Shifting Trends: Is the Manual Transmission Doomed?

Sami Haj-Assaad
by Sami Haj-Assaad

Manual transmissions have always been idolized and are generally reserved for the ultimate sporty-cars, but how does a stick shift compare to its automated counterpart?

All the traditional advantages of a manual transmission are no longer applicable. With continuously variable transmissions (CVT), automatics can enjoy good fuel-economy, and dual-clutch transmissions give precise control and lightning quick shifts, usually associated with manual transmissions. Thanks to these more advanced transmissions, manual-equipped cars are hard to find, and are selling in increasingly small numbers.

Supercars dare you to call them ‘slushboxes’

It’s a sad fact that some of the sportiest automakers like Ferrari and McLaren no longer sell a car with a manual transmission. In fact, many high-powered supercars are available only with automatic transmissions, like the Lexus LFA, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and the Lamborghini Aventador. The high-tech Nissan GT-R, nick named “Godzilla” is one of the fastest cars around, and its dual-clutch transmission takes a lot of the credit. These supercars seem content with using automatics, while manual transmission are used to enhance the analogue feel of cars like the brutally powerful Shelby GT500. Other American cars with rich legacies like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and SRT Viper are only available with manual transmissions, which enhance the muscle-car packed history that these cars come from.

While Buick is no longer making the muscle-cars it used to, it still caters to the enthusiast crowd with the Regal Turbo and Regal GS, which are both available with manual transmissions. Not only that, but Buick says that they sell more manual equipped versions of these cars than automatic versions. It’s quite amazing when you think about it: Buick now sells more stick-shift-equipped sports cars than Ferrari does.

Even econo-boxes are getting high-tech transmissions

Sports cars aren’t the only vehicles that are losing the fight with manual transmissions. With CVTs delivering such good fuel economy and smooth driving characteristics, manuals are quickly being replaced in almost every market segment.

Even high-tech dual-clutch automatics are being used in subcompacts like the Hyundai Veloster and Ford Fiesta, as well as the compact Dodge Dart. Manual transmissions used to be a popular option in cheaper cars, but with drivers looking for better fuel economy, automatics have become much more common.

“The Dart lends itself particularly well to sporty driving,” Eric Mayne, Dodge powertrain communications said. “Along with the fuel-economy benefits [DCTs] do a good job of spotlighting the sporty applications.”

In the end, cars like the Dart, Fiesta and Veloster get good fuel-economy, but these transmissions aren’t the same as the ones found in supercars, and lack some of the finesse and feel that’s expected from a DCT. In fact, the Veloster’s DCT is so tuned towards fuel economy that it’s not rated to handle the power of the Veloster Turbo’s engine, so instead Hyundai has opted for a conventional 6-speed automatic.

Manual Take Rate Percentages

Where manuals continue to exist, and flourish, is in the affordable sports car segment. The take rate of stick shifts in these cars also gives a clear indication of which ones really cater to true enthusiasts – though that’s not always the case.

The vehicle with the highest percentage of manual sales so far this year is the brand new Subaru BRZ. Seventy percent of BRZs sold are equipped with a manual transmission.

“The manuals are running very high,” Subaru product communications boss, Dominick Infante said.

That is a skewed number since the BRZ just came out, and most of the buyers are early adopters. “We think that over time that number will change a bit,” said Infante.

The mechanical twin of the BRZ is enjoying a lesser take-rate, likely due to the increased number of cars moved. To-date, 52-percent of Scion FR-S models are sold with a manual transmission. While the manual transmission is the most engaging option on the FR-S, the automatic certainly isn’t a boring slushbox. Also, both the automatic FR-S and the BRZ get better fuel-economy ratings than their manual transmission counterparts.

According to the numbers, these are just about the only vehicles that enjoy a manual transmission take-rate above 50 percent – with much of the reason likely due to early-adopter enthusiast-types.

The Ford Mustang, both the V6 and GT, have a 50-50 split right down the middle between automatics and manuals, as does the Volkswagen GTI, which is available with a quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic.

Other sports cars don’t enjoy such a high-percentage of manual transmission buyers. Buyers of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe seem to prefer the cars eight-speed automatic over the six-speed manual, as 75-percent opt for the automatic. While the reason could be the type of buyer, it may also have to do with the quality of the stick shift, which has been highly criticized.

