Stick-Shifts Are Back, But Automatics Give Best Gas Mileage

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The new Miata has 160 hp, wider and longer dimensions and a six-speed manual gearbox.

The new Miata has 160 hp, wider and longer dimensions and a six-speed manual gearbox.

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Ever since the early 1950s, Americans have loved the easy-to-drive charms of the automatic gearbox so much, that most Americans today don’t know how -- or want -- to drive a manual stick-shift car. 

Historically, those who want to drive manuals have been sports car fans eager for the extra control and flexibility of a manual transmission, or eco-minded drivers looking to eek out extra gas mileage with carefully-planned gear changes. 

Nowadays, many automatics offer gas mileage that equals or beats the stick-shift equivalents, but that hasn’t stopped a resurgence in popularity in the stick-shift car. 

According to Edmunds.com (via USAToday), stick-shift cars accounted for 6.5 percent of all new car sales during the first quarter of 2012, the highest market share since it peaked at 7.2 percent in 2006. 

The reasons, it says, are wide and varied. 

Firstly, trade-ins account for at least some of the sales spike. With the average age of a trade-in currently standing at 6.1 years, many stick-shift fans are finally trading in the manual car they purchased during that last spike in manual sales for a newer model. Stick, of course. 

MINI manual transmission discount

MINI manual transmission discount

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Secondly, tight household budgets and an emphasis on frugal motoring has meant that many car buyers are choosing to opt for base-model, lower-price cars, many of which come with manual transmission as standard. 

But the largest factor, Edmunds analysts say, comes from the shift towards smaller-engine cars with manual transmissions that are slighter, simpler and more forgiving than manual transmissions of yore. 

With lighter, more precise clutch action, modern manual gearboxes are less likely to stall in traffic than their predecessors, and also allow drivers to obtain the very best performance out of small, four-cylinder, turbocharged engines. 

The trend towards manual gearboxes has been so unexpected that it is catching out automakers. Ford, which predicted that 4 to 4.5 percent of 2012 Focus sales would be manual, has recently reported that nearly 10 percent of Focus sales have been stick-shifts. 

But before you rush out to buy a manual, you need to think about one thing: gas mileage. 

Ferrari 599 GTB and F430 with conventional manuals

Ferrari 599 GTB and F430 with conventional manuals

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Manual transmissions always used to trump automatics on gas mileage, due in part to the terribly inefficient torque converter found in automatic transmissions of days gone by. 

Now, however, with computer controlled shifting and dual-clutch engineering replacing the old-fashioned torque-converter, automatic transmissions now trump stick-shift transmissions on efficiency. 

In short, manual transmissions might be fun, but your gas bill will suffer if you get too excited.

Manual or automatic? Which do you prefer and why? 

Let us know in the Comments below. 

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