There used to be many good reasons for a new driver to learn a manual transmission: To start with, cars with stick shifts were cheaper, more efficient and quicker. The longstanding barrier has been that the learning curve is mighty steep compared with an automatic — and possibly compared with all other aspects of driving combined.
But things have changed. In a nutshell, a young driver’s reasons to learn stick now seem to be down to “they’re harder for millennials to steal” and “some old guy told me they’re more fun and I should put down my phone and pay more attention to my driving anyway.” (We’re doomed.)
I was an audiophile before I was old enough to drive, and now that I look at the statistics around stick shifts in the U.S. auto market, I have a familiar sinking feeling. Trying to explain why manual transmissions are better than automatics in 2020 is like trying to explain why vinyl records were better than compact discs in the 1980s: You can’t … because they’re not, at least not in ways that will resonate with the masses or the business world.
This sentiment might not be what you’d expect from the guy who hosted Cars.com’s video tutorial, “How to Drive a Manual Transmission” (and who formerly worked at audiophile publications), but I am, first and foremost, a journalist concerned with the truth. And the truth from one member of the staff that established the Cars.com-conceived National Stick Shift Day is that manual transmissions aren’t “better” any more than vinyl records, deep-dish pizza or any number of other examples I could name. We just like them. Many of us prefer them to the alternative. I wish that were enough.
Percentage of Models With Manual Transmissions
It wasn’t always like this. For a long time, manual transmissions were superior in ways that kept them alive. It’s the loss of these key advantages, along with other phenomena, that have seen the sales and availability of proper three-pedal manuals gradually diminish. As I write this, according to Cars.com data, only 1.3% of new vehicles are sold in the U.S. with a stick, down from 3.4% in 2010. According to EPA data, manuals hit their most recent peak long before there was a Cars.com, in 1980 at 34.6% of production. Out of roughly 350 models on sale now, I count less than 50 that even offer a manual for the 2020 model year, and that number is sure to drop. The number of models and entire brands that recently have bailed out — the current Chevrolet Corvette and Audi among them — is sobering indeed.
What’s changed? It’s simple. Automatics have gotten much better — not from the perspective of stick-shift fans, but in the broader sense (and the dollars-and-cents sense). I’ll address some of these factors along with something you may not have expected: the ways manual transmissions have gotten worse and might be hastening their demise.
Automatics Became More Efficient
Efficiency is probably the single most important factor sculpting automobiles and their markets, and that goes for transmissions, too. Some people think automatic transmissions dominate in the U.S. because we’re lazy; while there might be cultural factors at play, you can’t overlook the fact that this is the land of cheap fuel, and for most of their near-century in existence, automatics have been less efficient than manuals due to their size and weight, torque converter losses and having fewer gears than manual gearboxes. If Americans paid twice as much for gas (or more), our lazy asses would have been driving tiny stick-shift cars just like Europeans and probably waxing superior about it … just like Europeans. The U.S. stick-shift production peak in 1980? That was the year after an oil crisis associated with the Iranian Revolution.