Save the Manuals
Bad news, everyone. The stick shifts are dying out.
Of course, this is not the novelty of some recent events but rather a chronic ongoing process since many years and decades. While this trend has only surged in Europe in the past 5-10 years, the United States has had a predominant affinity towards the automatic gear lever since the last century. Growing up in Germany back in the 90s and 2000s, manual-transmission cars were making up maybe 70-90% of all automobiles on the road. An automatic transmission was a sign of wealth and comfort as these were only available in luxury vehicles and for a significant price upgrade. The saying always went that automatics are slower, less fuel-efficient and more prone for technical failure and damage.
These prejudices are now completely history. I realized that especially after permanently moving to the US in summer of 2016. Automatic trannies as far as you can see. All my friends drive autos, all the rentals cars I see here are autos, the majority of cars in any dealership are autos, and I, involuntarily, drive an auto: Acura TSX. When I settled in Texas, my choice of stick shifts was simply limited. The cars were either too old, too broken, impractical, or simply expensive sports cars out of my financial league. Don’t get me wrong, I do see the upsides of automatic transmissions. In traffic, you do not have to struggle shifting endlessly between gears, you are less likely to stall, less likely mix up gears when you’re in a tricky situation and have I mentioned your left leg yet? Drive an old Italian car and an amputation will feel like heaven from the pain your left leg will suffer. Additionally, things have definitely changed though since a few years. Car manufacturers are offering automatics to more vehicles as standard without jacking up prices and adding more gears making them more refined. Lastly, the dual-clutch transmission has brought a revolutionary transformation to the automobile world. Gear changes occur within the blink of an eye, an automatic gearbox has become much more fuel efficient than any professional driver, and the comfort levels insanely increased. Having worked for BMW back in medical school and driving anything between 528i and 760i, I cannot say I really ever missed the manual. It has now become a large struggle to find a stick shift. And if you live in North America – good luck selling it.
Jeremy Clarkson’s condescending words “The only people who would buy an old-fashioned gearstick manual are the sort who choose not to have a washing machine because they prefer to clean their clothes in the local river.” are undoubtedly not helping the manual’s cause. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the man who can be considered the pope of motor religion. Considering the urbanization of the cities we live in and the infrastructure that is never able to keep up with the increase of vehicles on the road, increasing traffic congestion will be unavoidable. Take I-10 in Houston any weekday on a morning or evening if you want to experience hell. In these moments, I won’t miss the stick shift for any second.
Should everyone need to drive a stick? Not necessarily. Should everyone know how to drive a stick? My answer is yes. I promise you, the day will come when you will be in a situation and won’t have a choice. I started driving an old Volvo when I turned 15 in Alabama and haven’t driven anything but manuals until moving back to the US last year. I have no regrets. Even though a manual might not be my number one option for the daily commute I am hopeful that one day I will be able to maintain a second car – just for the weekends, just for those long stretches of hilly roads. A convertible maybe for the sunny days? The Mazda MX-5 comes here to mind.
Nevertheless, the automatic transmission owns the future and I do am not scared by that. What disturbs me is the thought of what is next. Electric gearless cars are not utopia. I drove an i3 for a week yet felt no joy sitting behind the wheel. Self-driving vehicles that put the passenger completely out of control are next. Are we all going to be driving in dull boxes around town like on a subway not paying attention to our surroundings or the amazing technology that has evolved since the late 19th century? Going back to Germany this summer, I will commit a sin right upon my landing. My reserved rental is a full-sized Diesel auto. The only manual options were an economy sized car (too small) or a sports car with the example of a 435i (too expensive). On that note, I am worried that manuals will soon become a toy for rich folks and die as an option for the average man.
I hope the future will prove me wrong. And that the oil lasts long enough for petrolheads to enjoy the stunning sensation of a perfect gearshift right when the rev counter hits redline.