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More fans of manual transmissions shift gears to automatics

November 22, 2010
The stick shift, an automotive mainstay since the invention of the "horseless carriage," slowly is going the way of the tailfin and carburetor. Thanks to technological advances and drivers looking for an easier way to navigate congested roadways, the old standard manual transmission doesn't come standard much anymore. "One more generation and you'll probably have people who have absolutely no idea what a three-pedal car does," said Bill Visnic, editor of an automotive trade magazine. By 2012, just 6 percent of all vehicles sold in the North American market will have manual transmissions, according to a forecast by Germany's ZF Industries, the world's largest independent transmission maker. In 2002, 10 percent of vehicles sold in the United States and Canada were equipped with manual gearboxes. The trend also is occurring in European markets. In the United Kingdom, automatic transmissions are on pace to reach 15 percent of all models. Even heavy-duty and commercial trucks are making the switch. Over an eight-year span beginning in 1996, the popularity of automatic transmissions among heavy trucks rose from 5 percent to 18 percent, reports show. Motoring purists lament the change, claiming car and motorist are only connected when the driver is shifting gears. But for some, the fun of operating slick new automatic transmissions- some of which enable drivers to shift without a clutch-now rival the old standard gearbox. Increased traffic congestion has reduced the manual experience to drudgery for others. Edmund Handwerker, a 19-year-old student in New York, has a 1996 Mazda Miata with an automatic transmission. "Everyone asks, 'How come you don't get a manual? A Miata should be manual.' I get that from everyone," said Handwerker. "I live in Brooklyn and I'm in stop-and-go traffic all the time." In a car equipped with a manual transmission, gridlock can mean pushing and releasing a clutch pedal again and again. Plus, since some pedals are stiffer than others, driving can be physically exhausting. And talking on a cell phone and sipping coffee-favorite pastimes of today's drivers-is much easier without having to shift gears. Shifting is not missed Ted Marshall drives 30,000 miles a year for work, so he made sure his '04 Pontiac GTO had an automatic transmission. And he doesn't miss the sporty feeling associated with shifting. Reversing a decades-old industry marketing equation, Pontiac designated automatic transmission as standard equipment on the GTO. The 6-speed manual, which it shares with the Chevrolet Corvette, is a $695 option. If manual transmissions become scarce, most dealers won't grieve. "We used to have the manual trans available on the Grand Am," said Ed McDade, sales manager at a Detroit dealership. "When I stocked them, they'd just sit. In the past, the small economical cars with a stick would be the way to go because they were even cheaper. It's not the case any more." Skill is not learned As automatic transmissions proliferated in the last half-century, fewer and fewer people learned the time-hon ored skill of coordinating clutch, shifter and throttle, McDade said. And the inability to drive a stick seems to know no boundaries. Jason Vines, vice president of communications for DaimlerChrysler AG, recalls accommodating a test drive request from an automotive writer from a national publication. The request was for a Dodge Viper. "We had it delivered and the journalist goes, 'This is a stick! I can't drive a stick!' " Vines said, noting Dodge doesn't offer the Viper any other way. And pity Roy P. Bougie of Blaine, Minn. He's doing 10 years for a 2000 carjacking that failed because he couldn't drive the vehicle he'd stolen.