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Why Manual Transmissions Are Dying … and What’ll End Them for Good

audi r8 2008 gatedshifter jpg photo by Ian Merritt

There used to be many good reasons for a new driver to learn a manual transmission: To start with, cars with stick shifts were cheaper, more efficient and quicker. The longstanding barrier has been that the learning curve is mighty steep compared with an automatic — and possibly compared with all other aspects of driving combined.

But things have changed. In a nutshell, a young driver’s reasons to learn stick now seem to be down to “they’re harder for millennials to steal” and “some old guy told me they’re more fun and I should put down my phone and pay more attention to my driving anyway.” (We’re doomed.)

Related: More National Stick Shift Day Coverage

I was an audiophile before I was old enough to drive, and now that I look at the statistics around stick shifts in the U.S. auto market, I have a familiar sinking feeling. Trying to explain why manual transmissions are better than automatics in 2020 is like trying to explain why vinyl records were better than compact discs in the 1980s: You can’t … because they’re not, at least not in ways that will resonate with the masses or the business world.

This sentiment might not be what you’d expect from the guy who hosted’s video tutorial, “How to Drive a Manual Transmission” (and who formerly worked at audiophile publications), but I am, first and foremost, a journalist concerned with the truth. And the truth from one member of the staff that established the National Stick Shift Day is that manual transmissions aren’t “better” any more than vinyl records, deep-dish pizza or any number of other examples I could name. We just like them. Many of us prefer them to the alternative. I wish that were enough.

Percentage of Models With Manual Transmissions

It wasn’t always like this. For a long time, manual transmissions were superior in ways that kept them alive. It’s the loss of these key advantages, along with other phenomena, that have seen the sales and availability of proper three-pedal manuals gradually diminish. As I write this, according to data, only 1.3% of new vehicles are sold in the U.S. with a stick, down from 3.4% in 2010. According to EPA data, manuals hit their most recent peak long before there was a, in 1980 at 34.6% of production. Out of roughly 350 models on sale now, I count less than 50 that even offer a manual for the 2020 model year, and that number is sure to drop. The number of models and entire brands that recently have bailed out —  the current Chevrolet Corvette and Audi among them — is sobering indeed.

What’s changed? It’s simple. Automatics have gotten much better — not from the perspective of stick-shift fans, but in the broader sense (and the dollars-and-cents sense). I’ll address some of these factors along with something you may not have expected: the ways manual transmissions have gotten worse and might be hastening their demise.

Automatics Became More Efficient

Efficiency is probably the single most important factor sculpting automobiles and their markets, and that goes for transmissions, too. Some people think automatic transmissions dominate in the U.S. because we’re lazy; while there might be cultural factors at play, you can’t overlook the fact that this is the land of cheap fuel, and for most of their near-century in existence, automatics have been less efficient than manuals due to their size and weight, torque converter losses and having fewer gears than manual gearboxes. If Americans paid twice as much for gas (or more), our lazy asses would have been driving tiny stick-shift cars just like Europeans and probably waxing superior about it … just like Europeans. The U.S. stick-shift production peak in 1980? That was the year after an oil crisis associated with the Iranian Revolution.

EPA gears graph jpg EPA graphic

It was roughly 2012 that the average number of gears in automatic transmissions surpassed that of manuals, according to the EPA, and more gears translates to more efficiency. Combined with the proliferation of lockup torque converters and other already-established advancements, this is roughly when automatics became more efficient overall.

It’s not about you. It’s about the manufacturers, which have to mind their Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Practically overnight, manual gearboxes’ primary reason for existence vanished in their practical eyes. The stick shift became something consumers might want due to personal preference or for performance reasons, but what we want doesn’t always translate to what we get.

EPA man v auto graph jpg EPA graphic

Prediction: It might take longer in countries in which manuals are more established, but now that they’re not the efficient choice, their days are certainly numbered in places where fuel is more expensive than it is here.

Automatics Became Faster Than You Are

Automatic shifting also used to be slow and sloppy, and nowadays even some conventional automatics — as opposed to dual-clutch “automated manuals” — can shift faster than you could hope to, making the car quicker than a manual-transmission version of the same. Even worse, torque converters are able to handle higher engine torque, both by nature of their design and because there’s no human in the equation to screw up by dumping the clutch. Once again, the automatic can be quicker than the stick based on the engine with which it’s paired. It’s one of the great paradoxes that stick shifts find their last natural home in performance vehicles, yet the ultimate performance comes from the automatics.

Automatics Got Cheaper wasn’t very old when we had to counsel our writers not to call a manual transmission a “standard,” as people colloquially had for lifetimes. Why? Because they usually weren’t standard equipment anymore. In the U.S., the typical standard — and only — transmission was an automatic. But it’s gone beyond that. Manuals have long been the option in BMW cars, at no extra cost but no discount, though they’re slowly vanishing from that automaker’s lineup as well.

There are still exceptions, though. Go build yourself a 2020 Ford Mustang, and you’ll find the six-speed manual is still standard while the 10-speed automatic is the extra-cost option. The same is true of the 2020 Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger, direct competitors to the Mustang.

Unfortunately, cost is an issue before consumers even get the choice. Without sufficient demand, automakers typically don’t deem it worth the investment to engineer, certify and build a manual powertrain when the volume is all in automatics. Even in cases where the stick remains available overseas, manufacturers often conclude that simply marketing, selling and supporting it here isn’t worthwhile given the small demand. Many transmissions have failed this cost-benefit analysis of late, and more are certain to.

