25 things vanishing in America, part 2: The stick shift

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I've always thought automatic transmissions were for wimps, but that's me driving the Dodge Dakota with an automatic tranny. Not because I can't tell the difference between a gas pedal and a clutch, but because makers of trucks -- both foreign and domestic -- have given up on the notion of sticks.

It's hard to find a manual transmission these days. In 1980, J.D. Powers and Associates estimates that more than 35% of all cars sold had a stick shift. By 2005, that number had dropped to 6%. Four years later, finding a car with a manual transmission is a big challenge -- you have to go either high end or very low end. 2008 was the last year that any manufacturer of full-size trucks offered a manual transmission. The 2008 Dodge Ram was the last to make manual an option. In 2009, the macho truck propelled by a driver with skill has gone the way of the buggy whip.
I reared three boys and I made them learn how to drive on a car with a manual transmission. I thought men ought to know how to do that. It put them behind the curve in driver's ed, but in the long run – after they finally mastered lifting the clutch and goosing the gas simultaneously -- they thanked me. When my oldest drove his manual-transmission Camaro to college, it looked like a perfect car to borrow – until the mooches figured out that it was a stick shift and knew they couldn't drive it. That got my son off the hook gracefully lots of times.

It used to be that manual transmissions were lighter, more reliable, easier on gas. Today, that's not necessarily true, according to this report from Progressive insurance, which favors automatics and says they get slightly better gas mileage than their manual cousins.

The latest thing in transmissions is the automated manual transmission with paddle shifters. In cars with paddle shifters, there are two "paddles" mounted on the back side of the steering wheel. One is for upshifting, the other, downshifting. The paddles shift the transmission electronically rather than relying on a mechanical connection like a stick shift. No clutch necessary. But drivers do get a sense of control.

Manufacturers of the finest sports cars in the world, including Porsche, offer paddle shifts and some drivers love them, including Formula One racers for whom they were first developed.

It seems funny to me that cars equipped with manual shifts should cost more, and I'm reluctant to shell out for something that doesn't seem like it should be a luxury. Still, I miss driving a manual shift. Using both your feet and your hands focuses your attention on driving. You have to concentrate and that makes the trip more interesting.

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