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The cockpit of the Subaru BRZ. About 85 per cent of BRZs sold in North America have a stick shift, making it an outlier as the industry moves away from manual transmissions.

It was big news at last month’s auto show. The BMW 3 Series sedan, which debuted its all-new seventh generation, will – for the first time ever – not be available with a manual transmission. BMW calls the new 3 Series “the heartbeat of the brand – more sporting and innovative than ever,” and yet it will only shift its gears with an automatic transmission.

BMW knew what it was doing. Standard transmissions have an emotional appeal to enthusiasts, but they really don’t sell very well. In three separate and detailed press releases for the model’s debut, the transmission was never once mentioned.

Does BMW’s decision on the 3 Series represent the final nail in the coffin for the stick shift industry-wide?

“Without question there has been a shift in the industry away from manual transmissions to automatic and DCT-style semi-automatic transmissions,” wrote Marc Belcourt, BMW Canada’s director of corporate communications. “In fact, the BMW Group is one of the only remaining companies committed to offering our customers a choice in drivetrains: manual transmissions are available in 11 BMW models and 14 MINI models.

“As the profile of a manual gearbox customer skews more performance-oriented, we find higher manual take rates on BMW M, M Performance and MINI John Cooper Works models.”

Let’s be realistic here: Most drivers prefer a transmission that they don’t have to think about. In Canada, most people don’t even know how to operate a clutch for themselves and don’t care to learn. A manual transmission is simpler and cheaper for manufacturers to produce and for drivers to buy, but the vast majority don’t want it. It’s too much effort to use in traffic and it’s no longer more efficient for fuel consumption.

mike ditz

A stick-shift is only available in the base model of Mazda's CX-5.Mike Ditz

For example, Mazda offers a manual transmission in its CX-5 SUV, but only in the base model. This lets it advertise an MSRP of $25,900. A CX-5 with an automatic transmission will cost $1,400 more. Even so, last year, only seven per cent of buyers of that least-expensive trim chose the manual transmission; for all trims of the CX-5, the manual accounted for just one per cent of sales.

Mazda insists the lower price is not the reason for offering a manual transmission. “There are many customers who equip a mid- or upper-grade Mazda3 with a manual transmission, signaling that their motives are driving enjoyment or habit-based,” says Mark Peyman, the maker’s national manager for product strategy and development. “If saving money was their priority, many would opt for our entry level grade with a manual transmission instead.”

It’s a similar tale at Subaru, which has a reputation for making excellent manuals, where less than 10 per cent of Impreza buyers choose the cheaper stick-shift option – and even those who do tend to have higher household incomes. This year, the company finally withdrew the availability of a manual transmission Forester, and last year, it quietly ended the option for the Legacy and Outback.

“When we did cancel those manuals, there were a lot of people who said, ‘I can’t believe you cancelled the manual!’” says Anton Pawczuk, Subaru Canada’s senior director for product management. “Well, where you? Why didn’t you buy one?”

The shift knob of actor Jeff Seymour's 2006 Ford GT.Glenn Lowson/For The Globe and Mail

In North America these days, manual transmissions are generally only found on “enthusiast” cars, such as the Subaru BRZ (which sells about 85 per cent with a stick-shift) or the Ford Mustang (which is still more popular in Canada with an automatic transmission). In China, the world’s largest emerging auto market, automatics are also more popular.

“But when you get into other regions of the world, where value becomes a big factor, like India and Southeast Asia, manuals are quite prevalent there,” says Ram Krishnaswami, the director for transmission and driveline engineering for Ford Motor Company. “[It’s] because of the value equation and because over the years, you do have a significant amount of people there who do drive a manual transmission.”

In those markets, Ford often offers a stick shift in models where only an automatic is available for North America – for example, with the new Ranger compact pickup truck. But times are changing. Even in Europe, where Krishnaswami says “for the longest time, Europe was a manual-transmission fortress,” automatics, continuously-variable (CVT) and dual-clutch (DCT) transmissions are gaining popularity. Improved software means they’re more fuel-efficient and clutch-grinding traffic congestion is everywhere.

The manual transmission is still common in Europe, however, and it’s a major reason for business with Carlos Tomas’s Shifters driving school in Toronto. He teaches the art of the clutch mostly to experienced drivers who plan to rent cars while travelling. Rental automatics “are still available at a premium and then only in certain locations,” Tomas says.

“I had a gentleman this morning who’s heading to Italy and he said he’s booked an automatic, but he wanted to know how to drive standard just in case they don’t have one when he gets there. That’s been known to happen.”

The shift knob of a Porsche Boxster Spyder.MANUEL HOLLENBACH

And then, there are the holdouts who just prefer to drive a car with three pedals and a gear shift. They feel more connected to the car and the drive. “I can see them cremating me with a gear shift in my hand,” Tomas says. “I like driving and I like the sound of my engine. For me, it’s an interactive thing. With a manual, you have to pay more attention to all the little nuances because they affect you so much more.”

There’s still room for development of a manual transmission, says Krishnaswami, and Ford’s German-based transmission team fully intends to keep improving stick-shifts for as long as there are buyers. The Mustang is available with rev-matching software for smoother standard shifting, as is the new Toyota Corolla hatchback. Porsche and General Motors both offer a seven-speed manual transmission, though not in all their sports cars: truly high-performance vehicles are faster with dual-clutch transmissions, which shift gears in milliseconds.

In Canada, “Porsche saw a proportion of 7.2 per cent manual among the 6,451 total sales reported through September, 2018,” says Patrick Saint-Pierre, the maker’s manager of public relations. “There is a sustained demand for pure, emotional cars and we believe that manual transmissions are part of that trend. The manual-only 911 R was sold out in a couple of days and, as such, we decided to reintroduce the option of a 6-speed manual on the GT3 model for the 2018 model year.”

So there’s hope yet if you prefer to row your own gears, but for most, it’s not the money-saver it used to be. The Porsche 911 GT3 costs the same for a manual as it does for a PDK automatic transmission and it starts at $163,300. Pure emotion doesn’t come cheap.

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