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Shift it yourself: Manual transmissions regaining popularity

If you buy a new Corvette, the most low-tech component is probably the transmission. Most Corvettes come with a manual, which means that magical box of gears operates just like the one on the first Chevy, from 1911. However, that is exactly how most performance enthusiasts like it. Manual transmissions, they say, make driving more involving. No wonder car people are often called “gear heads.” Luckily for those gear heads, sales of cars equipped with stick shifts is on the rise.

According to USA Today, the proportion of cars sold with manual transmissions in the first quarter of 2012 is the highest since 2006. The take rate has been 6.5 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in 2006. In the intervening years, the number has dropped as low as 2.9 percent (in 2007).

Stick shift sales have been declining for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the inconvenience of having to use a clutch pedal and manually select each gear. That drove away all but the most miserly, or most enthusiastic, drivers. However, transmission technology has caught up with those fringe groups as well. Stick shifts used to be a cheaper option, but now automatics are a no-cost option on most cars, if a manual is offered at all. New automatics also return higher EPA fuel economy numbers.

The proliferation of “automated manual” transmissions eroded the manual’s popularity with car enthusiasts. These transmissions can shift themselves, but don’t have an automatic’s torque converter. That, and the fact that many of these transmissions have two clutches, means they can shift faster than a person, and offer better performance. Drivers can still shift for themselves with steering wheel-mounted paddles, just like a Formula 1 driver. That increased performance is why Ferrari no longer sells cars with manual transmissions.

Nonetheless, a manual renaissance seems to be occurring on the opposite end of the spectrum. Last year, Buick introduced its first stick shift in over 20 years. Ford is adding a manual transmission option to the Focus Titanium, due to customer demand. Crosstown rival Dodge expects 20 percent of 2013 Darts to be sold with manuals.

Why the sudden shift to self-shifting? Modern cars are peerless in terms of their safety, fuel efficiency, and safety, but they’re just not as much fun. New cars are full of electronic systems that separate the driver from the action of driving, so the whole experience can seem a bit artificial. In many new cars, the steering, brakes, and throttle have electronic assistance, so each control input goes through a computer. That makes the car drive more smoothly, but it also makes the experience more like a video game.

Video games are fun, but when we’re out in the real world, things should seem real. Perhaps people are looking for a bit more reality when they get behind the wheel, and aren’t bothered by having to use a third pedal to get it.