The Manual Transmission Is Dying: Here's Why

Short answer: there's no longer a practical reason for it to exist.

driver with hand on gear lever
Jose Luis Agudo GonzalezGetty Images

I love manual transmissions. I grew up driving with a stick. I still own one as my technical "daily driver," even though it's seldom driven daily while I'm testing cars. But each year, the list of vehicles offering manual transmissions grows smaller. And my sentiments feel like even more of an anachronism.

The debate is not so much whether the manual transmission is dying but where it resides on the death continuum, with only a few niche models keeping it on life support. The forces at work against the manual transmission are insurmountable, and even the #savethemanuals hashtag has profound "old man shouting into the wind" energy.

Automatic transmissions are better than manual transmissions.

Automatic transmissions have become far better than they once were. Current auto boxes are both efficient and intuitive. They outperform humans with a stick shift, whether it's on track or in everyday life. The laundry list of practical reasons one used to opt for a manual — fuel economy? — no longer exist. There isn't a single justification for putting a manual in a car in 2022 beyond sheer driver engagement, which is a reason but not a practical one.

Drivers don't want manual transmissions.

You may hear car journalists pine for stick shifts, but car journalists differ markedly from the general population: civilians don't like driving manuals. Exact umbers will vary depending on the source, But manual transmission sales make up about 1-2% of car sales. And holdouts like the Subaru Outback or Honda Accord lose their stick option, it's generally because the market for manual has fallen to about that level.

subaru wrx

Vehicles like the Porsche 911 and Subaru WRX still have sticks due to high demand. But even some manual transmission stalwarts are faltering. Ford just pulled the manual from non-GT Mustang models. And the Jeep Wrangler only offers a stick on its V6 engine. The last time we checked with Jeep, the manual Wrangler take rate was about 10% — the same as the percentage who still opt for the two-door model.

Electric and electrified cars don't need manual transmissions

The automotive world is going electric and manual transmissions have no relevance in that world. Electric motors generally use a single gear. There's no reason to shift as you get peak torque on tap. Honda offered some early hybrids with a manual. But hybrid tech has grown to the point where a stick shift would not be helpful even if it were feasible. Most hybrids stick with CVTs or — if looking for some driving engagement — conventional automatic transmissions.

Some manufacturers are experimenting with bringing the manual transmission into the electric era in a simulated fashion. Dodge's new electric muscle car will have an "eRupt" manual shifting component. Ford and Toyota have patents for wholly unnecessary electronic manual transmissions. But it's not certain whether those will be implemented in production cars or whether buyers would want them if they did.

Cost-cutting makes manuals hard to justify

Until recently, manual transmissions appeared in the base models of several affordable cars. A manual gearbox is simpler and cheaper to produce than an automatic one, so using them helped to bring down costs. But EV development is expensive and that has forced manufacturers to become far more judicious and streamlined about car manufacturing — using the same platforms, engines and transmissions on several vehicles.

Throwing a manual transmission into the development process adds complexity and costs — for what is ultimately be dead-end technology. The bar to include one — unless it's a manual-only special like the Toyota GR Corolla or Honda Civic Type R — is prohibitively high.

Tech is pushing towards less driver engagement, not more.

A manual transmission is for driving engagement. New car technologies are trying to push the driver out of the picture. Self-driving evangelists like Elon Musk want to remove steering wheels entirely with autonomous driving tech (even if we're nowhere close to that being feasible). Almost every manufacturer is working on part-time hands-free driving tech that isn't compatible with a manual transmission car.

Much of the new advanced safety tech is designed without the manual transmission in mind. A significant reason Subaru pulled the manual transmission from the current base model Impreza was to offer Subaru's EyeSight system — incompatible with a manual — standard.

The manual transmission's days are numbered

I can't tell you when the manual transmission's official demise will come. Porsche may keep building combustion stick-shift 911s into the next decade if its synthetic eFuel becomes viable. But the manual is not the future of motoring. It's not at the present cutting edge. And if you're intent on being an "only drives a manual" person, treat the next few like your last call to buy a new car.

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