Whatever happened to ... manual transmissions

Whatever happened to ... manual transmissions

Automatic transmission cars have taken over in the United States, but not everyone has switched.

Tim Higgins of Monticello just bought a manual Jeep Patriot a few months ago.

"My wife grew up driving a stick shift, and I knew how to drive one, but I never had one until this vehicle I have now," he said. "We had to replace one of our cars, and one of the requirements was that it had to be a stick shift. It was quite a process trying to find one."

Most of the manuals he found were in the Chicago area, but he eventually found the Jeep in Bloomington.

Higgins learned how to drive stick from his brother, and after driving it more often since he met his wife, he has come to enjoy it.

"The automatic is a lot easier to deal with, but yeah, it's a lot of fun to drive," he said. "You get more of an appreciation of the whole process of getting from point A to point B because you're more involved in it."

He plans to teach his kids how to drive stick.

"If I still have access to one, they'll definitely learn to drive it," he said. "My kids love riding in it."

But unless kids have a parent or friend who knows how to drive shift, they likely won't learn the skill, part of a vicious cycle of declining demand and declining production facing manual-transmission cars.

At M&M Driving School in Champaign, students are taught about stick shift only in class.

"Automatic's easier to learn on," said Tony Martin, owner of M&M Driving School.

Driver's ed cars are required to have dual controls, which are much more complicated for a manual-transmission car, so Martin only uses automatics for on-the-road teaching.

"I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've had nothing but automatics," Martin said. "Even when I was in high school in the '70s, we did not have a manual driver's-ed car."

That didn't stop him from learning from a "buddy with an old, beat-up VW," Martin said.

"I like a manual, sporty car," said Martin, who drives a Dodge Challenger R/T. "You can make a lot more fun noises."

But Martin's in the minority. Less than 3 percent of cars sold in the United States are stick shifts, according to auto research firm Edmunds.

"The demand isn't there," said Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader. "People don't see their cars as a thing to enjoy anymore. It's like an appliance. They just need to go from here to there."

And stick shifts have lost their traditional advantages.

"Manual transmissions used to be more reliable, had better gas mileage and were less expensive," Moody said.

As automatics became more popular, manufacturers were able to make them more efficiently, eliminating the cost advantage, Moody said. And the technology has improved to the point where stick shifts are no longer more reliable or fuel-efficient.

"It's just progress," lamented Ivan Drury, a senior analyst with Edmunds and fan of manuals.

"Computers are so intelligent, in terms of shift points, so there's vastly more efficiency for automatics today," Drury said.

He also noted that "distracted driving's a lot easier in an automatic."

He expects stick shift sales to continue declining but said they'll continue to be offered for some time for certain types of cars.

"It's going to dwindle down to very niche-type vehicles," he said.

The decline is personal for Drury, who said he had been a "manual purist for a very long time," something he learned from his father.

"He said that I wasn't going to be allowed to drive an automatic before I learned how to drive manual first," Drury said.

But even he recently sold in his manual Subaru BRZ for an SUV when he moved to Colorado.

"I'm still not sure we did the right thing," he said. "It's just so much more rewarding, a proper shift."

While automatics have taken over in the United States, the majority of cars in Europe still have stick shifts.

Moody said he's not really sure why that is, other than cultural differences.

"People there are a lot more automotive-minded," he said. "They're more aware of how it works, and there's some brand identity because of national pride. There's some of that here, but not to that degree."

At Bill Smith Auto Parts in Danville, general manager Jonathan Smith said less than 2 percent of the transmissions he has are manual.

"Out of 965 transmissions we have at our Danville location, only 17 of them are manual," he said.

Even for young people entering the automotive industry, most haven't learned how to drive stick.

Parkland College offers three classes that discuss manual transmissions, including an entry-level vehicle maintenance and repair course.

"Since many of our students have never had the opportunity to drive a manual transmission vehicle, we provide the opportunity to learn," said Jon Ross, the director of the automotive technology program. "Being able to bring a manual transmission vehicle into the service area is a skill our local employers expect an entry level employee to have."

And at the Honda BMW dealership in Savoy, director of operations Richard Koch said stick shift sales have been declining for years.

"We sell some, but it's definitely declined over the years. Back in the '70s and '80s, there were lots of stick shifts," he said. "But kids these days don't drive stick shift. I hire them all the time, and I have to teach them."

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