Electric cars constitute a small fraction of all new car sales but they are outselling non-electric cars by a margin of something like ten to one. This being so because almost no one sells new cars with manual transmissions anymore. Not even BMW – which once sold itself as purveyor of the Ultimate Driving Machines.
This assumed you wanted to actually drive them.
Once upon a time, BMW drivers did, which is why one could usually get a manual in almost every car BMW sold – including sedans and always in its sports cars. As of today, BMW sports cars like the Z4 come standard – and only – with automatic transmissions. A few ultra-high-performance (and ultra-high-cost) BMWs like the M3 sedan and M4 coupe are still available with manuals, but probably not for long.
Probably for two reasons.
The first is that manuals are aging out.
People who got their driver’s licenses before say 1985 or so are much more likely to know how to drive a stickshift car because back in the ’80s, roughly a fourth of all new cars still came with manual transmissions and probably half or more of the used economy-type cars that most young people got for their first car back then had a clutch. For many, it was a case of – if you wanted to drive, you had to learn to drive stick.
Like most who did, they came to like it – and when they had the means, would incline toward the purchase of a new car with a manual. But people who became new drivers in the ’80s are now in their 50s. Their kids – the Millennials – grew up in a mostly automatic world; most of them never learned how to drive stick and that means it is hard to sell these people a new car with a stick.
For the same reason that BMW only sells a rare few models with manual transmissions today. The first being – no surprise – the necessity of designing cars that can pass muster with federal (and lately, state) rigmarole, chiefly emissions and mileage and also (lately) drive-by noise rigmarole.
It is harder to fine-tune a manual-equipped car for the lowest possible emissions and the highest-possible MPGs because it is impossible to program a manual transmission. It is an uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variable. It shifts when and how the driver wants it to shift, whereas an automatic can be programmed to shift precisely when it is optimum to shift for lowest possible possible emission, highest possible mileage and lowest possible noise.
This latter is why Porsche was told it cannot sell the manual-equipped version of its ultra-high-performance 911 GT3 coupe in California; the stick versions failed the state’s drive-by noise rigmarole. It is also why California became the first state – a long time ago – in which it became almost impossible to sell any car with a manual transmission, even when stickshift versions were being offered by the car companies in the other 49 states.
Now America is California – as far as regulatory rigmarole is concerned.
But the engineers made lemon aid out of these regulatory lemons. They programmed the automatics to shift faster and more accurately than most humans can and always more consistently than any human can – even a human race car driver. This is why the automatic versions of BMW’s M3 and M4 are quicker than the same cars with manuals; it is why almost every ultra-ultra-performance new-model-year supercar comes only with an automatic.
They perform better, by the numbers. Both federal rigmarole and 0-60.
But there is a die-hard cohort (all ages) that prefers to shift for themselves, that does not care that the automatic-equipped version is two-tenths of a second quicker through the traps than the stickshift version. They consider the stickshift version more fun to drive, which used to count for a lot among drivers.
Fun isn’t numbers-quantifiable. It either is, or it isn’t. Or it is less – or more. Slightly, by the numbers.
A lot, by feel.
Sure, it is fun to run an M3 or M4 through the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds at 125.6 MPH (a Prius takes about the same time to reach 60 MPH). But it is more fun – for some – to shift an M3 or M4 through the quarter-mile 0.3 seconds slower in the same car with a manual.
This Fun Factor also probably accounts at least somewhat for the enduring popularity of cars like the Mazda Miata, which is one of the very few new cars that still comes standard with a manual transmission and which is overwhelmingly bought with a stick, even though Mazda does offer an automatic as an option. It is not an especially quick car. But it is an extremely fun car.
But fun is getting harder to find – in a new car. Or even a new truck; they are almost all automatic-only, with the exception of holdouts like the Toyota Tacoma. Given the increasing pressure to comply with federal (and state) rigmarole, it is very likely there will soon be no new cars – or trucks – that offer a manual because it will no longer be possible to comply with the rigamarole without a finely programmed automatic. And of course, electric cars have no transmissions at all.
We stand at a crossroads not unlike the one that appeared in 1975, the first year that practically every new car on the market came with a catalytic converter. If you didn’t want one, you wanted a ’74 or or older car, which didn’t have them.
Today, these pre-’75 cars are considered more desirable as collector cars because they aren’t as choked by emissions controls. Their engines are more powerful and can be made more powerful, legally – because it is not illegal to remove catalytic converters that were never there to begin with. Horsepower plummeted in ’75, the first year for cats – and in many parts of the country – including California – these cars must retain their cats, even now, to be legal for use on public roads.
It is not unlikely that, 40 years from now, anything with a stick will be even more desirable to possess than anything without a cat. The main difference then vs. now is that the lag time between general recognition of what’s no longer available and the correlated uptick in the value of that which was available is less. People are hip, right now, to the pending extinction of manual-equipped cars and are are buying up the limited supply of used cars (and trucks) equipped with them.
If you’d like to shift for yourself, better hurry. Or prepare to spend more, soon.
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