DETROIT -- Two cars I have test driven recently finally convinced me the good old-fashioned manual transmission will soon be dead.
General Motors let auto writers test drive the 2015 Chevrolet Corvette with its new eight-speed automatic transmission. And among our rotating fleet of test cars here at work, a 2014 Jaguar F-Type has been a well-liked visitor. The F-Type also is equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission, this one made by German supplier ZF.
The Corvette’s transmission is an amazing piece of engineering. Operate the paddles on the steering wheel and the gears change at the speed of thought -- a computer monitors driver inputs 160 times a second. And shifts are nearly imperceptible. You get the driving sensation of a manual with the convenience of an automatic.
Ditto for the Jag.
I love manual transmissions. My three classic cars have them. I have converted cars from automatic to manual. But the manual’s days as a mainstream transmission are ending.
The take rate for manual transmissions across the U.S. auto industry is hovering around 5 percent, and according to consulting firm IHS Automotive, the number of nameplates offering a manual option is about 10 percent, down from 35 percent in 1980.
BorgWarner CEO James Verrier says manual transmissions will decline in the coming years. The company is one of the industry’s largest suppliers of transmission parts.
The manual’s decline is partially a result of improvements and features lavished on the automatic and changing preferences of drivers. Automatic transmissions now routinely deliver better fuel economy than manual gearboxes -- a reversal of the old order.
And, with paddle shifters, automatics give drivers the control over the timing of the shifts, just like a manual but without the annoyance of a clutch pedal. So there’s no danger of stalling or grinding gears.
Here’s another reason why manuals are dying: Most automakers do very little to promote them. I bet automakers actually want the manual to disappear, expensive nuisances that they are.
It costs tens of millions of dollars to engineer a vehicle for a manual transmission. Clutch components, crossmembers and driveshafts are just some of the hundreds of parts that need to be designed, engineered, tested, validated, sourced, stocked and installed.
Vehicles with manual transmissions complicate manufacturing. And a vehicle with a manual gearbox also has to pass separate emissions tests. Since very few automakers manufacture manual transmissions in-house, they have less control over cost and quality.
When it comes to transmissions, American drivers have not warmed up to dual clutch transmissions, such as those found in the Dodge Dart and Ford Fiesta and Focus. And continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs, still haven’t gained much traction.
Is there any hope for the long-term survival of the manual? Probably not. But German supplier Bosch has developed an electronic clutch that makes driving a vehicle with a manual a bit easier.
Bosch’s eClutch prevents stalling because it automatically disengages and engages the clutch when the vehicle is in first and second gear. That means the driver only has to use the gas pedal at stoplights. The eClutch also helps save fuel because it smoothes shifts. Bosch is negotiating with several automakers, says spokeswoman Linda Beckmeyer.
Unless you are in the market for a sports car, you likely won’t find a manual transmission on the options list. Ram, for example, is the last full-size truck available with a manual.
Sports cars will be the last stand for the manual. Chevrolet’s Monte Doran says a healthy 35 percent of Corvettes sold in 2014 came with a manual transmission, about the same mix as in 2013.
The Corvette’s new eight-speed automatic could lure manual buyers.
“One of the team’s objectives with [the Corvette] Z06 was to offer customers the choice,” Doran says. “You can get a true manual transmission, which is the purist’s choice for the most engaging driving experience. Or you can get a high-performance automatic that delivers the manual control for high-performance driving and the convenience of an auto for daily driving.”
Tadge Juechter, Corvette’s chief engineer, said he’s never owned a car with an automatic transmission but that he’s ordered a new Corvette Z06 with the eight-speed automatic.
If that’s not proof that the manual gearbox is in intensive care, than it certainly looks like the next piece of old-school automotive technology ready to be wheeled in.