When I borrowed the Chevy Cruze Eco (slightly smaller than) midsize car to give it a spin last weekend, I was a little surprised to see the stick shift on the center panel. And that was a pleasant surprise, because I really prefer manual. The car did not disappoint. It's a highly practical runabout with huge practical advantages for a compact (ginormous trunk that fit my two folding bicycles) but it drives and handles like a sports car. I had a great time. But then, I'm not exactly the consumer Chevrolet has been going after. That I learned to drive in a VW bus says it all.
Chevrolet, which reports that manuals make up around 13% of total Cruze sales, has been promoting the stick (mostly in the smaller Sonic Turbo comopact) to Millennials with a road show, Stay Clutch. This week it is in Kansas City, and is part of Chevrolet's larger sponsorship of the MLB All Star Game. The program is all about getting younger consumers to visit the terra incognita of manual transmission.
Chris Perry, head of the Chevy division, told me this week that the idea for Cruze is get people to understand that it's not just a practical compact, but a lot of fun. Which I can attest to, having driven at dangerous speeds last weekend down the Taconic for the sheer pleasure of it (Pierre at the press fleet probably won't like reading this).
Says Cristi Landy, Chevrolet small car marketing manager: "While studying Millennials, we discovered that they crave adventure and like to try new things." Thus the wacky campaign for the Sonic where the car falls out of an airplane with skydivers, does bungee jumps, etc. "We realize that not all Millennials have had the opportunity to learn to drive a manual and wanted to let them have this 'first' experience."
Landy points out that manuals are on average $1,000 less expensive than automatics and often better fuel economy. She says the Sonic 1.4T manual gets 40 mpg on the highway and the Cruze Eco manual gets 42 mpg on the highway.
She also points out that there's an added level of driver engagement -- which she says means greater safety, when drivers know how to drive a stick. "With both hands and legs needed to drive, there is less opportunity for activities such as texting. And drivers need to pay attention to traffic conditions so they are always in the right gear and don't inadvertently stall out if not engaged."
I definitely agree with the latter point. The future of the car (and maybe everything else) is complete automation: at some point you will plug an address into your Google whositz and the car will just take you there while you get a pedicure, which the car will probably also do.
A recent article on Edmunds.com notes that the über automation of modern cars -- lane warnings, sensors, automatic parking, distance sensors for cruise control, etc. -- disconnects the driver from the car. "Rowing your own gears enhances driving pleasure because it connects you with the car in a way that an automatic can't," say the authors. Automatic is for safety, yet when I'm driving an "auto auto" on a typically boring road, I am actually a far worse driver.
As my wife points out, with irritation, I sometimes seem to shift just for the fun of it. I correct her: "There's no 'seem' about it." The fact is, I can think of few things more soporific than motoring on a turnpike with an automatic gearbox under my seat. And yes, most autos now have training-wheel manual -- sorry, "shift-tronic" or paddles, or whatever you call those toys, but that's not the same as a real gearshift.
Meanwhile, Edmunds.com data shows that while the take rate of manuals dropped from 8.48% in 2002 down to 3.95% in 2011, there has been a big boost this year, based on the first five months of 2012, which saw manuals constituting 6.98% of vehicle sales. The auto shopping and research site also says Ford had expected something like 4.5% of sales of the new Fusion would be manual, but it has turned out to be around 6.7%.
Carroll Lachnit, Edmunds feature editor, tells me that the lift is anomalous -- and that the broad picture shows manual transmissions are going the way of the typewriter. "Manuals have been on the decline in terms of their percentage of cars bought in the market for a number of years now," she says. It did go from from 3.8% of cars sold in 2011 to 7% as of the end of May." She says that jump may just reflect the lift in sales of small cars in general.
"Is there an increased interest? Talking anecdotally to people who teach teenagers to drive, they say kids are not clamoring to drive stick shift," she says, adding that some automakers have been selling the idea that people want manuals to duplicate the Euro driving experience. "But there is no empirical data to show that. "It may be more that there is a particular car they really want that only comes with a stick. But what I'm hearing from instructors is they learn to drive what they have access to. They are happy to have any car."
I'm happy to drive a manual. But then, I'm also happy to use a typewriter ...