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Still kicking: Stick shift not dead yet

“Stick shift” vehicles have been in steady decline. Currently theyrepresent only about five to seven per cent of the North Americannew-vehicle market.

“Stick shift” vehicles have been in steady decline. Currently they represent only about five to seven per cent of the North American new-vehicle market.

That steep of a decline could suggest a zero market share might soon be in the cards.

But it appears that the shifter survivor percentage has hardened into a small, dense core, very much willing and prepared to stand its ground — like a cornered groundhog, overly angry and muscled by steroid use. OK bad analogy, but you get my point.

Stick shifts have had four traditional advantages: always cheaper, always more fun, always more fuel efficient, and always more zip (acceleration and top speed). But the new crop of automatic transmissions has turned the tables when it comes to efficiency and zip. Traditional-type automatic transmissions used to have three or four gears. Now they have more gears than most manuals. Chrysler’s new automatic has eight.

We’re also seeing more use of the Constant Velocity Transmissions (CVT) and the twin-clutch transmission. The former has no gears, and as such, is compact, light, and can be tailored for optimum efficiency. The latter is hard to explain (for me at least), but makes uses of two clutches — one for odd-numbered gears and one for even-numbered gears. It can go from gear to gear in the blink of eye, because the subsequent gear is already “pre-engaged” and only needs a nod from a computer to get busy. They can shift faster than any human hand could, and their speed is increased by the fact that they don’t need a suspension of torque to get their shift completed (hence no torque convertor). Twin-clutch transmissions are rapidly becoming the transmission of choice for performance vehicles, even for such racey marques as Ferrari, BMW and Porsche.

“Our take rate on manual transmissions is way down,” says Laurance Yap, director of marketing, Porsche Cars Canada. He adds that, ironically, Europeans are leading the way with automatic transmissions. Europeans have historically snubbed their noses at lazy automatics, but they have fallen in love with the sportier “twin clutch” design. Across the 911 model line in Germany, for example, Yap notes that 75 to 80 per cent are sold with PDK. (PDK is a short form for the official name of the company’s twin clutch — Porsche Doppelkupplung. Just try saying that correctly in German without hurting yourself.)

The Canadian “take rake” for 911 models with PDK is only 50 per cent. Go figure: we like manual transmissions more than the Autobahn enabled Germans.

Which brings us back to our angry groundhog.

Manual transmissions will continue to have a life, even in this era where they are technologically trumped, because they are simply more engaging and fun for a certain tribe of driver. The Cadillac CTS-V and the upcoming Mazda MX-5 are two examples of new vehicles that are making “statements” by offering a manual transmission — they are signalling that they are ready to emotionally engage a driver so inclined.

Actually, as vehicles become increasingly sophisticated and computerized, the manual transmission will have an increasing important role — to regain some of that lost emotional connection to the mechanical beast within.

 
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