[size=18px] Transmission choice undergoes a radical shift
By George P. Blumberg
Special to the Trubune
Published February 11, 2005
When most cars had to be manually shifted, grinding gears was a rite of passage. Automatic transmissions, introduced on the 1940 Oldsmobile, have changed that. Now with fewer than 10 percent of cars purchased with manual transmissions, shifting seems a fading part of Americana.
To many, shifting seems an arcane, almost black art. Like tracking tigers in the jungle, weaving rope or starting fires with flint and steel, shifting is an almost-lost skill, taught within families, passed down to generations. But if dad or mom were raised on automatics, who will teach the kids?
Most driving schools have dropped out of manual transmission instruction. An exception is John Mihalczo's Safety First Driving Schools of New Jersey, which offers dual control manual transmission Saturn Ions in addition to his automatic transmission equipped fleet.
"We offer it as a service," said Mihalczo, 39 and an instructor for 15 years, "but there's an 80 percent lesson cancellation rate. Most stick customers already know how to drive, and it's not really that important to learn stick, so they cancel."
The cancellation rate for automatic transmission lessons, he says, is only 2 percent. "But I won't offer beginning instruction in a stick shift car. We require someone who has a learner's permit for at least six months or a license. First you learn driving and vehicle control, then shifting."
Mihalczo has a three-level shifting course at $100 per level.
"It usually takes about six hours average to get proficient," he says. If that sounds like a lot of money, consider the wear and tear his cars take.
"A 12,000-mile Saturn is on its third clutch already," he says. A clutch job costs him about $1,500, on top of the $5,000 to add dual controls. Besides, says Mihalczo: "It's tough to find qualified stick shift instructors who tolerate getting their heads snapped back and forth."
"Sometimes car salespersons will provide a couple of shifting lessons after a purchase is made," said Ray Desimone, 33, sales manager for Saturn of Brunswick, N.J. "But you can't count on that."
A year ago, Sarah Lahalih began offering a course in shifting at her Motorcycle Riding School at 1400 N. Halsted St. She uses Mini Cooper with dual controls that cost her about $5,000 to retrofit. The course costs $75 an hour with a three-hour minimum. She says a licensed driver can be on their own and ready for refined tactics with a stick.
Sensing an opportunity, Mihalczo set up a relationship with Desimone's dealership, along with local Porsche and BMW stores, to teach their customers how to use the stick shift. "It's great," said Desimone, "we let them know we can arrange a lesson for them, and we can throw it into the deal. It further differentiates us."
Dan Kern, manager of Perillo BMW of Chicago, says dealers typically have a salesperson help a novice by taking him to an out-of-the-way place. "If customer couldn't drive stick like on a Z4 , we'd take him for test drive, as a passenger. Once the deal was solidified, we'd give him orientation."
Ross Nelson, senior salesman at Loeber Motors Linconwood, says he has taught a few customers over the years. "But today most people who learn do so through friend or relative. We don't allow people on test drives with sticks unless they know how to drive reasonably. We have had some people who have bought without knowing how to drive it."
Why learn to shift at all? "Some people need to learn before a European trip," said Desimone. Most European rental cars have standard transmissions, and rental fees for automatics are stiff.
According to Neil Oddes, Product Research Manager with J.D. Power and Associates, only about 7 percent of new cars and light trucks in the U.S. have manual transmissions. Eleven percent have manual/automatic "manumatics" (such as Audi's Tiptronic), in which the driver can choose full automatic operation or to push a button to select a gear with a computer making the shift. There is no clutch pedal. The majority of cars, 82 percent, have traditional automatics, and about 1 percent have continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs. CVTs are automatic transmissions driven by an infinitely adjusting metal link belt that replaces gears and keeps engine performance at optimum.
"There are big differences by segments," said Oddes. "For example in the premium sports car category," which includes the Audi TT, Chrysler Crossfire and BMW Z, "manual transmissions are in 49 percent of new cars sold. Thirty eight percent are hybrids, and 13 percent are automatics."
According to Art Spinella, chief executive of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon Ore., "If it weren't for a growing trend of women ordering and buying manual transmission vehicles, the stick shift might already be relegated to automotive history books. More female new-car buyers are selecting manual transmissions than men."
For people who want to make use of all the power and versatility of the machines they drive, controlling the gears manually is key. Many proponents of shifting point to it as a skill that gives greater car control (especially in slippery conditions), makes the driver more alert and in tune with the vehicle and is more economical. When pressed, they admit that it's just fun--and that manumatics just don't cut it.
John DiStefano, 23, of Franklin Park, N.J., learned to drive on an automatic, as did his father, who is 45. Recently, DiStefano took manual lessons from Mihalczo.
"I want to buy a Porsche someday, and I want to know how to drive it," he said. "You should buy a Porsche with a manual shift to get the maximum fun from it.
"I mastered it in three days," he said. "The last day I was able to start on a hill." Hill starts, where the car may roll back before the clutch grabs, is a challenge for manual transmission novices. "I came back telling dad how easy it is. For the knowledge of driving, you should open your mind and try it."
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Getting it in gear
Here are some snazzy names for transmissions and the carmakers that came up with them:
Flash-O-Matic--American Motors (Rambler)
Source: "The Standard Catalogue Of American Cars"
Here is a chart that shows intentions/demand for manual transmissions by men and women in the last 20 years. It was created by CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore., based on a survey of new-vehicle shoppers who planned to buy a car or truck within six months. Intentions may not translate into a purchase because of lack of the option, vehicle inventory or salesperson.
1985 1990 1995 2000 2004 Men 52.8% 48.3% 28.1% 15.6% 9.3% Women 4.4% 4.9% 7.7% 10.3% 12.7% Overall 31.6% 28.8% 19.1% 13.6% 10.3%
These are total light vehicle sales (in millions of units) of domestic and import car and trucks broken down by automatic and manual transmissions:
MODEL AUTOMATIC %* OF TOTAL MANUAL % OF TOTAL TOTAL SALES YEAR 1985 10,021,482 77.6% 2,887,171 22.4% 12,908,653 1990 10,141,794 78.7% 2,752,150 21.3% 12,893,944 1995 12,816,559 83.1% 2,602,211 16.9% 15,418,770 2000 15,995,874 90% 1,785,377 10.0% 17,781,251 2001 14,898,961 90.6% 1,540,618 9.4% 16,439,579 2003 16,752,979 92.6% 1,335,531 7.3% 18,088,510 *Includes manual/automatic hybrids Source: Ward's Communications