Stick Shift Extinction? The Battle to Save the Manual Transmission

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Manual-transmission cars cost less than automatics. They also tend to get better gas mileage, and they’re more fun to drive. Even so, cars with manual transmissions now account for less than 10% of vehicles sold, and considering that each generation of drivers is less and less likely to know how to drive stick, standard transmission cars seem bound to go the way of the horse and buggie. But one stick-shift crusader isn’t going to let that happen without a fight.

It’s been a long time since a standard transmission has actually been the standard. The last time that new manual-trans cars outnumbered new automatics was the 1950s. Since the 1970s, more than 80% of vehicles sold in the U.S. have been automatics, and at last check only around 9% of cars sold have stick shifts.

Why this is so simple: Automatics are nearly as easy to drive as a golf cart, and because they’ve dominated the car landscape for so long, fewer and fewer people are capable of driving the more challenging alternative. When these individuals look to buy a car, a stick shift isn’t even an option. Yet another reason to go with an automatic is that they’re easier to resell—because, again, most drivers need an automatic transmission.

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At the same time, devoted fans of the stick shift will testify that a manual transmission is far superior to an automatic. Decades ago, stick shifts used to blow away their automatic counterparts in terms of mpg. While the gap has shrunk, manual-trans drivers can still expect to get slightly better mileage. From the get-go, of course, cars with manual transmissions are cheaper: The Honda Civic, for example, costs $800 more with an automatic.

Besides the financial argument, stick shift fanatics argue that having three pedals is the only way to truly drive. To them, putting the car in Drive and hitting the gas barely qualifies as driving.

The leader of this movement—to reinvigorate the manual-transmission market, or at least save the stick shift from extinction—may be Eddie Alterman, the editor at Car and Driver whose “Save the Manuals” campaign was recently featured on NPR. Alterman told NPR that the back-to-basics approach is part of the attraction to stick shifts:

“It’s about do-it-yourself, it’s about having fun in the car, and not doing it through apps or downloading Pandora or anything like that,” he says. “It’s about actually having a connection to the mechanical part of the car.”

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At Car and Driver, Alterman uses another anti-tech argument in favor of the stick:

Not only are manual transmissions often more fuel-efficient than their two-pedal counterparts, you also can’t text while operating one.

Even so, Alterman isn’t above using the latest technology and social media to push the cause. “Save the Manuals” has a Facebook page, and, at last check, nearly 20,000 likes.

To Alterman, the decrease in manual transmissions and the decrease in teenagers with drivers’ licenses are related:

If folks learned to operate the entire car, not just the steering wheel and occasionally the brakes, I’d bet they’d like driving better. If they knew the sense of control imparted by that third pedal, I’d bet they would strive for its mastery. If they knew the excitement that accompanied a perfectly timed heel-toe downshift, I can guarantee they’d be hooked.

What can actually be done to “Save the Manuals”? Buying and driving manual-transmission vehicles is a good start. Also, Alterman suggests that supporters become missionaries of sorts by volunteering to teach the uninitiated how to drive stick. Yes, that includes offering your car, because the chances are pretty good that if a driver can’t drive stick, he or she doesn’t own a manual-transmission car.

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Letting a rookie learn with your car may wreak havoc on your clutch, but that’s a sacrifice that may be necessary for the Save the Manuals movement to work.

Just don’t start the lessons going up a hill, or anywhere there’s likely to be stop-and-go traffic. That could ruin the movement entirely.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

2 comments
MickFortuna
MickFortuna

I drive a 95 GMC Extended cab with a manual. My wife drives an 02 Liberty with a manual as well. We are both GM and Jeep people and refuse to own anything but a manual transmission. Well guess what. There is nothing left available that is worth the money they want for it. There are no manual options anywhere in the GM SUV or truck market at all. The only thing left in Jeep is a POS Compass and Patriot and the overpriced and inefficient Wrangler. I adamantly refuse to own a Ford or Dodge for reasons that I refuse to get into on here and wish to stick with American Auto. I am also pretty picky about body shape and all that and there are no foreign SUV's or trucks that I like. If I am going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for something, it should be something I like. What's a man to do?

Willy05
Willy05

Over the years we've had Saabs, Volvos, Audis, Porches, Pontiacs, VW, Hondas - all manuals.  The dealers always caution us about the resale value, but we persist. Still, too often the only manuals available are the loss leaders. The efficiency argument unfortunately falls with the new hybrid and continuously variable trannies tho, and our knees are starting to wear out...   We'll continue the fight as long as we can nonetheless.  Manufacturers could help by making manny trannies available on request for more models and configurations.  I'd also suggest keeping luxury appointment features while giving more horsepower and wheel choices to balance all season handling and fuel efficiency.