What's driving a shift away from manual transmissions

McClatchy NewspapersApril 21, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Stick shifts could be going the way of whitewall tires, running boards and rumble seats.

As recently as 1985, more than 50 percent of male car buyers said they wanted a stick shift. Last year, only 11 percent did, according to market researchers, and sales totaled 7 percent of the new car market.

One reason is that most women prefer automatics. "I tried a stick shift once, and then I faced a hill, and I never tried again," said Danielle Wilt, 20, a junior at York College in York, Pa.

Other reasons: Couples in which only one can drive a manual transmission, competition from sporty automatics and an insufficient number of hands.

Among drivers who like driving, however, "Nothing has been a perfect replacement for the stick shift yet," said Alexander Edwards, the president of the automotive research division of Strategic Vision of Bandon, Ore. He said that predictions of the death of stick shifts are premature.

Several experts theorized that people who consider driving a chore favor automatics because they make the job easier. By contrast, stick shifts "force you to be involved in the driving process," and enthusiastic drivers love that, said John Nielsen, AAA's national director of auto repair and buying.

Seeking to give drivers the fun of a stick without the work, automakers are pushing five-, six- and even seven-speed automatics, mainly in sporty cars. Buyer interest in six-speeds increased from 9 percent to 15 percent of all potential buyers in the past five years, according to GfK Custom Research North America, a company that tracks market trends.

Other alternatives, such as paddle shifters that shift gears without a clutch pedal, are spreading from high-end sports cars such as Ferraris to more mid-market Nissans and Corvettes.

Declining stick sales over time mean that, "Young folks aren't exposed to manual transmissions at all anymore," Nielsen said. "And if you don't learn on it, you'll probably never learn."

Take the case of Alicia Carbaugh, 31, a health-policy analyst in Washington. "I've always wanted to learn, but there were no cars around," she said. "My boyfriend at 16 tried to teach me on his RV, which is probably why it was such an awful experience."

Jennifer Lickteig, 23, a research intern, offered a similar account. "We only had one stick shift growing up," she said. "It was my father's, and you don't touch my father's car."

Kevin Thompson, a Washington Volkswagen salesman, recalled talking a young novice out of buying a stick shift after he stalled five times on his first test-drive. Thompson pushed a clutchless five-speed Tiptronic instead but didn't make a sale.

The big picture reflects all these trends, according to Strategic Vision, a consumer research firm based in San Diego. In 1998, a third of drivers under 25 opted to buy a stick shift. Last year, 13 percent did.

Accordingly, car makers are making fewer of them. For example, Toyota, the maker of the Scion tC, a sporty coupe designed for younger drivers, offered stick shifts on 30 percent of the model fleet in 2005. Now it offers 25 percent of them with sticks, said Allison Takahashi, a Toyota spokeswoman. Dealers didn't want more, she said.

While manual transmissions are cheaper to buy and use less gas, "you'll lose your backside on the resale," said AAA's Nielsen. Indeed, at Thompson's Washington VW dealership, used cars with stick shifts are usually shipped to wholesalers while used automatics are sold off the lot.

Marriage also is hard on the stick shift market. According to Strategic Vision, 10 percent of single drivers bought a stick shift in 2008, compared with 6 percent of married drivers.

As Volkswagen salesman Ronald Sowell said of his wife, "I tried to teach her manual, but she didn't want to learn. She said that's why they make automatics."

"Ladies putting on makeup while they're drinking coffee and talking on their cell phone — they don't have time to shift gears," said Scott Parsons, a sales associate at Mantrans, a manual transmission repair shop in Tallahassee, Fla.

In fact, while interest in manual transmissions among men declined steadily for a generation, interest among women has grown steadily, from 4 percent in 1985 to 15 percent last year.

Stick shifts have "always been associated with guys and power," theorized Patty Gaffney, 31, a bartender at Tonic, a Washington watering hole. "A stick shift makes women feel manly and in control."

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