Americans Shifting Gears in Smaller Numbers

The percentage of vehicles sold in the United States with manual transmission continues to decline. One theory on why the numbers keep falling: drivers are too busy with cell phones and cappuccinos to shift gears.

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American car buyers are showing more interest in fuel economy these days. Sales of gas guzzling vehicles have softened, while demand for more economical cars is on the rise.

But even with gasoline prices around $3 a gallon, Americans continue to shift away from fuel-saving manual transmissions. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

A car with a stick shift typically goes five to ten percent farther on a gallon of gasoline than a comparable automatic. But most new car buyers wouldn't touch a manual transmission.

Vice President David Garfield of the consulting firm GFK Automotive says manual transmissions have long since fallen out of favor with Americans, and pricey gasoline has done nothing to change that.

Mr. DAVID GARFIELD (Vice President, GFK Automotive): If you went back to 2003 when gasoline was about $1 a gallon, 17 percent of car buyers said that their next vehicle would come with a manual transmission. And that has actually gone down this year to about 15 percent. In almost every segment, the anticipated take rate for manual transmissions has declined.

HORSLEY: Garfield says improvements to automatic transmissions have whittled away at the gas saving advantage of a manual. There's also been a startling erosion in Americans' driving know-how.

Mr. GARFIELD: I know my kids have never learned how to drive a manual transmission. If they sat in the car with a manual, they wouldn't know what to do with it.

HORSLEY: Indeed, United Driving School in San Diego no longer even offers lessons in driving a stick shift because so few students are interested. School director Bonnie Trowne(ph) says teenagers who've grown up letting a computer check their spelling think nothing of driving a car that shifts gears on its own.

Ms. BONNIE TROWNE (Director, United Driving School): I don't think the stick shift car has the same king of sporty allure that it used to have.

HORSLEY: Trowne herself switched to an automatic, partly because heavy traffic took the fun out of driving a stick. She says her 18-year-old daughter offers a different explanation for why young people shun standards.

Ms. TROWNE: They can't talk on their cell phone and drink their Starbucks and shift their car at the same time. And they're probably eating an In and Out burger while they're driving as well.

HORSLEY: Stick shifts are far more common in Europe, and they've held their own in the sports car market. After all, a James Bond style chase scene would lose something if 007 simply shifted into drive.

Sports car maker Aston Martin introduced a brand new model with a manual transmission for the latest Bond film, due out this fall. Aston Martin dealer Kelly Burn(ph) says that posed a bit of a challenge for the actor who plays 007, Daniel Craig, but he came through in the clutch.

Ms. KELLY BURN (Aston Martin Salesperson): He didn't know how to drive a manual transmission, so they had to teach him, because he's got to drive in a very spirited fashion. He learned. So he's got that wired now. Bond is capable of anything!

HORSLEY: Even with a manual transmission, 007's car isn't exactly an economy model. Two other Aston Martins on display in the showroom each get 13 miles to the gallon.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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