By Jim Motavalli
May 23, 2013
On Chrysler Corporation's new 2013 Ram 1500 SLT, you switch gears by twisting a small plastic knob on the dashboard. The Lincoln MKZ uses pushbuttons (just like the Edsel). The Tesla Model S has a tiny shifter on the right side of the steering column.
According to the Wall Street Journal, "Some car companies — but not all — are replacing traditional gear shifters in automatic-transmission vehicles with knobs, push buttons or small levers, freeing up precious real estate in vehicle cabins for extra storage bins, smartphone cradles, bigger cupholders or multimedia controllers."
That's interesting, and it's bound to cause me some confusion when entering an unfamiliar test car. Just how do I shift this thing, anyway? Some new cars have a shift path so serpentine it looks like a heart monitor printout — I'm always wrestling to get those into drive.
But there's a bigger issue here, which is the disappearance of standard shift for American drivers. It really bugs me, but it's increasingly not an option for cars today, and the base of manual-savvy drivers is also disappearing rapidly. My own kids aren't interested in learning on the old four-speed Volvo in the garage. What's a clutch, and who cares?
Here's a sign of the times: Last year BMW said the next-generation M5 and M6 would be offered without a manual option. You'd better like the dual-clutch automatic, because it's the only choice. That's like the last domino falling, because the M cars are for performance drivers, and BMWs are the ultimate driving machine. But only 15 to 20 percent of M5s ordered in 2011 had the six-speed manual. That's comparable to the people who choose diesels. Only the M3 retains a manual choice.
The California Spyder was the last Ferrari to be available with a manual. Lamborghini is following suit, after just five percent of its buyers chose manuals. Can you believe what's going on? As far back as 2006, GFK Automotive said that just 15 percent of American auto buyers were even considering a car that required shifting, and it's gotten worse since then.
I've driven school buses with non-synchro trannies, church vans with column shifters, anything with wheels. Manuals give you tactile control of the car, and even save you a few miles per gallon. Use the gears to slow down, and they'll also save your brakes.
Yes, it takes longer to learn to shift a manual. There will be stalled cars, and jerky forward motion. You'll be frustrated initially. But then you'll get the hang of it, and it will be empowering. Modern computer controls in cars like to be in control of the whole process, and that includes when to shift. So my guess is that the manual is doomed. The last bastion of shifting yourself is Europe, where something like 80 percent of the cars on the road have manuals. Viva la France!
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