Singing the Manual Transmission Blues

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
singing the manual transmission blues

Last week’s biggest automotive product story was the unveiling of the next Ford Bronco.

Last week’s second-biggest automotive product story was that if you want the Bronco with the off-road-oriented Sasquatch package, you won’t be able to get it with a manual transmission.

The crowd got more than a bit mad on the tweet machine, even though at least one user (I’d link it, but I don’t recall the dude’s handle) reminded people that sometimes slushboxes are better off-road, especially with today’s tech. I don’t know if that’s true – a lot of mudders will tell you they like to clutch-start their rigs on the trail – but if so, it’s a good point.

Thing is, one of the cool things about the Bronco is that the manual is being offered with the 2.3-liter engine, and it appears it will be offered on both the two-door and four-door variants, and as well as most trims.

I was already thinking about this mild kerfuffle when I woke up on Friday, the 17th of July, which happened to be National Stick-shift Day. Right around the time I logged in for another day of toil in the TTAC salt mines, more manual-transmission news broke. Before I could even finish my morning coffee, I was finding out about the demise of the manual-equipped Honda Accord, along with the Honda Fit and Honda Civic coupe, both available with sticks.

Of course, the Civic coupe and Fit died due to slow overall sales, not because they were available with manuals, and the Civic lineup still offers stick shifts, but it still leaves the market with fewer manuals overall.

Honda later clarified that the brand still plans on making manuals available in segments in which customers express interest. Translation: Base Civics, Civic Sports, the Civic Si, and maybe, depending on future powertrain, the Civic Type R. With the Fit gone, and the Accord going auto-only, the Civic will be the last Honda to offer three pedals, at least for now.

Manuals have been on my brain – as I write this, a stick-shift Type R sits parked in my building’s garage. It’s, near as I can tell, the first stick-shift car I’ve driven in 2020. It may be the first time I’ve rowed gears since the Civic Si launch in November 2019.

As our Rare Ride guru, Corey, pointed out in our Slack channel, lots of us enthusiasts scream about the lack of manual transmissions, and then we don’t buy them. However, as I’ve theorized before, enthusiasts may not be buying them because many stick-shifts are only available on base trims and/or with base engines. So perhaps those who might otherwise buy a manual end up reluctantly shunning the stick because they don’t want to sacrifice features and/or the chance to get a more powerful engine?

I get it – automakers don’t want to spend to build manuals that don’t get bought. And sometimes, a manual can be used on a base model to simply allow the OEM to advertise a lower base price relative to the competition.

I still wish the OEMs would at least let me test my theory by making manuals available with the biggest/best engines and top trims, to see how the take rate might change, but it’s not my money to play with.

We live in a world where there’s no real logical argument for a manual anymore. Automatics/CVTs have caught up in terms of performance and fuel economy, and in many cases, cost. The only pro-manual argument is personal preference – a preference for fun and a connection with your machine.

I understand why the stick-shift is in slow decline. It’s expensive for driver’s ed classes to burn through clutches, so many people never learned. Not to mention that in non-pandemic times, traffic often sucks, and driving a manual in bumper-to-bumper blows.

I don’t consider myself a “manual all the things” guy. I’m fine banishing the manual to sports cars, off-roaders, and trucks. A minivan or a crossover has no need for a clutch. Nor do most Camrys.

The Accord, however, was an exception, as was the Mazda 6. Both positioned themselves as sports sedans, not just family haulers. So it is sad to see the Accord follow the Mazda in going to just two pedals, if not surprising.

As much as it upsets the hard-core off-roaders that Ford won’t make the Sasquatch package available with a stick, the automaker does get some credit for listening to feedback. Ford PR guru Mike Levine suggested on Twitter that if feedback is vociferous enough, the company might just make the Sasquatch available on three-pedal rigs.

I got a similar answer last November on a chilly Utah morning, as media gathered around the Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel. I asked Jeep folks if they’d offer a stick, and I was told, in so many words, that they would if there was demand.

Maybe it’s just my eternal optimism – I am a fan of most Chicago sports teams, except that one that plays in the National League, after all – but even though it’s a canned answer, hearing that from Jeep (and now Ford) gives me some hope. Perhaps the stick-shift can stick around just a bit longer.

That said, those of us who want to save the stick need to buy them. Or at the very least, if you want to save the manuals, you tell the OEMs that you will buy them if they’re offered in the upper trims, and then do so.

National Stick-shift Day saw the news of the demise of one car that’s wonderful with a manual, and followed on the heels of upsetting news about another vehicle that generated excitement in part because it will be offered with a row-your-own option. It wasn’t the best day, or week, for fans of the manual.

Instead of lamenting the loss of something that makes driving interesting, let’s do something about it.

Saving the manuals starts with you.

[Images: Ford, Honda, FCA/Jeep]

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2 of 58 comments
  • Whynotaztec Whynotaztec on Jul 23, 2020

    I enjoyed a manual Miata for many years (bought used of course so I did that segment no favors) But when it came time to replace it, Boston area traffic dictated an automatic. When I can finally buy a toy again I would really like it to be a manual, but how much of that is just me being old, considering how automatics are now generally better at everything.

  • TR4 TR4 on Jul 24, 2020

    "automatics are now generally better at everything." Ever try to push start an automatic? Unless you have something like an ancient Hydromatic with a rear pump it ain't gonna happen.

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