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Manual transmissions are alive and...well, not dead yet

Automotive News

Cadillac CTS-V
Cadillac offers the 556-hp CTS-V luxury car with a manual transmission, a commercial says, "because there are those who still believe in the power of a firm handshake."
Cadillac CTS-V
Cadillac offers the 556-hp CTS-V luxury car with a manual transmission, a commercial says, "because there are those who still believe in the power of a firm handshake." Cadillac

Speaking statistically, manual transmissions are disappearing from the American auto market.

But disappearing from the hearts and minds of drivers? Hardly.

In fact, there is new life in the old technology--at least as a symbol of sportiness for certain models.

Cadillac has just begun advertising its racy $63,215 CTS-V on national TV, specifically touting its manual transmission. "Why did we build a 556-horsepower luxury car with a manual transmission?" the spot asks. "Because there are those who still believe in the power of a firm handshake."

"We recognize in talking to our consumers that they really appreciate a manual," says Molly Peck, Cadillac advertising director. "It's not about a cost-saving technology. It's about that engagement with the vehicle that some drivers want. It adds to the thrill of the model."

Mini is also launching a campaign to sing the praises of manual shifting, using the tag line, "Get your shift together." And Mazda North American Operations just introduced a redesigned Mazda3 with a new six-speed manual transmission as part of its Skyactiv fuel-economy package. The model also comes with an older five-speed manual option that Mazda just isn't ready to drop.

In a world of sophisticated new automatics, investing in manuals is not easy. Mazda engineers completely redesigned their shifting system to make the new manual smoother. The project meant shortening the "travel distance" from gear to gear by a mere 5 millimeters. But it's worth it because the automaker predicts that nearly one of five Mazda3 buyers will choose one of the manual transmissions.

Next month in Los Angeles, Mazda will introduce a redesigned CX-5 crossover that also has the six-speed manual. Manual-transmission customers for the current CX-5 have been running at just under 6 percent.

"It's not big volume, but that's not the point," says Jeremy Barnes, Mazda's British-accented U.S. product spokesman. "It's not a demographic, it's a psychographic. Manual transmissions appeal to the sporty end of the spectrum, and that's who we are. It's what differentiates us from Toyota and Honda."

Mini's spin on it? "Manual transmissions are important to our customers," says Tom Salkowsky, Mini USA brand marketing manager. "There is a community of drivers out there who want the benefits of a manual. And our message is, for those of you looking for that driving experience of control, Mini is the brand for you."

The brand sells a stick-shift model to more than one out of every three customers. In its New England market, for reasons the company doesn't fully understand, almost half of Mini sales are sticks. This fall, the company began stepping up the drumbeat for manuals, opening up a comical toll-free phone line (1-855-MANUAL-UP) where callers can hear witty recordings about buying manual-equipped cars. Salkowsky has also unleashed a manual-promoting print ad campaign that reads: "Buy two pedals, get one free."

Are these automakers simply bucking the tide of automotive history?

At a casual glance, stick shift transmissions seem to be headed for the dust heap, alongside other perfectly nice tools of the past like typewriters and rooftop TV antennas.

In the vast population of all light vehicles on U.S. roads--some 240 million in rough numbers--stick shifts account for just 12 percent today, according to Polk, the industry data-gathering firm. Automakers estimate that most are older vehicles, slowly aging out of commission, and that manuals represent a measly 5 to 7 percent of vehicle sales today.

Japanese automakers have been investing in additional transmission manufacturing capacity in North America over the past year for future products, including a $50 million Ohio factory expansion project announced last month by Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. But it is all for new-generation automatic transmissions. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda do not produce a single manual transmission in the United States.

To prepare for future demand, German transmission supplier ZF Group has stepped up plans for a new factory in Laurens, S.C., that will produce eight-speed automatic transmissions for Chrysler. ZF said last month that it has increased the budget to $400 million, up from the scheduled $320 million, so it can add a new nine-speed automatic transmission to the mix.

"Demand for manual transmissions is shrinking for all manufacturers," says Steve Yaeger, Nissan North America Inc.'s spokesman on technology. Nissan offers manual options on many models, including the high-revving 370Z roadster. But the technology is peripheral. Sales of the Z will be under 10,000 this year. Of greater significance is Nissan's strategic move of recent years to use more continuously variable transmissions, promoting their smoothness and fuel economy. The 2012 Nissan Versa sedan comes with either a CVT or a five-speed manual. The CVT Versa offers 3 miles per gallon better combined city and highway fuel economy than the more humble stick version.

"The momentum is definitely behind making the CVT even more efficient and enjoyable for the customers while returning fuel economy that rivals a manual shift," Yaeger says.

That is a reversal from traditional thinking. In the past, consumers chose manual transmissions to gain better fuel economy than the automatic versions of a model. Advanced automatics can now outperform the old sticks in the mpg department.

Another factor behind the decline of stick shifts: Drivers don't have enough arms to shift gears anymore. Consumers today often hold the steering wheel with one hand while holding a cell phone or even attempting to text with the other. It is a common bad habit that makes manually shifting gears a nuisance requiring a third arm.

And stick-shifting no longer has a corner on driving performance. Jim Vurpillat, Cadillac's global marketing director, notes that Cadillac set an industry speed record for production sedans three years ago at Germany's Nurburgring racetrack using the CTS-V sedan automatic--not the manual. And some high-performance brands, including Ferrari and Lamborghini, are moving away from stick shifts entirely in favor of more sophisticated transmissions.

All this has some consumers moaning the blues. The auto buff book Car and Driver runs a public opinion campaign called "Save the manuals!" that decries what readers fear is the creeping end of manual transmissions.

"I can't tell you how much I love manual transmission," one reader gushes. "I would rather have control and be a better driver and person!!"

"The ability to shift and understand how a manual works makes you a better driver," agrees another.

Will the clamoring of such enthusiasts keep the stick alive, long term?

"As long as we see customers for it, and as long as it builds the brand, it will be central to our product," Cadillac's Vurpillat vows.

Vurpillat begs off commenting on specific future product plans. But two new Cadillac models will be introduced next year, including a small car, and both are expected to offer manual transmissions.

(Source: Automotive News)