With drivers looking to save money, many might see the benefits of a more fuel-friendly automatic. Hyundai’s fuel-saving eight-speed transmission is just one way that sports cars are conceding to better fuel economy.

High Tech Manuals?

One automaker that’s going the extra mile to preserve the manual transmission while also achieving high fuel economy numbers is Porsche, which has developed a seven-speed manual-transmission, available in the new 911.

“The decision to make a 7-speed was driven by the need for multiple ratios for acceleration performance while still having several ratios for overdrive function,” said Nick Twork from Porsche’s communications team. “We needed it to meet the requirements for the 911, two of which were improved performance and improved fuel economy.”

Instead of just relying on the German automaker’s impressive PDK dual-clutch automated gearbox, they also developed a manual transmission that boasts the best of the fuel-saving PDK, and the engagement that the enthusiast craves.

“We still have a fair percentage of customers who prefer a manual transmission,” Twork said. “In the 911, this is between 30-40 percent depending on where the car is in its lifecycle.”

Even with the innovative manual transmission, 911 buyers are opting for the faster automatic. Editor-in-Chief Colum Wood praised the automatic transmission saying it “ensures you’re in the perfect gear all the time.”

Nissan, even though it has an impressive dual-clutch transmission in its GT-R, also has a high-tech manual offering in its 370Z sports car. This manual transmission has a feature that automatically blips the throttle for the driver during downshifts. This means that the driver doesn’t have to do tricky foot-work when driving aggressively, or on the track. It also helps make the manual transmission more accessible to newbies, although it’s a shame that this technology is only available on a $3,030 Sport Package on the base Nissan 370Z (bringing its total price to around $37,000).

Other automakers are making smarter manuals too, like Chevrolet with its no-lift shift tech on its turbocharged or supercharged cars, so you can keep your foot on the gas while shifting so the turbo or supercharger can maintain its boost pressure.

Will the Stick Shift Survive?

Will the manual transmission go the way of the V8, saved only for performance vehicles that need and strive for driver engagement? Not exactly: even the sporty-ish Honda CR-Z hybrid is available with a manual transmission. Not only that, it seems to be a pretty hot seller, with it being the highest selling manual model in the Honda range, at about 40-percent (excluding the manual-only Civic Si). Though one has to wonder if that number would change if more cars like the CR-Z were around?

Thanks to increasingly efficient and fast-shifting automatics, the vast majority of driver’s will be satisfied by a modern automatic transmission. While manuals are slowly slipping away in the supercar and econobox segments, the stick-shift continues to live successfully in cars designed for enthusiasts.

Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad

Sami has an unquenchable thirst for car knowledge and has been at AutoGuide for the past six years. He has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and has won multiple journalism awards from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada. Sami is also on the jury for the World Car Awards.

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4 of 28 comments
  • ShaneMcGrath ShaneMcGrath on Jun 12, 2014

    7 speed manual=LOL Reason I say this is in the 10 years I had my 6 speed v8 I only used 6th gear maybe 10 times when I got on a freeway to go somewhere different, Rest of time on normal roads to work and around town in traffic you wont be going past 5th gear unless you change your diff gears! Dual clutch autos are the future suck it up, Even a lot of the super cars now you will be hard pressed to find a manual, The advantages of manual changes have been long gone years ago, Speed and fuel savings have gone the autos have caught up. It's all just of nostalgic value that is all, If you want the "feel" of changing gears but that's it, Hell you can even do that to a certain extent in the basic autos these days, Change the gears like manual but without clutch, I prefer this as it makes it feel even more like a rebuilt auto box on drag strip just tap tap tap changing through gears. The 6 speed auto I have now absolutely craps all over my previous 6 speed manual, Best of everything, Peak hour traffic auto wins,speed auto wins,fuel economy auto now wins, fun factor auto wins now when you put in sports mode. Went through 3 clutches so glad manual days are over.

    • See 1 previous
    • ShaneMcGrath ShaneMcGrath on Jul 08, 2014

      As population grows and traffic becomes more congested there isn't really any fun factor anymore but each to their own, Young drivers will learn the hard way just as I did but novelty wears off just like everything else.

  • ShaneMcGrath ShaneMcGrath on Jul 09, 2014

    Tesla model S gets 265 miles per charge on the 85kw pack and still gets 208 from the 60kw pack