Honk if you prefer stick shift cars

When Stew and I went shopping for our 2018 Audi Q5 it turned out to be a doubly frustrating search. We wanted a blue or dark green one with a manual transmission. 

We had done an unscientific visual survey and found that about 80 percent of the cars on the road were either black, white or silver. We wanted something different. To get our green Q5, though, with light brown leather interior, we had to special-order it from the Audi assembly plant in Puebla and wait three months. 

As for the stick shift, fuggedaboutit. Q5s with manual transmissions are sold only in Europe.    

An August 8 article in The Atlantic magazine confirmed our suspicions: Manual transmissions are a dying phenomenon in the U.S. In 2000, 15 percent of the cars sold by CarMax had manual transmissions; by 2020 their share had dropped to 2.4 percent. 

The eventual disappearance of manual transmissions from the American and Mexican markets is all but sealed. The Atlantic magazine’s author lamented the trend. I hereby join in the lamentation. 

I imagine car makers will argue that shrinking customer demand is driving the demise of manual transmissions. But the situation might not be that innocent. What if manufacturers just want to simplify production and inventories by giving car buyers no choice but automatic transmissions?  

For me, most of the fun of driving in Europe is to drive a stick shift, and merrily run through the gears at every intersection and turn. Stew won’t have anything to do with driving in Europe, manual transmission or not. One thing I haven’t tried is driving on the left-hand side in Britain, or as Americans describe it, on the “wrong” side of the road.  

During our time together, Stew and I have owned several stick shift cars, including a Chevy Vega (a pathetic piece of junk); a Toyota Corolla; a tank-like Volvo and a Nissan Pathfinder SUV. But recently we haven’t been able to find a car we like with a manual transmission.

I confess that our predilection for manual transmissions might be, hmm, a “man thing.” Shifting gears gives you a mild testosterone rush, a feeling that you are in charge of the car, as you hear the engine rev up and down, while using your hands and feet. 

In the Q5 much of the driver’s control has been taken away. The Audi silently shifts from one gear to another, and from two- to four-wheel drive, on its own, whenever the car’s electronics thinks it’s appropriate. If you insist, you can shift gears “manually,” but damn if the automatic function doesn’t override your decision if it senses the engine is revving too fast. There are multiple safety beeps and warnings too, most startling that the car will automatically jam on the brakes if it senses you’re about to back into something. 

Car and Driver reviewers gushed about the Q5’s electronics. Their only complaint was that the power steering was so smooth it didn’t provide enough “driver feedback” about the road. Indeed, cruising on a smooth road toward a Pacific Coast beach a few years back, the speedometer was closing in on 90 mph before I realized it.  

I remember too, many moons ago, riding in a friend’s Oldsmobile Ninety Eight with a monster engine. When Lou “opened ‘er up” on an expressway, the car would accelerate to whiplash speed in seconds, initially protesting with a mild groan before breaking into a roar that made you feel you were aboard a jet fighter. 

Olds Ninety Eight: Ah, the smell of gasoline, the roar of a V-8

Of course, these thrills came before energy conservation, global warming and other such killjoys. When he reached cruising speed, Lou would just smile, look at me mischievously and wink: “Well, there goes another gallon of gas!”

Cars now are much more civilized, perhaps too much so. When cruising at less than thirty miles per hour, electric cars are so quiet that manufacturers are considering adding some artificial warning sounds, such  chimes or polite beeps, to alert pedestrians and cyclists. In Japan, a blind man and his guide dog got run over by an electric car they didn’t hear approaching an intersection. I can just imagine a future of  chimes and whistles from electric cars as they cruise on city streets. 

Another late automotive “improvement” I haven’t seen, much less tried, is self-parking cars. Ultrasonic sensors supposedly pick out a suitable parking spot and parallel park the car on their own while the driver holds a button and presumably attends to more pressing chores like adjusting his tie or checking cell phone messages. 

The ultimate, post stick shift iteration in automotive design has to be self-driving vehicles, which so far have shown a alarming propensity to crash into people and things. Car safety avatar Ralph Nader calls Tesla’s self-driving cars “one of the most dangerous and irresponsible actions by a car company in decades.” 

Here’s my bet. After a couple of years of mishaps and close calls involving self-parking and -driving “smart cars,” the Luddites among us will rise in protest and demand a return to dumber car models with manual transmissions that will force drivers to keep their hands and feet occupied—and pay attention to where the hell they are going. 

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