Retail Front

Manually Shifting Gears Becoming Lost Art

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blog-stick-shift.jpgThey don’t make manual transmissions like they used to.

Oh, they make them better than ever. But they sure don’t make as many. Not in the U.S. anyway, where stick shifts are becoming as rare as pull pork at pot lucks for vegetarians.

Ward’s data indicate only about 4.5% of cars made in the U.S. in the first five months of model year ’10 come with 5- or 6-speed manual transmissions. That compares with more than 20% about two decades ago.

Honda has equipped the most '10 vehicles with manual transmissions (7.6%); Nissan, the least (0.8%). Just 0.9% of U.S.-made light trucks had a 5- or 6-speed manual.

Today’s young drivers don’t seem to know or want to know how non-automatically to change gears. Hey, why use your right hand for that when you can use it to text while driving?

But even some older people who know how to switch gears on their own would rather not. My wife comes to mind. It’s something she can do, but doesn’t want to do any more.

Her reasoning: “Why should I do it when the car can do it automatically?” It’s similar to: “Why should I get up and walk across the room to change TV channels when I can sit here and use the remote?”

When I was learning to drive, my dad told me “real” driving consists of doing your own shifting.

You are in control with a manual transmission, you decide what gear to engage and when, you can downshift at will and zip around corners better. That’s what he told me, anyway.

So I became, if not a fast learner, then at least a determined one. There were plenty of false starts as I clumsily tried to synchronize my left foot on the clutch pedal and right hand on the shifter.

I would lurch the car down the street, grind gears (boy, they heard me coming) and stall at intersections when the light changed from red to green. Other than that, I did great. In control of the car? Heck, I felt it was in control of me.

I went on to teach my kids how to operate a car with a stick shift, because that’s all we had at the time. Their learning curve was as long as mine. At one point, my daughter, in a moment of teen frustration, insisted I buy a car that could change its own stupid gears.

By the way, my daughter now is 30 and drives a Volkswagen with a manual transmission. (Oh, and she called the other week to report it needs a new clutch.)

As indicated, my wife now drives a car with an automatic transmission. At times, I know how she feels about that option. I like my car with its manual. But in stop-and-go traffic, it is a grind (figuratively, not literally like before). But it is exercise, for your left leg, anyway.

Some people think manual transmissions are what you settle for in a base vehicle model if you don’t want to spend extra to upgrade to an automatic.

But for Ward’s 10-Best Engines competition, I have recently road tested a BMW 335i, Audi S4 and several other exquisite cars with manual transmissions. The fact that they had those helped make them stunning vehicles.

In driving such cars, you give thanks you learned how to drive a manual.

Fellow 10-Best judges and I also tested the all-new Chevrolet Cruze with a nice 1.4L turbo engine mated to a do-it-yourself 6-speed.

The Cruze finally proves General Motors can make a decent small car. That it is something of a “youth” vehicle with a manual-transmission offering shows there’s hope that shifting gears won’t become a lost art. Not yet, anyway.

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Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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