Today’s Manuals Aren’t as Good

One thing I haven’t written is what I’ve heard automakers claim — that their dual-clutch paddle-actuated transmission is so great that you won’t miss the manual they’ve discontinued. That’s like saying the pizza is so good you won’t miss the ice cream. This is about completely different experiences that technically serve the same purpose (connecting engines to drive wheels and filling stomachs, respectively, in case I’m losing you). Anyone who thinks shifting an automatic transmission manually is essentially the same thing as a three-pedal manual simply doesn’t get it.

We’ve detailed the way manuals have become more automatic, and I don’t object to that — especially as it can help flatten the learning curve — but let’s not confuse one thing with the other. Driving a stick is about the experience, and that hasn’t changed with the revolution detailed above … or has it?

toyota 86 2020 shifter scaled jpg 2020 Toyota 86 | Manufacturer image

This is going to sound like heresy, but I assert that a tiny percentage of stick shifts’ slow demise might be because they’ve lost something over the years. The truth is that BMW started giving up on manuals while it still sold them. Part of the joy of driving stick is feeling like you’re connected to the machine, and BMW shifters have felt completely disconnected for as long as I can remember. They’re not alone: When our editors try and name the best shifters on the market, I always come back to the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 (same car sold by different brands). Not all shifters are terrible, but shouldn’t more come to mind? Clutch pedals similarly have gone numb in many applications.

bmw 3seriessedan 2012 shifter scaled jpg 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan | photo by Joe Wiesenfelder

While they’ve been improving automatics, technological advancements have also slowly been sucking the joy out of manual transmissions. Around 20 years ago, automakers made a change from mechanical to electronic throttle control. As is often true of new tech, it came with good intentions and endless potential — and major flaws, primarily in the form of delay: Tap on the gas pedal, and you’d wait what seemed like a whole second before the engine would respond; it wasn’t actually a full second, but it seemed an eternity compared with a mechanical throttle.

Now, you could easily not notice this lag when driving an automatic because automatics already have some lag, and if you had any standards to begin with, you probably wouldn’t be driving one anyway. But the point behind a manual is to be in tune with the car and to rev the engine to match the transmission speed before downshifting, and the latency introduced by these by-wire throttles was unmistakable.

Similarly, the connection between the engine and driveline is so direct that you could feel the delay when in gear, as well. If you’re assuming this abomination was limited to makers of commuting appliances, think again. BMWs and Minis were particularly bad. This was one of the reasons I purchased a second-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata several years ago even though the third generation was already available: The second generation had a good old, quick-reacting manual throttle.

mazda miata 2002 jwpersonalcar jpg The author's 2002 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition | photo by Joe Wiesenfelder

In time, the manufacturers improved the responsiveness of their throttles, but the emissions imperative that drove their adoption continues to change how engines operate. The latest downside, nicely explained by Jason Fenske in one of his recent Engineering Explained videos, is something called rev hang that I originally assumed resulted from massive flywheels in today’s ever-shrinking engines.

Where engines used to slow down quickly after we released the accelerator pedal, allowing us to upshift and match the engine’s revs to that of the transmission, now the engine control unit tells the engine to take its time in order to keep a tight rein on the air-fuel mixture. As a result, the engine is still moving too quickly to mesh when you release the clutch after an upshift. That leaves you two options: jerky shifting or taking too long to execute the shift.

chevrolet corvette 2014 shifter scaled jpg 2014 Chevrolet Corvette seven-speed manual transmission | photo by Evan Sears

And there can be too much of a good thing. The goals of higher mileage and maintaining competitiveness with automatics are understandable, but there are limits to how much shifting I want to do. Six gears is great, but seven gears in the seventh-generation Corvette had me feeling the way I do in paddle-shifted eight-speeds: enough already. Manuals have lost the efficiency battle. All they have left is the experience, so now it’s time for the automakers who remain devoted to manuals and their fans not to screw them up by trying to serve too many masters. The stick shift is an experiential choice; anything that harms that experience will doom it to oblivion.

Convenience, a Force Majeure

Now that automatic transmissions have evolved, there are similarities between manual transmissions and vinyl records. Neither is about objective superiority but rather a different experience from a machine that serves the same purpose. The ritual of handling jacket artwork, cleaning an LP and lowering the tonearm isn’t the bug; it’s part of the feature, along with the different sound. Driving a stick is itself enjoyable and evokes earlier times, cars and perhaps the people who taught you to drive.

In the consumer product realm, convenience is a force majeure; both stick-shift and vinyl aficionados can live without it. In addition to being much busier (engaged) behind the wheel, stick-shift drivers will never get to relax while their cars accelerate and brake them — all the way to a stop — through a miles-long traffic jam like automatics equipped with adaptive cruise control can. Manual owners are also more likely to be denied the conveniences of remote engine start, just as LP listeners don’t have the luxury of programming a player to skip the Yoko Ono tracks on John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album — a discovery with my first CD player that inspired an epiphany: The LP was toast.

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This Will Get Expensive

Unfortunately, vinyl and the components that play it (at least the good ones) cost more than they used to because now it’s a niche, and that’s probably what we can expect from manual transmissions. Where a cottage industry sprung up to support the resurgent vinyl record hobby, we’ll rely on the same automakers we currently have for manual transmissions. (The guys who press your vinyl are in no position to get a car past emissions and safety regulators.) Personally, I’d be willing to pay extra for a manual transmission, but only if it’s executed properly, with no more than six forward gears, lightning-quick throttle response and no undue rev hang — or whatever else might enter automakers’ heads in a misguided quest to compete with automatics. There’s no competition. They’re two different things. Some of us just prefer a stick shift, and that ought to be enough.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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