Endangered species

Down-shifting: Manual transmissions running out of road

May 24, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

SIOUX CITY | Kelly Sales, of Sioux City, still looks back fondly at her very first car -- a Chevrolet Chevette. The boxy subcompact had a manual transmission, and Sales quickly became a master of the gear stick and clutch pedal.

"I enjoyed manual,” she said, “but that was before the time of cell phones.”

Stick-shift vehicles -- a mainstay of roads until automatic gearboxes took over in the 1960s -- have all but disappeared from showrooms and car magazines. While common in sports cars and semi-trucks, they’ve largely gone the way of tailfins, pop-out ashtrays and cassette players, at least in the U.S.

The reasons are obvious: manual transmission is often tricky to learn and requires extra concentration and finesse, making multi-tasking all but impossible.

Automakers in recent years have also made automatic transmissions much more fuel-efficient, a trait that used to be a major selling point for stick shifts.

While manuals are still about $1,000 cheaper today than automatics, performance levels and gas usage are about the same as in the automatic ones, said Chris Terry, a Ford Motor Co. spokesman.

"Ten years ago, automatic technology really started getting better," Terry said. "They caught up in fuel efficiency and now they are faster too. A fast driver can shift in a third of a second. An automatic can do it in a tenth of a second."

Just 5.1 percent of U.S. vehicles sold in 2011 were manual transmission, down from almost 35 percent in 1980, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Eric Christianson, of Sergeant Bluff, drives a 2012 Ford F-150, a truck that does not come with a traditional manual option. Even if he had a choice, Christianson said, he would pick automatic.

"I would only want a stick if it's a sports car, like a Mustang," Christianson said. "But for everyday driving, I want an automatic. It's just more convenient, you don't have to do anything."

Almost 36 percent of Mustangs sold in 2012 had a manual transmission, the highest percentage in the Ford lineup, Terry said. The 2012 Ford Focus was also popular with 13 percent of cars sold as a manual.

"The Mustang or Focus are not an A-to-B car, they're drivers cars," Terry said. "It's about enjoying the experience, being connected with the car."

The new Focus also uses a dual-clutch transmission, which Terry said combines the best elements of automatic and manual transmissions. It also lets enthusiasts still feel connected with their car.

Standard transmission is also popular in Europe and certain developing countries, where stick shifts still outsell automatics, said Jim Lanzon, vice president of powertrain engineering at General Motors Co.

"Europeans prefer that connected feeling you have with your vehicle," Lanzon said. "You don't have that with an automatic."

Sales, who now drives an automatic GMC Envoy, said she prefers the physical freedom her automatic gives her over a manual transmission.

“You can't multitask,” she said, “though that is probably a good thing."