It’s easy to look at the North American automotive market now and proclaim it to be truly the golden years. Enthusiasts in particular are blessed with higher performing machinery than they have ever seen. And it’s not just the exotics that are defying physics and stretching the imagination of what can be achieved on four wheels – even family sedans are delivering performance numbers that would have made supercars blush only two decades ago.
But there is one element of motoring enthusiasm that continues to wilt and die its agonizingly slow death: the manual transmission.
To many, the continual decline in sales numbers of cars equipped with manual transmissions is cause for widespread mourning. For many gearheads, those three pedals and the ability to move a shifter through a series of gates in that traditional H-pattern are paramount to driving enjoyment and overall control of the machine.
It is easy to understand why we’re facing this decline in stick shifts. At one point, cars equipped with manual transmissions were able to help motorists eke out more performance, particularly from small displacement engines, and generally provided superior fuel efficiency and of course greater engagement between car and driver.
Not so much anymore though. Today, high-end manufacturers like Ferrari and Porsche have embraced the performance benefits of enabling a computer to operate the cog swaps in dual-clutch automated transmissions (no new Ferrari models are available with a manual). Not surprisingly, robots never miss a gear and will shift much quicker than even the most talented human can.
What’s more, the efficiency of CVT transmissions and contemporary automatics steal away one of the best arguments in favour manual transmissions from days gone by. The brilliantly optimized eight-speed ZF automatic available in most new BMWs is more efficient, quicker, and thanks to paddle shifting and sporty little rev-match downshifts, almost as fun to drive as their manual transmission counterparts.
So does this mean the manual transmission has become pointless and redundant? For approximately 90 percent of the car-buying public that motor around without three pedals in their cars, drinking their Starbucks and texting away, yes it has. But for the rest of us, there are a number of reasons driving a stick shift is still relevant.
First off, there’s that enjoyment factor. For those who haven’t experienced shifting their own gears, conquering smooth operation of a car with a manual transmission is a rewarding experience in the way mastering any sort of skilled activity or art form is.
But there’s more. When travelling overseas, particularly to Asia and Europe, driving cars with stick shifts is still much more common practice than it is here. For world travellers, this is a skill that can be a necessity for safe operation of a rental car.
Having a car with a manual transmission can have additional perks too. For one, with such a limited portion of the population being able to actually drive a stick shift, cars equipped as such are less likely to be stolen. Plus as a used car value, there could be better deals due to the limited market of stick shift drivers.