Hello, and welcome to The Third Pedal! This will be an ongoing column about manual transmissions and their unfortunate decline. It will focus heavily on the US market, for several reasons. The first, is simply because that’s where I live, so that’s where I have the most experience. The second, is that the issue is far worse here than in many other parts of the world. In 2016, it was reported that less than 3% of new cars sold, in the US, had a manual transmission. This is down from 25% in 1992, 7% as recently as 2012, and a reported 80% in some European and Asian countries. I will not leave the rest of the world out, however, as the problem is not unique to North America. I plan to put automakers in the spotlight. Praising them where they offer manual transmissions, especially where their competitors don’t, and lambasting them where they don’t, especially on cars that just beg for that third pedal.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and define what we mean by a “manual” transmission. I have heard people refer to their conventional, torque converter type, automatic transmissions as manuals because they had some sort of way to select a gear, rather than just put it in drive. Some people also refer to “automated manual transmissions” where computers and solenoids control clutch actuation, either double or single, and gear changes are accomplished remotely, usually by “paddles” behind the steering wheel. Some of these automated manuals have fully automatic modes, while some only take care of the clutch actuation, requiring the driver to select the proper gear. One could argue what the proper criteria is all day long, but for the purposes of this space, all of the above mentioned transmissions are to be considered automatics. A manual transmission, for our purposes at least, requires the driver to manually operate the clutch (usually by a third pedal, to the left of the brake, hence the name) and manually select the gear. The reasons for this are again two fold. The first is because that has been the traditional manual transmission for many years, and the second is that it is this type of transmission that I, among other enthusiasts, find engaging and entertaining. This is the type of transmission that is rapidly disappearing from our roads as well as from the option books. This is the type of transmission that we seek to promote and preserve!
If you’ve made it to this website, there’s a good chance that you’re a gearhead, whether an Alpha Gearhead or just a fledgling one. If you are, there’s a good chance that you have already experienced the joys of driving a car with a proper, manual transmission. If not, you should get out there and learn. Finding a friend or family member with a manual car, and having them teach you, is usually the easiest way. There’s a good chance that you will come to enjoy it immensely and wonder how you ever dealt with driving an automatic. At the very least, you’ll learn a good life skill. Believe it or not, there are still manual transmissions out there, especially in places outside of the US, and you never know when it might come in handy.
Now let’s look into some of the reasons that the manual transmission is in decline, besides laziness… Once upon a time, manual transmissions were referred to as “standard” transmissions, as they were usually the standard equipment, with the automatic being an extra cost option. They also were more efficient than their automatic counterparts. They tended to have a performance advantages too. These days, many cars aren’t even available with a manual transmission, and on those that are, it often costs more and seldomly saves you any money. The modern automatic has caught up in efficiency, as well. At this point, they’re close enough that the automatics sometimes offer better fuel economy. It often comes down more to overall gearing, rather than parasitic losses through the transmission. As far as performance goes, modern, double clutch transmissions, like Porsche’s “doppelkupplungsgetriebe”, boast much faster shifting than a human with a manual could ever hope to achieve, manual gear selection without the driver having to move his or her hands from the steering wheel, and often automatic modes for driving in traffic, etc. There is one category where none of these other transmissions can hold a candle to a proper manual, however, and that is the fun to drive factor. Tapping a paddle will never illicit the visceral feelings, the rush of adrenaline, that nailing the perfect heel toe downshift, or breaking the tires loose on a violent, 1-2 powershift will. It just isn’t the same. Some of the magic and excitement is conspicuously missing.
So who do we have to blame then, for ruining all our automotive fun, and taking away our stick shifts? The obvious answer, would seem to be those evil men who usually take the blame for neutering production vehicles (other than government regulators). The bean counters! While there are certainly gearheads like us working for the automakers and clamoring for manual transmissions, they are often overruled by those who are blinded by the bottom line. Unfortunately though, car companies are businesses, as while we would love for them to exist to make the cars we want, at the end of the day, they exist to turn a profit. No, the real culprit isn’t the bean counters, its YOU! Ok, maybe not actually you, per se. Maybe you routinely buy new cars with manual transmissions. The general American car buying public, however, does not. Remember, less than 3% of new cars sold in America last year had a manual transmission. If no one buys them, then why would a company, looking to turn a profit by selling a product, bother making them? It costs lots of money in R&D to make a manual version of a car as well as the, now standard, automatic one. Even in cases where that model is already offered elsewhere in the world with a manual, the manual version would have to go through its own emissions certification to be sold in the US, which again, is very costly. It comes down to supply and demand, and the demand just isn’t what it once was.
This brings me around to what I hope to accomplish with this column, other than passing some time, while writing about a subject that interests me. I am not naive enough to think that someone at a major automaker will read one of my articles and say, “He’s right! I’m going to demand that we start offering a manual transmission on all of our models, at the next planning meeting!” What I do think is possible though, is that I might inspire someone to go learn to drive stick. That I might get someone to consider buying one of the few manual transmission cars out there on the new car market, rather than a cookie cutter automatic. I don’t know if manual transmissions will ever make a real comeback, but if a few more people decide to buy them, maybe they at least won’t disappear quite so quickly. If nothing else, hopefully I’ll either introduce someone to, or reacquaint someone with, the magic of “The Third Pedal.”