If you go back fifty years, all the major makes and models depended on manual transmissions. Looking at the inside of an older vehicle, you can see why it was called a stick shift, the stalk lurking behind the steering wheel. This and floor-mounted shifts were the standard layout with automatic transmissions considered the toys of the rich. Fuel economy was terrible. They kept breaking down. And the vehicles were more expensive to buy. Coming forward to today’s market and you could not find a more complete reversal. Automatic transmissions are now reliable and, although they are still delivering less fuel economy than carefully driven stick shifts, the difference is no longer significant. If there’s an advantage for manual transmissions, it’s in the degree of control available to the driver. Put a stick shift into a car with power, and drivers immediately report having more fun driving it. But such drivers are a dying breed. The Boomers grew up with stick shifts but they no longer have the reflexes for a “fun” driving style. The young no longer learn how to drive them. For a how-to guide, see:
If you go back twenty years, about one-quarter of all new cars were sold with stick shifts. In 2012, it was down to 3%. This decline when combined with the aging population and the growth in the sales of hybrids, means the automatic transmission will probably become the exclusive transmission system within the next twenty years.
The picture above shows the the Honda Accord LX, now sadly automatic. But Honda does still carry on the tradition of offering manual transmission for the Accord Sport model and the Honda CR-Z (the only hybrid with a stick shift on the market). In part, this explains why 2013 so far has seen an increase in stick shift sales to 7%. People have been delaying the replacement of their older vehicles until credit has become easier.
The stick shifts are usually cheaper than the automatic equivalents and still offer more miles for the gallon of gas unless the driver decides to go for the sporty approach to driving. That said, the mass market of automatic transmissions has brought the retail prices down and many of the compact models now produce impressive miles per gallon performance. Although this will no doubt not be what the older drivers want to hear, it’s likely stick shifts will go the way of other legacy technology, i.e. it will remain available for the nostalgia market but the prices will almost certainly rise to reflect the very limited size of this market niche. The more the prices rise, the less affordable the new vehicles will become until the sporty high-end models become the toys of the rich. That leaves only one question. Should there be a separate driving test and license for people wanting to drive stick shifts? Road safety laws should ensure people do not get behind the wheel of a car unless they know how to drive it.