OPINION: Start Saying Goodbye To The Manual Transmission

For real this time.

By Chris D'Alessandro Wheels.ca

Jul 28, 2021 6 min. read

Article was updated 10 months ago

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Only about 1.2 per cent of new cars sold in North American are equipped with a manual transmission.

No. I’m not happy about this. And yes, journalists have been sounding an alarm about the death of the manual transmission for over a decade now.

But as unfavourable as it is, and as alarmist as it sounds, it is time that we all start accepting just how little life is left in the manual transmission as a mass consumer product. The noble manual transmission now faces just too many threats to survive much longer.

Electric cars are one such threat. A big one.

Like the advent of electronically controlled fuel injection, auto manufacturing is about to see a massive shift in how it produces cars. And just as ‘enthusiasts' complained about losing carburetors in favour of the more efficient fuel injection systems, so too is there a kind of automotive puritan uprising against EVs... because time is a flat circle, apparently.

However, one legitimate gripe to have against EVs is that it makes the inclusion of a manual transmission essentially impossible — or at the very least, completely unnecessary.

Electric vehicles don’t have gearboxes, because they don’t have a flywheel, because they don’t have an engine. The only kind of gearing you get in a Tesla, for example, is through a differential to deal with power distribution and cornering.

You could theoretically simulate a paddle shift automatic with an electric motor, but all you would really be doing is deliberately slowing down your acceleration while being less power efficient. And there would still be no clutch, so what would be the point, really?

No manufacturer will be untouched by electrification. Just this month, Dodge announced it will be making an “electric muscle car” and Aston Martin has said its planning an electric sports car and SUV for 2025.

2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe

But even outside of electric cars, the manual transmission is struggling to find an audience. And that’s because automatics are becoming really, really good.

As little as 10 years ago, if you were a serious performance enthusiast, you had to buy the manual variant of any car as the automatic “slush box” was simply too dimwitted to deliver power effectively.

And in fact, manual transmissions were almost three times as popular in North American in 2010 — about 3.4 per cent of cars sold that year had a manual transmission.

However, things started to change around that time as cars like the Nissan GT-R proved you could actually enhance performance and the all-selling 0-60 m.p.h. time if you removed the possibility for driver error presented with a manual transmission. Of course, performance staples like the Corvette and Toyota Supra have since ditched the manual transmission option entirely and become very, very fast in the process.

Even with nameplates which do still offer a manual, like the Ford Mustang and Porsche 911, the automatic variants are far quicker than their “standard” counterparts. Sometimes by up to half a second to 60 mph (that might as well be a year in car terms).

Granted, there is more to achieving those impressive times than simply removing driver error. Modern automatics are juiced by manufacturers with some gearing trickery to ensure they far outshine the manuals.

Why do manufacturers want the automatic transmission to win?

Firstly, it means that even useless drivers like you or me can hop in any car and feel like a superstar driver. And hey, if you spend over $100,000 on your new Porsche, that desire is certainly understandable.

But moreover, manufacturers know that controlled gearing in automatics make greater fuel efficiencies possible. Additionally, because automatics are so much more popular than manuals, they’re much more cost effective to produce.

No accountant looks at 1.2 per cent of all car sales and says, “Yes, those are the buyers we should focus on.”

As a result, there simply isn’t any research and development money being spent on manual transmissions. And so, this performance and efficiency deficit isn’t likely to swing back in favour of the manual. It’s a death spiral for the manual and a “rich get richer'' situation for the automatic. No one is buying manual transmissions because automatics are so good. And manuals can’t get any better because no one would sensibly invest in improving them, because demand is so low.

Consider that the familiar and well-travelled Tremec TR-6060 (an evolution of the beloved TR-56, which itself first arrived in the early ‘90s) first debuted in 2007 and is still being used, mostly unchanged today.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” simply won’t cut it when automatic transmissions are becoming faster, more efficient and more popular every year.

GMC Hummer EV

Then there’s all this new safety tech.

Driver-assist features like automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control are quickly becoming the norm. Automatic emergency braking, for example, will be available on most models by 2022 due to a voluntary 2019 agreement which was entered into by 20 automakers and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Is it impossible to adapt manual transmissions to this technology? No. But it is very, very costly. And giant corporations don’t like “costly”. If we’re being realistic, when it comes to a product which only accounts for 1.2 per cent of total sales, it’s a far more sensible decision to axe that product completely, rather than invest in improving it.

How soon will the manual transmission kick the bucket?

I reckon we could see the very last clutch pedal roll off the assembly line as early as 2025. If I were to place a bet on it, I’d wager we won’t see any new models announced after that date with a manual transmission option.

Again, this brings me no joy at all. And I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

2021 Honda Civic Type R

I love driving a stick. I don’t think there’s anything quite like the experience of changing your own gears — you’re never quite more connected to a car than when you’re physically connecting the engine to the road. It feels like you’re directly translating energy into speed.

Moreover, a manual transmission has the magic ability to turn a boring car into a spectacular one. You truly don’t need a lot of horsepower when you have a clutch pedal as is evidenced by cars like the Subaru BRZ / Toyota 86 and Mazda MX-5. A Honda Civic Type R without a manual transmission holds no appeal for me whatsoever. It needs that crucial point of engagement to become alive in the way that it does.

But like it or not, commerce is a democracy and car enthusiasts are a very, very small voting bloc. Miniscule, even. And within that miniscule voting block is the even tinier, microscopic block of manual transmission enthusiasts, and we are a group which is growing smaller by the day.