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Shift for Yourself

January 31, 2011

I was talking with a colleague the other day and he began to tell me how he had arrived at choosing the car he recently bought his wife.  To set some background on this story I will start out by saying these folks live in Massachusetts, where the snow drifts I witnessed on a recent trip can grow so large as to require their own zip code.  In addition to this they are both quite active skiers and spend many of their winters in Vermont.  So given these factors it was easy to see why an Audi A4 Quattro, featuring the make’s famous all-wheel-drive setup, was a logical choice.  Comfort, performance, and all-weather traction were big selling points.  However, one feature that was quite important for his wife was that the car had a manual transmission.  Outside of being wowed that this guy’s wife was so cool she preferred manual transmissions, I was also reminded of how hard it is these days for automobile shoppers to find a car with three pedals on the floor.

The topic hits close to home not only because I’m a “car guy” (and most car guys like to row their own gears) but also because I learned how to drive in a 1987 Honda Accord, with a stick shift.  Those memories of my dad coaching me in the Eden Prairie High School parking lot as I crunched the gears, smoked the clutch, and got more than a few raised eyebrows from the old man, remind me of how fun it really was to learn to drive.  It is also, in my humble opinion, a better way to learn to drive.  And an art.  And an exhilarating experience (in the right car).  While I would never call a 98 horsepower Accord from the late ‘80’s “exhilarating,” it certainly gave me a better connection to the vehicle I was coaxing down the road.  With a stick-shift you can’t just mindlessly drive with one finger on the wheel, your left foot out the window, and a 40-ounce 7-Eleven Big Gulp in your right hand.  In these vehicles you have to actually engage with the engine, and transmission, in order to tell it exactly what you want it to do.  Swift driving equals some racing to the higher end of the tachometer (a gauge on the dash most 80’s American sedans never had, and one a majority of drivers these days never find need to notice), quick shifts, proper timing of clutch, lever, and accelerator.  If economical driving is what you’re after you can shift early, drive smoothly, and perhaps drop it into neutral on slow downhill grades.  It’s all up to you. 

Or is it?  A recent EPA report shows less than 7% of all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. in 2010 were equipped with manual transmissions.  When I got my driver’s license in 1996 that figure was more than 15%.  When that hand-me-down Accord rolled into our family’s garage brand new in 1987 the number was nearly 30%.  So how did we get here?  In Europe the breakdown is overwhelmingly different, where automatic transmissions have historically been considered a luxury.  But as drivers, here in the States at least, are increasingly fighting traffic-laden commutes, seeking more convenience in their lives, and have added so much more “multi-tasking” behind the wheel it seems to make sense that automatics are ruling out. 

So is the stick-shift dead?  Perhaps someday.  What with the continuing emergence of hybrid and electric cars, in conjunction with the ever-presence of paddle-shifted automatic transmissions, it seems the day of shifting for ourselves is surely doomed.  But the good news is it appears, in 2010 at least, that the trend may be turning around.  The aforementioned sales statistic for manuals of 6.7% is actually the highest number the EPA recorded in the past seven years, and a full 2% jump over 2009 alone.

Could it be that drivers are longing for simpler times, much like the way vinyl records are making a quiet, powerful comeback among music lovers?  Maybe.  But I’d like to think it’s because there are still plenty of people out there who love the art of driving and are sharing it with others, like I hope to do with my future kids some day.  The art of driving is not dead, and there are plenty of patrons of that art in the world to keep it that way.  I just hope the automobile manufacturers who do business in the U.S. recognize this and keep providing the manual transmission option on the options checklist for years to come.

2011 Porsche Cayenne Paddle Shifter

2010 BMW M3 Dual-Clutch Semi-Automatic Transmission

A 1987 Honda Accord similar to the one used to teach the author the joys of manual shifting

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 30, 2013 12:24 pm

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