Not So 'Standard' Anymore: The Manual Transmission is Almost Dead

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
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not so standard anymore the manual transmission is almost dead

We knew it was happening, but the actual extent of three pedal abandonment remained somewhat elusive. It was more of a feeling than a grim statistical representation. Now we have a number, and it’s dismal.

The Los Angeles Times reports that an Edmunds study has shown that that less than 3 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. come with the transmission that many — ironically — still refer to as a “standard.”

Manual transmissions used to be the only game in town. Even after automatics gained traction in the automotive landscape, the stick typically offered superior fuel economy and a better sense of control. None of this remains true in today’s world of continuously variable transmissions and dual-clutch automatics. (Still great for rocking your car out of deep snow! – Ed.)

While the traditional manual does offer a level of driving involvement that’s impossible to replicate, U.S. automakers haven’t quite made sense of how to effectively market the act of added participation. Edmunds says that 47 percent of all new models sold in the U.S were offered with both automatic and manual transmissions in 2006. That number dropped to 37 percent in 2011 and is only 27 percent today.

The actual number of vehicles leaving the dealership with three pedals is much lower than that. Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury claims that the percentage of vehicles leaving the lot with a stick now mirrors third-party election results.

“That number is never going to go back up,” Drury said. “The trajectory is down, headed for zero.”

What happened? A quarter of all vehicle sales in 1992 America were shift-it-yourself and the manual has remained fairly popular in most of Europe and Asia.

Technology tells some of the story. Selecting your own gears no longer yields better economy, a faster lap time, or even a guaranteed lower MSRP. Automakers realized that there was a demand for automatics and kept making them better, for less money. As that demand grew, the U.S. market simply saw fewer sticks.

After a few decades America was left with the manual occupying a niche market and a public that grew up not needing to know how to operate a clutch. If you’re under 30, consider the lengths you had to go to learn to drive stick and how easy it would have been to just not have bothered.

For me, the basics of clutch engagement were learned via years of motorcycle ownership and badgering my father to let me repeatedly stall his Mustang SVT. While I would have preferred something much less daunting to begin on, I didn’t know anyone with a manual Ford Ranger or Civic DX who would let me practice.

That’s an even bigger problem for today’s young drivers — one that’s unlikely to change. Taking an informal survey of 10 local driving schools, the LA Times found only one that offered any instruction on driving stick, with just a single instructor knowing how.

So, that leaves us with a gradually shrinking minority asking for non-automated gear selection and automakers that know it isn’t going to be cost effective. Manual transmissions now appear on two different types of cars: unexciting base models of economy vehicles you hardly see at dealerships (e.g. Chevrolet Cruze), and more impractical enthusiast focused cars (e.g. MX-5). Although, with demand so low, expect the former to eventually dry up in North America while the latter continues to dwindle.

I wrote about how Ferrari claimed its abandonment of the manual transmission was related to performance concerns. And the company’s product marketing chief, Nicola Boari, stated that demand for manual Ferraris was “close to zero.”

While companies like Porsche and Subaru have maintained a loyalty to the three pedal lifestyle, it’s just a matter of time before they fall. After all, Lamborghini doesn’t offer a manual car anymore, either. Neither does Alfa Romeo or Mercedes-Benz. The question isn’t if this trend will continue but more of how long do we have with the classic gearbox design and what manufacturer will the next to abandon it.

[Image: © 2016 Jeff Jablansky/The Truth About Cars]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.

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  • Testacles Megalos Testacles Megalos on Nov 23, 2016

    It is neither surprising nor specifically saddening. Right from the start people wanted easy-to-use transport appliances to get them out of the mud and out of the village. Henry F gave it to them in a basic affordable way and it's altered history. Cars with automatic braking, rear view televisions, in-car video entertainment centers, lane-drift corrections, PASM etc... NEED to have an indirect link between the driver and the road. Electronic steering, drive-by-wire, autoboxes, and all the driving "aids" aren't options any more, they are current technology that allows an increasing self-absorbed population to drive. It's all part of a societal evolution distancing existence from reality. It's no country for old men.

  • Zipper69 Zipper69 on Nov 24, 2016

    This whole subject reminds me of a persistent nagging thought; why are there no auto boxes on the giant motorcycle cruisers like the Honda Gold Wing? They surely have enough output and are clearly designed for smooth relaxed, long distance cruising, perfect for an auto box. Anybody know why ?

  • Marty S Corey, thanks for your comment. Mercedes has many different models, and will survive. Jaguar is planning on only offering electric models and will be in trouble. They should continue their ICE models as long as possible, but have discontinued the F-Type already and will probably be discontinuing everything else. We purchased the current XF this year, which is a nice car, but would have been splendid if they had just continued the supercharged V-6 in it.By the way, I have really enjoyed your Continental and Eldorado series. Was just showing it to my barber, who owned several 1954-56 Eldorado convertibles.
  • Marques My father had one of these. A black 1984 Pulsar NX with a 5-speed stick and a grey interior. Dad always kept it in pristine shape-that black paint was shiny even in the middle of the night. I swear I could still smell the Rain Dance carnauba wax! The only issue that car ever had was that it was never driven enough-it would sit for 10 days at a time! The Hitachi carburetor on it(and other Nissans of the time) were known to be troublesome. It went to the boneyard at 72K miles when a hole got punched in the block. By that time the Pulsar had long ceased production.
  • VoGhost This is the only new vehicle I have the slightest interest in.
  • VoGhost I love it. Can't wait to get one. Finally, trucks are becoming actually capable, and it's great for America.
  • Peter Just waiting for Dr. Who to show up with his Tardis, and send these things back to the hellish dark dimension from which they came.