Why manual gearboxes are making a comeback

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DETROIT -- At Major League Baseball's All-Star game next month, Chevrolet will set up four fans with tickets to the game, the home run derby and driving lessons with "celebrity" instructors.

All that, simply for expressing some love for the stickshift.

The Chevy promotion, called "Stay Clutch," solicited homemade videos from contestants who were to express why they wanted to learn stick. General Motors says the goal is "to reignite the passion of manual transmission driving."

But it seems it already is happening on its own.

Through May, 7 percent of U.S. vehicles sold this year came with a manual, says Edmunds.com. In the previous four years, the stickshift take rate held steady at around 4 percent. It would be the highest rate since 2006, even though only 19 percent of U.S. models are available with a manual today, vs. nearly one-third of models five years ago.

It's a curious uptick, one that seems to defy the conventional wisdom that manuals are a dying breed, kept alive only by performance enthusiasts and gearheads.

Reasons for the nascent comeback are unclear. Edmunds analyst Ivan Drury offers this theory: With the average age of vehicles on the road at an all-time high, a bigger percentage of new-car buyers are older people trading in older models, and they're more likely to have experience with a stick.

Seems plausible. I'll offer this theory too: More automakers are offering manuals on smaller cars as they play up the fun-to-drive factor in that increasingly competitive segment.

Hyundai reports a 30 percent stickshift take rate on its sporty Veloster coupe. GM has been surprised by the nearly 20 percent take rate for manual transmissions on the Chevy Sonic subcompact. Ford says it expects 10 percent of its Focus sales this year to be manual, a healthy rate for a compact.

Those numbers seem to defy of all the recent commentary about how young people would rather sit in a dentist chair than have any fun getting between points A and B. Not that all of those stickshift buyers are 20-somethings, of course, but those nameplates tend to skew younger.

Whatever the reason, it's sure to come as welcome news to the purists.

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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