A Plea to Automakers: Give Us More Transmission Choice

We’ll miss the manual when it’s gone.

Maybe would-be manual transmission buyers were reluctantly foregoing three-pedal setups because they wanted navigation systems and satellite radio more?

Like many automotive journalists, I’ve long bemoaned the slowly dying art of manually shifting gears. The shift (pun intended) to automatics makes a certain sense, of course — humans are lazy, and most drivers would rather put the car in “Drive” and just forget about it, plus it’s harder to learn how to drive a stick. We’d bet many driving schools don’t even offer it — the cost of replacement clutches can’t be cheap. Besides, it’s not just that drivers want to save their left legs — many want to keep their hands free, not for steering, but for texting/eating/shaving/whatever else can distract them from driving.

There’s also the fact that many automatic transmissions and automated manuals are doing the job as well or sometimes better than manuals themselves.

Manual transmission

Give us manuals or give us … something.

It’s no shock that automakers offer manual transmissions on fewer and fewer models, since they claim consumers don’t want them. But I’ve noticed that there seems to be more to it than a simple desire for convenience on the part of buyers. There are actually plenty of models out there in which you can get a manual transmission with the base trim level, but not when you step up to a more expensive trim level with nicer features, even if the engine is the same. This got me wondering: Maybe would-be manual transmission buyers were reluctantly foregoing three-pedal setups because they wanted navigation systems and satellite radio more?

It was a test car that rolled through these offices early this winter that got me thinking on the topic. Specifically, it was a Volkswagen Passat TDI that I drove nearly halfway across the country in one day in a fuel-economy challenge. The TDI that Volkswagen provided came with a six-speed manual transmission which matched perfectly to the engine. However, the car came without a navigation system, and you can’t get one on the Passat TDI if you want a manual transmission. I kept this in mind as I tried to use my iPhone for navigating, which is distracting at highway speeds — and illegal in some places.

Why wouldn’t VW want to give buyers the chance to get more features and have the motor paired to a transmission that seems made for it? Wouldn’t diesel buyers, especially, appreciate the better fuel economy of the manual without having to sacrifice the premium interior?

The standard automaker response is that take-rates of manual transmissions are too low. But to me, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing. It’s not just that too many buyers prefer automatics or don’t know how to drive a stick — it’s that many buyers who would prefer to shift for themselves might pass on a base model offering a manual because they want features like Bluetooth, navigation, and Pandora, yet they can’t get them without being forced into a slushbox.

Again, the OEMs will say that not enough people want to get a premium-trim car with a manual. In fact, VW said just that when asked: “The reason manuals are not offered on our higher trims is due to lack of customer demand.  Customers are not asking for them on the higher trims, and therefore dealers are not requesting them,” a spokesperson told me.  And yeah, dealers might be loath to sell cars that won’t move easily.

But it’s hard to buy cars that aren’t offered. Maybe customers don’t want the manual on higher trims, but I suspect some would buy them if they were available. What consumers say in surveys and focus groups isn’t always gospel, as car guy extraordinaire Bob Lutz said in his book Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company.

stick shift

We’ll miss this.

So why are base cars are offered with manuals at all? According to AutoPacific’s Ed Kim, it’s in order for the automaker to offer a lower base sticker price, and to increase marketing for a “sporty” appeal.

I’d suggest that if automakers allowed buyers to get a manual and step up to a higher trim, there’d probably be enough takers to justify any increased assembly cost/complexity, at least on cars that already offer a manual in the base model. Especially in the case of models where a stickshift would be appreciated, such as the “green” Passat TDI or the higher trims of the “sporty” Honda Accord (no one is going to want a stick-shift Camry, though).

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe VW’s customers really don’t give a whit about shifting for themselves, and the only reason the TDI has a manual is simply so VW can advertise it at $2K lower than it otherwise would.

That may be the case, based on what VW and Kim told me, plus my own experience as an industry observer. That’s too bad, because it would be nice not to be forced to make sacrifices when ordering a car.

There’s lots of old technology I’ll never miss, like crank windows. The manual isn’t one of them.

Written by Lewis Shaw

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