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Stick shifts falling out of favor

Stick shifts could be going the way of whitewall tires, running boards and rumble seats. • As recently as 1985, more than 50 percent of male car buyers said they wanted a stick shift. Last year, only 11 percent did, according to market researchers, and sales totaled 7 percent of the new car market.

One reason is that most women prefer automatics. "I tried a stick shift once, and then I faced a hill, and I never tried again," said Danielle Wilt, 20, a junior at York College in York, Pa.

Other reasons: Couples in which only one can drive a manual transmission, competition from sporty automatics and an insufficient number of hands.

Among drivers who like driving, however, "Nothing has been a perfect replacement for the stick shift yet," said Alexander Edwards, the president of the automotive research division of Strategic Vision of Bandon, Ore. He said that predictions of the death of stick shifts are premature.

Several experts theorized that people who consider driving a chore favor automatics because they make the job easier. By contrast, stick shifts "force you to be involved in the driving process," and enthusiastic drivers love that, said John Nielsen, AAA's national director of auto repair and buying.

Seeking to give drivers the fun of a stick without the work, automakers are pushing five-, six- and even seven-speed automatics, mainly in sporty cars. Buyer interest in six-speeds increased from 9 to 15 percent of all potential buyers in the past five years, according to GfK Custom Research North America, a company that tracks market trends.

Other alternatives, such as paddle shifters that shift gears without a clutch pedal, are spreading from high-end sports cars such as Ferraris to more mid market Nissans and Corvettes.

Declining stick sales over time mean that, "Young folks aren't exposed to manual transmissions at all anymore," Nielsen said. "And if you don't learn on it, you'll probably never learn."

The big picture reflects all these trends, according to Strategic Vision, a consumer research firm in San Diego. In 1998, a third of drivers under 25 opted to buy a stick shift. Last year, 13 percent did.

Accordingly, carmakers are making fewer of them. For example, Toyota, the maker of the Scion tC, a sporty coupe designed for younger drivers, offered stick shifts on 30 percent of the model fleet in 2005. Now it offers 25 percent of them with sticks, said Allison Takahashi, a Toyota spokeswoman.

While manual transmissions are cheaper to buy and use less gas, "you'll lose your backside on the resale," said AAA's Nielsen.

Marriage also is hard on the stick shift market. According to Strategic Vision, 10 percent of single drivers bought a stick shift in 2008, compared with 6 percent of married drivers.

"Ladies putting on makeup while they're drinking coffee and talking on their cell phone — they don't have time to shift gears," said Scott Parsons, a sales associate at Mantrans, a manual transmission repair shop in Tallahassee.

In fact, while interest in manual transmissions among men declined steadily for a generation, interest among women has grown steadily, from 4 percent in 1985 to 15 percent last year.

Stick shifts have "always been associated with guys and power," theorized Patty Gaffney, 31, a bartender at Tonic, a Washington watering hole. "A stick shift makes women feel manly and in control."

Stick shifts falling out of favor 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 4:31am]
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