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 (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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Comments (13)
  1. It is really remarkable to see automatics surpass manuals in efficiency. Well done.

    My kids have never driven an automatic as we have a Corolla with a stick shift and a Prius with a CVT. They find automatics confusing :)

  2. I'll take a manual over an auto any day. Problem is, they are getting so hard to find. I wanted to test drive a Honda Fit at the local dealer, but all they had were about 6 or 7 with automatics. And Honda is falling behind on technology. They have needed to make a six speed for a few years now, but they don't seem to be in too big of a hurry. I will bet a six speed manual in the right hands(and right gearing), could keep up with an automatic in mileage.

  3. My UK made Honda Civic has a 6 speed robotic gearbox. I love the thing. My wife hates it and thinks its jerky. I drive it like a manual, lifting off the accelerator slightly as I manually pull for the next gear, just as you would if pushing the clutch. I can leave it in Auto but unless I'm crawling in traffic I'm nearly always in the clutch-less manual.

    The MPG of this car is the best of any petrol car I've ever owned and I'm sure it's because its a proper manual box.

  4. You lucky Europeans. You get all the cool stuff. And all we get is junk.

  5. Back when I drove gas cars, I always preferred manuals. Cheaper, more fun to drive (because of the extra control over the powerband), AND better mpg in those days. The only downside was harder driving in stop-n-go traffic.

    Like a lot of auto enthusiasts, I thought I would miss shifting when I went to an electric vehicle with no gears to change. But I didn't lose the control I feared. You still have the same control in an electric, it's just in the extremely responsive accelerator now. In fact, it's way better--there is no need to downshift when you want to accelerate suddenly!

  6. I've had more manuals than automatics (and I drive a manual at present) but for daily traffic situations I prefer smooth automatics.
    I drove a 6-speed manual for a few days last year however and hated it. To appear "Sporty" the ratios were so close that I had to make my way up to fifth gear to cruise at 35 mph. Then I'd get a traffic light and start over. Gah.

  7. There really is no logical reason for having a manual other than psychological ones. Some people just like to caress a stick in the floor and pronounce how "they" are in control and have mastered a machine,you will notice its mostly a man thing. Thing is when a car is coasting the only control you have is the steering and every time you clutch however brief and change gear your coasting and not totally in control. The manual transmission is an archaic anachronism and should be resigned to motoring history like cross ply tires,mechanical brakes and the once prolific CRANK! How many know what that is?

  8. Good luck bubba paying to have that automatic repaired, and then compare that cost against a stick shift----whole lot of pennies saved there and maybe you're just too lazy to learn "how" to drive a stick shift

  9. You omit the problems associated with manual boxes such as clutch and thrust bearing failure or wear that needs attention,also clutch pedal cable or in other cases Hydraulic master and slave repair or fluid change. Then there is abuse of the gears by some drivers. I once had a tooth chipped off a gear while parked when someone backed into my car using the bump and stop system. Have experienced all the above but never had to touch an automatic.
    I do drive both but having a manual on the modern car is like using a typewriter and the postal system to communicate, its archaic inefficient and unnecessary.

  10. You have a point. I've heard people without any noticeable driving ability claiming they drive a manual for "Control" as if stop-start traffic is some sort of Formula One circuit.
    I drive a manual because 1: they're more economical than the auto version of my car, and 2: auto's are near-impossible to find in Europe.

  11. I'm sorry but I'm gonna have to contradict this argument that GreenCarReports is staking a bit! Yes, some automatics are equal or better than manual transmissions in fuel economy, but that still doesn't entirely kill the fact that manual transmissions are traditionally more frugal than their two-pedal counterparts. Prime example: Chevrolet Cruze 1.4 Eco, which through wind resistance technology and a six-speed manual gearbox achieved 42 MPG Highway, whereas with that same tech and a six-speed auto it only returned 37 MPG on that same cycle. Not only that, but VW's Passat TDI gets better gas mileage with a manual, too! So how can it be that ATs in general get the best gas mileage when there's still cars that are more efficient with a manual?

  12. Your key word is "traditionally" which is what the article is addressing. Traditionally auto's have not been more economical and some still aren't. The modern multimode automatic is more akin to a manual since it's not burdened with slippage and power sapping hydraulics. Its also controlled remotely by a computer that monitors many parameters for optimum ratio choice. The drivers right foot in either case determines the result but the computer controlled unit has the advantage.In the case of cars you mention one would have to examine the design of the autos, even the final drive ratio and wheel/tire size its all relevant when comparing.

  13. Sticks are always more efficient than autotrannies. With a stick, one can toss the car into neutral and do a lot of coasting down hills. This uses very little gasoline.

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