As anyone who cares about stick shifts knows, not many people care about stick shifts anymore. As recently as 2006, nearly half of the models sold in America were offered with a manual transmission. Now, that number is below 20 percent and falling. Americans bought 17.2 million cars last year—just 2 percent of them rolled off the lot with a third pedal.
This is understandable. In recent decades, automatic transmissions haven’t just made driving less of an effort, they’ve caught up with manuals in terms of performance and fuel efficiency. And it’s expensive for automakers to develop two variants of a vehicle, especially if one will attract just a few buyers. So even companies known for sporty cars are giving up on sticks. The new BMW M5 no longer offers a manual option. Neither will the mid-engine C8 Chevrolet Corvette. Ferrari and Lamborghini gave up on manuals earlier this decade.
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But some high-end automakers have stuck by the manual transmission—and think its role could actually expand. “In a world where everyone is talking about autonomous driving, I think what you’re seeing is, those people that can afford, and those people that have a passion for cars, want to go in the opposite direction,” says Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer. “They want something that’s interactive, something they have to work to enjoy. And that’s what’s driving the resurgence of manual transmissions.”
For Aston, that resurgence has most recently taken the form of the $185,000 Aston Martin Vantage AMR. A notchy, seven-speed manual transmission transforms the nature of Aston’s entry-level sports car (the $150,000 Vantage). The funny thing about the AMR is that, even though it’s 200 pounds lighter and has the same 503-horsepower V8 engine as the “base” car, it takes half a second longer to go from 0 to 60 mph. Apparently, the computer is faster at shifting and better at putting the power to the pavement than any human could hope to be.
And it doesn’t matter a whit. As I discovered in a daylong sprint through the mountains of western Germany, what the AMR loses in outright acceleration, it more than makes up for in joy and engagement. Working the gears myself gave me a more direct, analog connection to the car, a greater sense of control, a sense of delight and occasion. A manual transmission makes you notice specific moments more: a tight curve (downshift to second), an uphill blast (wind it out to redline in third), or the presence of cheering kids waiting for the bus (neutral, rev the engine repeatedly). Like the way writing something down imprints it in one’s brain, driving a stick makes a journey more vivid, tactile, and memorable.
Palmer, a former transmission engineer, has committed to maintaining manual transmissions in the Aston Martin lineup not just despite, but because of, its lack of functionality. Also in the resistance is Porsche, which continues to offer a manual in its sports cars, including the new 2020 911 Carrera S. Despite the existence of its wonderful PDK dual-clutch automatic gearbox, nearly twenty percent of 911 buyers row their own gears. “It’s not the most efficient way to drive a car, and it’s not the fastest way to drive a car,” says Porsche powertrain project leader Heiko Mayer. “But our customers have fun with the manual transmission.” And so Porsche will continue to offer it.
For some, the joy of shifting gears is such that even in sports cars converted to run on battery power, they’ve kept the manual. Which, surprisingly, is possible. Michael Bream is a leading evangelist for this type of conversion. The founder and CEO of EV West near San Diego, Bream creates custom and off-the-shelf products aimed at helping customers transform their vintage air-cooled VWs, Porsches, and other gas-powered rides to electric propulsion. He aims to make the transition as seamless as possible, which includes minimizing the destruction or change of existing components. And for many classics, that means maintaining the original, manual transmissions.
Bream and his team do modify the mechanicals inside the gearboxes to make them better suited to electric power. Because battery-powered motors have instant-on thrust, and benefit from conserving range, EV West changes the transmission gear ratios, and often remove a couple gears to save weight and limit complexity. The remaining two gears work kind of like Low and High. “That’s really easy to explain to customers,” says Bream. “Use low in the city. And if you ever hit an on ramp, throw it into high.” Simple as that. The conversion even removes reverse, because backing up can be accomplished with a dashboard switch that inverts the electric power, spinning the motors backwards. Still, the clutch and stick shift remain, and consumers can row their way through the remaining gears, just as if they were in a traditional manual transmission car.
These respectful conversions not only save time and maintain originality, they also simplify repairs. “You can go down to the store and buy a stock transmission mount, or the shift linkage bushing with the standard Porsche or VW part number,” Bream says. Moreover, because of the ease of operation—you can’t really stall an EV like you can a gas-powered stick-shift car—these cars open up the manual transmission experience to a broader range of consumers. “You have this car that people who have never driven a stick in their life can drive,” says Bream. “You can literally try and perform your worst shift ever, and in an electric car, it’s just not that bad. You can barely feel it.”
Bream’s zeal is catching on. David Benardo’s southern California shop, Zelectric, has converted more than two dozen vintage VWs and Porsches to run on battery power, all of them maintaining their original transmissions. Though Benardo says many of his customers elect to just “leave the car it in third gear and drive it like an automatic,” making the gearshift somewhat vestigial.
It’s possible that we may see this trend expand further. Some Formula E cars used a two-speed manual transmission for quick off the line and top speed efficiencies. Converters like Electric GT have produced a vintage Ferrari and Fiat with a manual transmission. Startup Detroit Electric planned a four-speed manual in its SP 01 roadster before the company went bust. Even Aston might be considering an EV stick in the future.
“A manual electric car is an interesting idea,” says Palmer. “Obviously you don’t need a manual, or a transmission at all, on an electric motor. But it comes back to this not being a rational decision. It’s irrational. It’s emotional. And, I think, in that context, it’s interesting, because it’s also relatively easy to do in the context of an electric car. So, I’m sure others are looking at it, and it’s certainly something we’re interested in exploring.”
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