Stick shift, once the industry standard, is on the road to extinction.
Visitors to the recent Los Angeles Auto Show saw supercars, hoverboards, self-propelling luggage and all manner of new transportation options.
But they were hard pressed to find a clutch pedal or a stick shift. Available in nearly half of new models in the United States a decade ago, the manual transmission is going the way of the rumble seat.
Once standard equipment on all motor vehicles, preferred for its dependability, fuel efficiency and sporty characteristics, the four-on-the-floor and the three-on-the-tree are disappearing from major car manufacturers’ lineups.
This is as true of everyday sedans as well as souped-up sports cars. Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Lexus, Chrysler and Buick no longer offer a single model with manual transmission. Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac and GMC offer only one.
“It’s a disgrace,’’ says driving enthusiast and Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. “Yes, it’s more troublesome and expensive for the automakers. But it’s completely inexcusable that Ferrari doesn’t even offer a manual [transmission].”
In 2006, 47 percent of new models offered in the United States were available with both automatic and manual transmissions, according to a study by Edmunds.com. By 2011, that number had dropped to 37 percent. By 2016 the number had fallen to 27 percent.
The actual sales figures are even lower. Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury said fewer than 3 percent of current U.S. car sales are manual vehicles — compared with 80 percent in some European and Asian countries, and down in the U.S. from 7 percent in 2012 and 25 percent in 1992.
“That number is never going to go back up,” Drury says. “The trajectory is down, headed for zero.”
For decades, almost all automakers offered almost all their vehicles with a choice of automatic or manual drive trains. The stick shift had so long been the standard that a manual transmission was known in the industry as a “standard” transmission.
Driving enthusiasts and bargain hunters preferred them, because cars with three pedals on the floor tended to perform better, get better gas mileage and cost less to buy — sometimes up to $1,000 cheaper.
But as automakers perfected the automatic transmission, and learned to make it less expensive and more dependable, drivers became accustomed to the relative ease of leaving the shifting to the car. Automatics gradually became the preferred option, and automakers began offering them in fewer vehicles, saving them money because they no longer had to manufacture two drive trains.
Ferrari’s product marketing chief Nicola Boari says the company decided to end all manual transmission production because demand was “close to zero.”
Among the reasons: Cars equipped with the modern, more sophisticated automatic transmissions now get better gas mileage than the manuals, fewer young people are driving — relying on public transportation or ride-sharing services — and fewer can operate manual transmissions.
Georgia Vassilakis, 21, learned to drive stick when her Ford-employee mother brought home a manual transmission Fiesta. Few of her friends, Vassilakis says, can drive a stick. All are surprised that she can.
“For people of my age, it’s as if I knew how to speak Latin,” she says.
Most drivers who operate a stick learn from a friend or family member. Those who seek professional guidance may be out of luck.
A survey of 10 Los Angeles-area driving schools found only one that offers instruction in stick-shift driving.
“It’s really difficult,” says Hector Hernandez, of First Choice Driving School — which has one stick-savvy instructor on staff — by way of explaining why so few schools teach manual. “And it takes a really patient instructor to teach it.”
That’s too bad, experts say, on several levels. Knowing how to work a manual gearbox can still be cost-effective, because in many parts of the world a rental car with automatic transmission is considerably more expensive than a manual.
Some also argue that a manual transmission forces drivers to remain focused on the road.
“The fact that you are required to pay more attention makes you a safer driver,” says Doug Herbert, founder of the nonprofit teen driver training program Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe, known as BRAKES.
For Herbert, the safety issue is deeply personal. A professional drag racer, he started BRAKES in 2008 after his two teenage sons were killed in an accident.
Radio host Adam Carolla, who collects and races vintage cars, says with a stick shift, drivers can’t “just lean back and go into autopilot mode.”
For a long time, you were also going faster with a stick. A good driver, with a manual transmission, could get around a race track, or go from zero to 60 mph, more quickly than a good driver with an automatic transmission.
But that hasn’t been true for several years. The automatic gear boxes work better, and shift more efficiently, than any pro driver with a stick shift can.
That’s no matter to manual aficionados who say the stick is simply more fun.
“I want to be engaged by the car, and part of that experience is moving through the gears,” says auto enthusiast Spike Feresten, creator and host of the Esquire Network “Car Matchmaker” TV series. “All of my cars but two are manual. The only time I get into the automatic is when I know I’m going to be stuck in traffic.”
Several companies still offer sticks in selected models, where they used to offer them across their entire line. Ford, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Kia, Subaru, Volkswagen and Hyundai sell a handful. Some customers are trying to maximize performance, others to minimize cost.
“We recognize there are still consumers that appreciate the manual control of the power train,” says Derek Joyce, an executive with Hyundai.
Specific automobiles, too, still draw customers to their stick-shift formats. Mazda sells an estimated 60 percent of its MX-5 Miata sports car in the manual transmission version, the company says.