While automatic and continuously variable transmissions are by far the norm among new cars, 6.5 percent of cars in the U.S. are still sold with manual transmissions. While cars with stick shifts get better fuel economy and are easier to maintain than automatics, they still have a variety of disadvantages.
With the proliferation of automatic transmissions and continuously variable transmissions fitted with shift paddles and the like, finding a bonafide manual transmission in just about any car is almost like finding a needle in a haystack. Even all-out performance cars like the Ferrari 458 have abandoned the traditional shift stick for steering wheel-mounted shift paddles connected to semi-automatic gearboxes.
Only 6.5 percent of cars in the U.S. were sold with manual transmissions last year, according to USA Today. Nevertheless, stick shifts are making a comeback thanks to their inherent fuel efficiency and performance advantages. The vast majority of cars with manual transmissions are in the compact and subcompact market, although sports cars like the Ford Mustang offer six-speed manual transmissions on several trims.
Pros of a stick shift
A stick shift car can be a blast to drive, especially for those who have experience with controlling manual transmissions. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other good reasons for having shift sticks around:
- Manual transmissions are usually easier to maintain than their automatic counterparts. For starters, most manual transmissions tend to be less complex than automatics, meaning that fewer things go wrong in the first place. The only repair item frequently seen on most stick shifts is the clutch and that component usually doesn’t require changing for hundreds of thousands of miles, under ideal conditions.
- Manual transmissions use gear oil or engine oil, in most cases. Unlike automatic transmission fluid (ATF), it doesn’t deteriorate as quickly over time and it doesn’t need frequent changes. Some manufacturers even suggest that manual transmission fluids don’t need changing unless there’s a leak or after a repair’s been completed.
- Fuel economy is usually much better in stick shift-equipped cars. Parasitic power losses from the torque converter and hydraulic pump can rob an automatic-equipped car of a small percentage of its power, along with its fuel efficiency. Depending on driving style and road conditions, drivers can increase their fuel economy by as much as 15 percent.
- Driving a stick shift car gives you a better sense of control over your vehicle. Without the torque converter constantly pushing you forward, you’ll have an easier time with braking. You’ll also have a much easier time with engine braking or using the momentum of the engine itself to slow yourself down.
- Stick shift cars are usually cheaper when brand-new than their automatic counterparts, especially on the lower end of the automobile market.
Cons of a stick shift
Of course, there are few disadvantages to owning a stick shift car, as well:
- Learning how to operate a stick shift comes with a pretty steep learning curve. Newcomers can expect to jerk, buck, stall and miss shifts as they figure out the clutch, shift timing and other basics.
- Unlike in an automatic, starting off on a hill ranges from being slightly inconvenient to being absolutely terrifying, depending on your driving skill. Many drivers have rolled back into traffic or stalled out after trying (and failing) to pull away from a hill.
- Depressing the clutch pedal is a way of life in stick shift cars, but the experience can be a bit more painful in cars with heavy clutch pedal feedback. Over time, it can definitely mess with your left leg, especially at the joints.
It takes time, patience and effort to learn the joys of stick shift driving. If you’re looking at a six-speed manual sedan or coupe for your next vehicle, you can weigh these pros and cons to see if you’re ready to take the plunge.