Stick Shift Autos On Their Way Toward Extinction

Fewer drivers who know how to drive stick and fewer advantages fueling decline in manual transmissions.

FE_DA_120803StickShift.jpg
By SHARE

Guaranteed to add a sporty edge to even the most Spartan of vehicles, stick shifts have long been preferred by drivers looking for more control and more fun when tooling around town.

But those loyal to manual transmissions are fast becoming a dying breed and now it seems car companies are starting to take notice. Twenty years ago, a quarter of all cars sold in the United States had manual transmissions. By last year, that figure dropped off to a measly 3 percent.

Though sales of cars equipped with stick shifts saw a jump this year—automotive industry information firm Edmunds.com recently reported that 7 percent of vehicles sold this year had 'four on the floor'—over the next 15 to 20 years, analysts say sticks shifts will be all but obsolete.

[U.S. News Launches Used Car Rankings.]

Among other things, stick-shift snobs can blame increasingly efficient automatic transmissions and the onset of more hybrid and electric cars for the death of manual transmissions. According to Edmunds.com Industry Analyst Ivan Drury there's only one hybrid vehicle on the market, the Honda CR-Z, that offers a stick shift option.

"As more vehicles become hybridized or fully electric, there's just no purpose [for manual transmissions]," he says.

It also has to do with the dwindling number of drivers who even know how to drive stick, he adds. Comparatively fewer new drivers are taught the tricks of the trade when it comes to manual transmissions these days and automatic transmissions are arguably easier to drive.

So what explains the recent jump in purchases of vehicles with manual transmissions?

"We've just had the perfect storm," Drury says, pointing to the increasing number of drivers trading in significantly older cars for newer models. "We had the right segment, the right buyer, and price-wise these stick shifts are still cheaper for some automakers."

But while stick-shift loyalists vehemently defend the appeal and benefits of manual transmissions, many of their arguments against automatic transmissions don't hold water anymore.

["Honey-Do" Lists Making a Comeback: Home Remodeling on the Rise.]

For starters, while manual transmissions generally get better gas mileage than automatics, that isn't always the case. Some compact automatic cars such as the 2012 Ford Focus and 2012 Honda Fit, perform better than their manual siblings when it comes to fuel efficiency.

Another boon for stick-shift drivers has been the price break. Traditionally, cars with automatic transmissions were pricier than their manual transmission counterparts, but again, that's not always the case anymore. Many GM models price automatic and manual transmissions the same.

With automatic transmissions leveling the price and gas mileage playing fields, stick-shifts are decreasingly relevant alternatives for budget conscious car buyers. And so, the temporary uptick in purchase of vehicles with manual transmissions this year is just that, temporary.

One shred of good news for stick-shift diehards? Drury says some of the sportier models will likely keep a manual transmission option for nostalgia's sake.

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.

Corrected 8/6/12: A previous version of this article misstated the hybrid vehicles available with manual transmissions. The Honda CR-Z is the only hybrid available with a stick shift.