The manual transmission is dying and cars with three pedals are becoming increasingly difficult to find outside the realm of high-performance models. Even automakers like Ferrari and Lamborghini, who make some of the fastest cars in the world, don’t even offer a manual transmission any more.
Key reason why? Automatics are better.
They’re easier to use, faster and more fuel efficient. This makes enthusiasts (your writer included) sad, but it’s a fact of life. As referenced by the fact that most of the world’s fastest cars are not offered with a manual transmission, shifting gears using clumsy human appendages isn’t the way to go for all-out performance anymore, even if it is more fun, rewarding and charming.
And forget about a manual transmission in most mainstream cars, too. Less and less of these offer up a five- or six-speed stick, even in basic models, and many cheap and cheerful cars today are standard with an automatic. Reason? Most shoppers don’t buy manual transmissions, so it typically makes little sense to offer one.
That’s most shoppers, not all of them.
Monica Nalani was the most recent reader to send me an email asking a not-uncommon question.
“I want a crossover or wagon,” Nalani said. “I want all-wheel drive and I want a manual transmission. But I’m lost; it seems like I have no options. Any suggestions?”
I gave Nalani my usual list: Jeep Wrangler; a few-year-old Subaru Crosstrek /Forester/Outback; and the new Jetta SportWagen and AllTrack models, both of which recently became available with a manual six-speed transmission and and VW’s 4Motion AWD system.
Strange move, this one: Volkswagen went out of its way to create a manual transmission option for these models, even though the manual transmission seems to be of little interest to most Canadian shoppers. But apparently VW shoppers don’t follow that trend.
For that reason, the automaker did enthusiast drivers a favour by adding two options for shoppers like Nalani who want the increasingly-endangered combination of all-wheel traction and a manual transmission. Though the take rate of manual transmissions by Canadian shoppers is extremely low, these two recent VW models are moving things in the other direction.
“Quite simply, the decision to offer a manual transmission on these models came from our customers,” says Thomas Tetzlaff, VW Canada’s public relations manager. “We first offered 4MOTION AWD in the Golf SportWagen for model year 2017, and in our haste to bring AWD to this model, we were unable to offer both transmissions so, initially, we went with the more popular one, the DSG Automatic.
“Our promise was that we’d offer a manual transmission for model year 2018 and we are delighted that not only were we able to offer it, but we are able to offer it on all trim levels and on the very popular Alltrack.”
The Golf SportWagen is a conventional station wagon and the Alltrack is a special version of that wagon, with a lifted suspension, some unique looks and a more rugged execution.
Interestingly, once the six-speed manual arrived on the order sheet for the AWD versions of machines (AWD is standard on the AllTrack and optional on the SportWagen), customers reacted with fervour and, at time of writing, Volkswagen reported that some 40 per cent of SportWagen and Alltrack shoppers are ordering their machines with the manual gearbox. This readily beats market acceptance of the manual transmission in general and even shocked VW’s product planning folks.
“We are pleasantly surprised,” Tetzlaff said. “Early estimates pegged the install rate around 25 per cent, but we did not expect or anticipate a 40 per cent rate.”
Other two-wheel-drive VW products have offered manual transmissions continually, with an observed take rate of around 20 per cent. On sportier machines like the GTI and Golf R, enthusiast shoppers see the take rate for manual transmissions land at about half.
“With the SportWagen coming in right around 40 per cent, it definitely puts the car in the “sporty” camp. Our guess is that wagon buyers tend to be a bit more “picky” when it comes to their car and they want what they want, so a manual transmission is very appealing to them,” said Tetzlaff.
Volkswagen reports that the take rate of manual-equipped models is about even across the country, but that the numbers trend higher in Quebec and higher still in the Prairies, possibly due to the vast open spaces where many residents drive.
“If you’re sitting in an hour’s worth of stop-and-go traffic every day, the novelty of a clutch pedal might be a bit less appealing,” Tetzlaff said.
By the numbers, it’s easy to deduce that there’s still a strong group of Canadian drivers like Nalani who want AWD and a manual transmission. But is Volkswagen’s recent surge of manual transmission customers a case of “If you build it, they will come?”
“It’s popular to hear things like “modern automatics are more fuel efficient than ever, which renders a manual obsolete, but that’s just an excuse,” Tetzlaff said.
“I doubt many people buy a manual to save a dollar at the pumps; they buy a manual because they enjoy the driving experience.”