No one wants a manual gearbox in a Ford Fusion or a Chevrolet Equinox, and pounding a clutch back and forth in rush-hour traffic is a special kind of hell for many commuters.
The percentage of cars that offer a manual transmission in Canada has fallen to just 9 per cent, down from 35 per cent in 1980, according to IHS Automotive. You can't call a stick shift "standard" any more, when an automatic is usually the only option. Just 3.6 per cent of new car buyers in Canada so far this year opted to shift their own gears. And, as Robert Karwell of J.D. Power and Associates says, the steady improvement of the automobile has made the manual increasingly obsolete.
"The technology has gotten to the point where an automatic, CVT [continuously variable transmission] or DSG [direct-shift gearbox] is more economical than a manual," he says. "It works more efficiently than a manual, and it's the quickest way around a race track."
Andy Schonberger is one such study in the tidal shift.
The 35-year-old consultant loves the thrill of a manual transmission ride, but owns a Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle without either a manual or automatic transmission – it employs a single-speed reduction gear.
"I grew up in Niagara on a fruit farm, and I used to take every opportunity I could get to drive the farm cars with a manual," says Schonberger. "It was more fun."
So why did he ditch his sporty stick-shift Subaru WRX?
"I tried when I had my WRX to teach my wife how to drive standard, but I couldn't handle the smell of the burning clutch," Schonberger says. "After an hour, she said, 'I don't want to do this to your car, I'm just not driving this.'
"I had a chance to get a Nissan Leaf, and I loved it," he says. "It's like driving a go-kart. It's still quick with the instant torque, but you're not doing a lot of speed. To get all those benefits of a next-gen powertrain, the manual is old-tech."
Schonberger and his wife are part of an overwhelming move away from clutch-pedal manual transmission.
"If the point of the car is for your own personal enjoyment, that's what trumps all of those positives," Karwell says. "Unfortunately, all of those positives are the reasons that the manual is disappearing."
Along with dwindling vehicular options, the number of drivers is also dropping.
Dawn Barnable, is among the legions who can only drive automatic.
"I don't recall a time where there was an option with my parents to learn to drive a manual," says the 34-year-old public relations professional, who obtained her license when she was 17. "My mom and dad can drive one, but we didn't have one when I was learning. The option was never presented."
In fact, millennials have become so disinterested with shifting gears that Young Drivers of Canada has just two training cars equipped with manual gearboxes in the Greater Toronto Area. Will this be the last generation in North America to purchase new cars with manual gearboxes?
"I used to have 10 per cent of my students learning the stick shift," says Angelo DiCicco, general manager of Young Drivers of Canada, who's been with the company for 28 years. "Now it's less than 2 per cent.
"What happens is, one generation is not passing that information on to the next. We're training 16- to 25-year-olds who have never even been in a manual-transmission car. We're actually at that point where they've never seen one. Their parents didn't drive a stick shift; their grandparents did, but not the parents."
Ferrari and Lamborghini dropped the manual option from their cars years ago, and Porsche's latest top-end supercar, the GT3-RS, is only available with a dual-clutch automatic. All three auto makers realize that the fastest way around a track is with a DSG – even the teenage valet at your local dealership can change a DSG's gears faster than any professional race car driver can with a manual.
But sometimes, being the quickest around a track isn't the point. There's something about the process of shifting gears, this choreographed jig at speed, even the difficult-but-infinitely-satisfying heel-and-toe brake and downshift. Yes, it is a purist way to look at it, and thankfully some auto makers are supplying cars that still satisfy this need.
"There are really only three parts of the industry where manuals are relevant and have a life," says Karwell. "Low-priced thrifty cars found in subcompact and compact segments, fun-driving cars and muscle cars in the sports segment, and luxury sports cars."
When it comes to that last segment – which includes the Audi TT, Jaguar F-Type and Porsche 911 Carrera – the take rate for manual transmissions in 2010 was 53.9 per cent, according to J.D. Power. But this year, only 34.8 per cent of buyers opted for the clutch pedal. Yet it's still comparatively one of the hottest segments where people want to grind their own gears.
As for individual models, Volkswagen's GTI and Golf R have both a six-speed manual and a DSG available, and both split sales at around 50:50. Subaru also offers a manual in much of its lineup, selling 15.8 per cent overall, though its WRX STI can only be had with a stick shift. And while the Fiesta, Focus and Mustang are the only Ford cars offered with both a manual and automatic, the performance versions of each – Fiesta ST, Focus ST, and various Mustang models – can only be had with a stick shift. Roughly 70 per cent of Toyota FR-S and up to 90 per cent of Subaru BRZ purchasers opt for a manual. Even the Jeep Wrangler wouldn't be the same to many enthusiasts without a stick shift, making up about 25 per cent of sales this past year.
For his part, Schonberger hasn't totally abandoned the old-school technology. "If I suddenly hit it rich, it would be a 911 Carrera 4 GTS manual."
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