Manuals have gone from 20 percent of sales to 5 percent in the last 15 to 20 years," observed Mark Champine, who is in charge of drivetrain development at Chrysler.
The reasons for the manual's decline are to be found in the preferences of the American driver and the incremental, yet cumulatively, dramatic improvement in automatic transmissions. Today's automatics are much more efficient than they were even 10 years ago, and that efficiency has bred better fuel economy and performance, as well as smoother operation. The automatic's increased popularity has also meant lower initial cost through economies of scale.
A major impetus for the manual's decline, of course, is American driving tastes.
"Americans, with their cellphones and cups, don't want to be bothered with shifting," said Mark Gunderson, leader of a GM transmission engineering team. The cupholder, he suggested, is symbolic of the American motorist's propensity "to do things other than drive."
As it turns out, the preference for automatics triggers a vicious cycle. Chrysler's Champine noted: "As fewer people drive manuals, fewer are offered, and fewer are around to learn on."
Champine said he is now trying to find a car in which he can teach his 16-year-old daughter how to drive a manual.
"You do see less people growing up with manuals and learning to drive in them," said Dominick Infante, Subaru's communications director.
Another factor in the manual transmission's decline, GM's Gunderson said, is that it usually hurts resale value. So while an automatic tacks $1,000 or more on the sticker, it makes the car more valuable at trade-in time.
The increased efficiency of the modern automatics is most dramatically evident in the increased gas mileage they engender - a significant reason for their increasing popularity. Until relatively recently, automatics exacted a 1- or 2-m.p.g. penalty over a manual. Today, that difference has virtually vanished, with the automatic actually doing better in some applications.