Earlier this year, in February 2020, the website Green Car Reports, reported that for the first time ever in the US, electric vehicles outsold manual transmission combustion engine cars. The manuals made up for 1.1% of 2019’s new car sales in the US, while the electric vehicles made up 1.6%. Admittedly, both are still relatively small amounts compared to the massive number of automatic transmission combustion engine cars on American roads.
And it is also not entirely surprising that the US overwhelmingly buys automatic transmission cars. According to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, manual car production peaked at 35% in 1980 and has been declining ever since, while in other markets around the world, the manual still holds its spot. In the manual car-loving UK, for example, back in 2017, automatic transmissions only made up 40% of the new cars sales. And in South Africa, according to stats provided to us by market research company Lightstone Auto, in 2017 automatic transmissions also made up only 40% of new car sales. However, that number went up to 45% in 2019. Back in 2015, that number was 33%. South African are by far, an overwhelmingly manual car driving society.
“There’s probably only two occasions where you might want a manual car: If you’re a hard-core off-roader and you really like getting into the rough stuff, and if driving the car to the best of your abilities excites you. Or, if you’re a sports car enthusiast, a real driving enthusiast, then I suppose you’d also want a manual. For every other situation, I would say automatic is better. I really can’t think of any other scenarios where a manual would be better,” says Ciro De Siena, a motoring journalist and head of video over at cars.co.za.
Not so long ago, cars with automatic transmissions were considered a luxury by some, especially because they cost more; on the other hand, they were seen as an inferior drive by enthusiasts, partially due to their limited gears, which resulted in a much clunkier drive and even less control. “They got the nickname ‘slush boxes’ because they were usually four-speed and quite sluggish, and caused the car to consume more fuel. They were sort of derided or avoided in that sense, but then over the years, they started getting better and better,” says De Siena.
The early 80s gave the world the three-speed automatic gearbox and by 1985, all the way until 1999, the four-speed automatic ruled. Then the turn of the century brought with it the five-speed and later the six-speed automatic. However, even the latter is now dropping in popularity with new-car buyers, making way for seven to 10-speed variants, which offer a far smoother ride than ever possible before. And while manual transmissions used to be more fuel efficient, the current crop of new automatic vehicles offers better fuel efficiency than manuals. For all but the most dedicated enthusiasts in search of ultimate control, the modern automatic is increasingly a much better all-round performance option for most people.
It’s also worth mentioning – without getting too technical – that over the years, the term automatic has been used to refer to different technology alternatives to manual. The hydraulic automatic transmission is the most common option, but then there are the continuously variable transmission (CVT), direct shift gearbox (DSG), and dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
However, while all that gear and speed talk is good and well for petrol-heads, and others with a passing knowledge of the stuff that makes a car go vroom, for many of us who aren’t bothered with things out of sight; cost, looks, practicality, efficiency and how simply a car fits into our daily lives might be more important considerations.
“What probably drove more people to automatics was traffic congestion. It’s just infinitely more pleasant being in traffic in an automatic, than it is being in a manual,” explains De Siena.
Indeed, anyone who has experienced city traffic at peak hour knows the drag of clutch balancing for incremental movements. And for some, they’ve experienced the costly exercise that comes with replacing a damaged clutch kit.
One factor that still remains is that automatic transmission variants are often slightly more expensive than the manual counterparts. Take, for example, the small and relatively affordable and popular Kia Picanto. Its entry-level model, the unimaginatively named “1.0 Start”, retails for R173,995 for the manual and R187,995 for the automatic. That’s a difference of R14,000. Whether that is worth it is for each driver to decide for themselves.
Considering the number of manual cars still in production, on sale and on the road, the manual gearbox will be around for a while still. However, its eventual demise might not only be because of the popularity of its automatic counterpart, but rather because an electric car has no place for a manual gearbox and a clutch, nor for the automatic gearbox for that matter. But for most drivers, the mechanics of driving an electric vehicle will reflect that of driving an automatic vehicle, even though it is a completely different system under the hood.
While electric cars still make up a much smaller part of the automotive market, according to the Paris agreement goals, by 2030, 35% of all new cars sold have to be electric vehicles. In November 2019, at the United Nations Climate summit, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also unveiled plans to bring forward the UK’s plan to ban diesel and petrol cars by 2040, by five years to 2035. “In a statement made ahead of the launch, Johnson said the ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars would come even earlier than 2035, if possible,” reported the BBC.
France, on the other hand, has pledged no new petrol or diesel car sales by 2030. Israel, India, Brussels, Irelands and the Netherlands have all set similar goals for 2030. Whether these are realistic goals is another matter altogether. However, the current science on climate change would suggest that it’s either that or a full-on climate crisis.
Whether the clutch pedal enthusiasts like it or not, the next couple of decades are likely to be the last of the stick shift. Best to keep both hands on the steering wheel then and leave the old stick alone. As for this once clutch-burning writer who has always found manual gears to be a cumbersome distraction and who also really doesn’t give a shift about scoring an extra bit of control in between gear changes, good riddance! DM/ML