The disappearing stick shift: Less than 3% of cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmissions
Visitors to the upcoming Los Angeles Auto Show will see supercars, hoverboards, self-propelling luggage and all manner of new transportation options.
But they’ll be hard pressed to find a clutch pedal or a stick shift. 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 is 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% 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%. This year, the number has fallen to 27%.
The actual sales figures are even lower. Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury said fewer than 3% of current U.S. car sales are manual vehicles — compared with 80% in some European and Asian countries, and down in the U.S. from 7% in 2012 and 25% in 1992.
“That number is never going to go back up,” Drury said. “The trajectory is down, headed for zero.”
It’s a disgrace. Yes, it’s more troublesome and expensive for the automakers. But it’s completely inexcusable that Ferrari doesn’t even offer a manual.
— Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book senior analyst
The auto show, open to the public at the Los Angeles Convention Center from Nov. 18 to 27, will offer gear heads and prospective car buyers a look at 1,000 different vehicles — 50 of them making their first U.S. appearances — from 41 automakers, spread over 1 million square feet of display space.
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 the 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.
Most drivers who operate a stick learn from a friend or family member. Those who seek professional guidance may be out of luck.
A survey of 10 local driving schools found only one that offers instruction in stick shift driving.
“It’s really difficult,” said Hector Hernandez, of First Choice Driving School — which has one stick-savvy instructor on staff — by way of explaining why so few schools teach manual. “And it takes a really patient instructor to teach it.”
That’s too bad, experts say, on several levels. Knowing how to work a manual gearbox can still be cost effective, because in many parts of the world a rental car with automatic transmission is considerably more expensive than a manual.
Some also argue that a manual transmission forces drivers to remain focused on the road.
“The fact that you are required to pay more attention makes you a safer driver,” said Doug Herbert, founder of the nonprofit teen driver training program Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe, known as B.R.A.K.E.S.
For Herbert, the safety issue is deeply personal. A professional drag racer, he started B.R.A.K.E.S. in 2008 after his two teenage sons were killed in an automobile accident.
Radio host Adam Carolla, who collects and races vintage cars, said with a stick shift, drivers can’t “just lean back and go into autopilot mode.”
For a long time, you were also going faster with a stick. A good driver, with a manual transmission, could get around a race track, or go from zero to 60 miles per hour, more quickly than a good driver with an automatic transmission.
But that hasn’t been true for several years. The automatic gear boxes work better, and shift more efficiently, than any pro driver with a stick shift can.
That’s no matter to manual aficionados who say the stick is simply more fun.
“I want to be engaged by the car, and part of that experience is moving through the gears,” said auto enthusiast Spike Feresten, creator and host of the Esquire Network “Car Matchmaker” TV series. “All of my cars but two are manual. The only time I get into the automatic is when I know I’m going to be stuck in traffic on the 405.”
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. Some customers are trying to maximize performance, others to minimize cost.
“We recognize there are still consumers that appreciate the manual control of the power train,” said Derek Joyce, an executive with Hyundai.
“Beyond the fun and engaging aspect of a manual transmission, it often lets us provide a more affordable and advanced power train combination,” said Paul Seredynski, Ford’s global performance and power train communications manager.
Specific automobiles, too, still draw customers to their stick shift formats. Mazda sells an estimated 60% of its MX-5 Miata sports car in the manual transmission version the company said.
Fiat Chrysler reported similarly high numbers on its 124 Spider sports car, as did Nissan with its 370Z coupe. Subaru said stick shift percentages can go as high as 50% on a BRZ, WRX and STI performance car, but as low as 10% on the more sedate Forester, Crosstrek or Impreza.
A percentage of Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Viper and Dodge Challenger fanciers also prefer the stick. So do some buyers of the Ford Mustang.
Those Detroit giants will have some of the only stick shifts represented on the auto show floor including Ford’s Mustang GT 350/R and Chevy’s Camaro ZL1 Coupe and Corvette Grand Sport Coupe.
But a Jaguar spokesperson said the “take rate” for manual transmissions for its F-Type sports car — the only stick it offers, and available only in the base model with the V-6 engine — can be as low as 3%.
Stick availability is more widespread among European carmakers, a reflection of the transmission’s popularity in Europe.
BMW offers 14 different models with an optional manual transmission. Its subsidiary MINI builds stick shift versions of every car it sells in the U.S. All of Porsche’s 911 Carrera and Targa models can be had with a “standard” transmission. So can all versions of the company’s new 718 series of Boxster and Cayman sports cars.
Porsche managed to monetize the increasing rarity of the stick shift by offering its limited-run 911R only with a manual transmission. The German company built 991 units of the $185,000 two-door, and sold them all before it began production.
The company learned the opposite lesson when it built a high-end version of the 911, the GT3, featuring Porsche’s much-admired PDK automatic transmission — but with no stick shift option.
“The purists, like me, were a little upset,” Feresten said.
In fact, the outcry was so strong that, sources around the company say, the next iteration of the GT3 will be offered in both manual and automatic modes.