is simply more fun.
“There is a feeling of great control as a driver, and there is the sheer physical pleasure of managing a perfect shift,” said Gillies, who, as the former executive editor of Car and Driver, has had enviable success on the race track. “I feel more in touch if I am operating the gears.”