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The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

Posted October 12, 2021 4:00 AM by dstrohl
Pathfinder Tags: Manual Transmission

In some ways, the manual transmission stuck around much longer than it should have, given its replacement, the automatic, has lived alongside it for decades. The history of the automobile shows a trend toward more and more automation, and the manual is just one of the latest casualties. As managing editor Kurt Ernst already stated, that doesn't necessarily make an automatic more desirable. The death of the manual also won't affect the collector car hobby too much, and even if you steadfastly believe that sports cars need three pedals, you could always do your own transmission swap.

The manual is not quite dead, of course. There are still a few left, and I expect a couple of holdouts will remain as long as internal-combustion engines are sold. But the stick shift will live out its final years as a niche product.

Before you pour one out for your three-pedal homie, though, let's remember it for all the good times it has brought us and recognize that those good times don't necessarily have to end.

First, a brief autopsy. The manual transmission's eventual cause of death is best described as multimorbidity—the result of many factors. Fuel-economy standards led automakers to make the automatic transmission standard equipment as soon as it outperformed the manual on the EPA cycle. Enthusiast books touted the superior acceleration times of advanced slushboxes and dual-clutch gearboxes. (I shoulder some of that blame myself, having written plenty of automatic-transmission praise at Car and Driver.) Supercar and sports-car manufacturers marketed racing-style paddle shifters and were rewarded with new customers uninterested in the clutch pedal. Driver-assistance systems played a part, too, although they didn't have to: Mazda still offers adaptive cruise control with a manual. But mostly, the reason the manual all but vanished is because people stopped caring about how gears are selected in their cars.

Read on...

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#1

Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/13/2021 6:40 PM

The death of the KISS principle.

Manual transmissions last longer. Period. And if you know how to drive, the clutch will last as long as the transmission.

For people who only hang onto a vehicle for less than 10 years, the automatic might get them through. I prefer to drive vehicles well past the 200K mark. Especially today when new vehicles are crazy expensive and so are the used ones too.

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#2

Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 12:45 AM

Way, way back, I learned to drive a stick shift. My friend and I traded a Pioneer car stereo (an AM/FM/cassette model) for a 1968 Ford Galaxie Custom. The car had a straight six, one bbl carb and originally had an automatic, but our friend did a manual tranny swap - the wrong way! The mechanical part was done right, with three pedals, clutch (mechanical - no hydraulic) and of course the shifter. He cut a hole in the trans tunnel and of course he didn't install the boot correctly, so there was a nice vent hole. Normally, it would be okay, but the exhaust manifold had a leak and of course the stinky and CO gasses would come in the car. I remember feeling sick after driving in the car for a while.

Neither my friend or I knew how to drive a stick, so we asked another friend, who told us that it's easy - push the clutch to start the car and move the shifter into the gear slot and push the gas while letting the clutch out. Let off the gas and push in the clutch, then move the shifter out of gear and into the next gear, then let the clutch out and give her the gas. Sounds easy, right? We spent a whole day (was really about an hour, but it felt like it) sitting in a parking lot, learning to drive a stick.

We drove the car like nut cases for about a week, then the car wouldn't idle, so we traded it for something - I don't remember what it was and it's not very important.

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#3
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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 12:46 AM

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that we bought the car stereo for $25 from another friend. When the accounting is done, we bought a 1968 Ford Galaxie Custom for $25! Hah!

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#4

Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 12:50 AM

Here in Los Angeles, it's not too much fun driving a stick as a daily driver if you have a bad commute. I'm lucky and my commute is 7 miles or so and most is freeway that moves at 65 mph or so a large part of the way. Yeah, it depends on the time I leave, but most times, traffic isn't that bad.

I do enjoy rowing through the gears. I feel the direct connection between the motor and the transmission. And, when I'm in the mood, I can let the motor sing a little, before shifting up. A little heel toe driving with rev matching - yes, it makes driving fun!

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#6
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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 1:05 PM

Agreed. Traffic and manuals are a less fun combination. Although when doing it, I quickly figured out how to set up my following distance to minimize the use of the throw-out bearing and attendant strengthening of my left leg.

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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/20/2021 2:32 AM

Here in LA, if you follow too far from the car in front, cars will jump in front - then slow down fast!

I tell my clients to NEVER use the radar cruise control on the LA freeways, because it'll leave too large a gap in front and cars will keep cutting in front.

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#5

Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 12:57 AM

Last year, I sold my 2017 Toyota Corolla iM (hatchback). It was a 6 speed manual and even though the motor was pretty gutless (1.8L with 137 hp), it made driving the car enjoyable. I will say that Honda makes a better feeling manual.

There were two odd things about the car.

1. As I came to a stop and engaged the clutch, the computer would keep the rpms up - based on the speed I was driving.

2. The engagement point on the clutch was very vague and I would stall the car at times. Also, it made it a little unnerving taking off uphill.

I still own a 2004 Mercedes C230 Kompressor with a 6 speed. With the supercharger, it makes driving the car a lot of fun. The transmission is a bit notchy, but it's not terrible.

And a 2000 Toyota MR-2 Spyder with a 5 speed. Being mid engine, the car is super well balanced, however once it breaks free, the car is a bear to correct.

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#7
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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/19/2021 1:13 PM

My youngest daughter had an '09 VW GTI with the manual. Fun car to drive except for a very annoying 'feature' VW programmed into the fly-by-wire throttle. In an effort to save the clutch from stupid drivers, VW would limit the throttle when starting off. So what would happen is a downright dangerous pause in the power delivery while you are engaging the clutch from a stop. It's almost like the engine was bogging down, but you had no control over it.

If you were trying to scoot out into fast moving traffic, it was very unnerving to have your revs and power levels significantly reduced at the most critical time of acceleration. Cars automated for our own good are not.

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#9
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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/20/2021 2:39 AM

That's terrible and unsafe. Think about how often you need to accelerate fast when starting out - pulling onto a freeway from a stop (110 freeway in LA), turning left, right turn on red, pulling out of a parking spot into traffic (or a parking lot), etc!

From the folks who thought it was a good idea to cheat on fuel economy (diesel) while over polluting!

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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/20/2021 2:40 AM

Though I do like the GTI. Peppy car that feels nice and solid.

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#11
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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/20/2021 2:52 PM

Other than the "bog" it was a gas to drive. Like you said, very solid feeling in typical German fashion.

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Re: The Manual Transmission Is (Almost) Dead, Long Live the Stick Shift

10/23/2021 1:59 PM

I'm thinking back to the mid-late 80's ... We had a 1979 Honda Accord 2 door hatchback with a 5 speed. The tranny was soooo smooth! Super easy to drive, peppy, great visibility, fuel efficient and comfortable. Great build quality to boot! The only issue was safety - I wouldn't want to get hit in that car!

Fast forward 30+ years and I've reverted back. Alfa Spider - Easy to drive, peppy, great visibility, fuel efficient and comfortable. Okay, build quality isn't Honda level. And yes, safety - no, I sure don't want to get hit by anyone!

I delivered a new 2022 Honda Civic a few weeks ago - the car is bigger than the '79 Accord! And it's a Civic! Drives nice, but it feels a little cheap inside. I feel that Honda used better materials back in '79 - the plastics were denser, the motor was indestructible (but don't overheat or break a timing belt) and they were simpler.

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