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The Roundabout Blog

The stick shift: Not dead yet

The seven-speed manual shift knob of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. (General Motors)

The seven-speed manual shift knob of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. (General Motors)

A coterie of Hollywood studios recently announced a deal with Kodak that ensures continued production of the film company's hopelessly retrograde celluloid, buying the borderline-obsolete technology more time before its inevitable cut. Coincidentally, leaked product specifications for the 2015 Chevrolet SS revealed that General Motors intended to add a six-speed manual transmission to the hot-rod sedan’s option list.

Well-placed automotive paparazzi are also hot on the trail of a rumoured stick for the scorching Jaguar F-type, which, in a disappointment to aficionados, has only been available with an automatic transmission. Alas, Jaguar Land Rover North America spokesman Stuart Schorr advises onlookers not to hold out for a manual to be announced for the 2015 F-type, though "it would be cool," he concedes.

In the footsteps of The Impossible Project's resuscitation of instant photographic film and the fetishising of vinyl LP records, traditional H-pattern shifted manual transmissions – which have teetered on the brink of extinction for years – are poised to join this cadre. Carmakers are going to lengths to preserve the sticks even as automatic transmissions become quicker and enable greater fuel efficiency: long the twin bulwarks in the defense of manuals against the shiftless horde.

The manual-transmission Chevrolet SS joins other manually shifted sporting models such as the Buick Regal GS mid-size sedan and compact Ford Fiesta ST hatchback – the latter only available with a six-speed stick. Indeed, the take rate for manual transmissions among buyers of sporty compact cars such as the Volkswagen GTI and Mazda MX-5 Miata has proven strong even as the technology loses favour elsewhere in the marketplace.

Albert Biermann, head of development for BMW’s performance-oriented M division, noted with pride that a classic manual transmission was available for the company's new M3 and M4 sport sedans despite the development cost and relatively low sales of cars so equipped.

Like analogue film and reel-to-reel recorders, manual transmissions provide intimate involvement for drivers that newer technologies cannot equal. Catering to the buffs who prize such connections (director JJ Abrams is using film to shoot the new Stars Wars instalment to lend the movie a gritty atmosphere) bequeaths credibility to companies willing to invest.

Ken Kornas, global product manager for the Cadillac ATS compact luxury sedan, says the ATS offers a manual transmission because traditionalist customers wanted one. Years preceding the ATS’s introduction, Cadillac witnessed a fortuitous “knock-on effect” when it introduced a coupe version of its CTS sedan, whereby sales of the sedan rose by a consistent 300 cars per month. The CTS coupe lured customers into the showroom, Kornas explained, but it was the sedan that most chose to buy. Could the mere fact of having a manual-transmission car on the showroom floor indirectly goose sales of automatics, which tend to be more profitable?

"Yes, I think so," he said.

These little spurts of manual momentum are not without their outages, however. Honda's Acura luxury subsidiary rolled out the TLX sport sedan to replace the outgoing TSX and TL models, both of which were lauded for their sublime manual transmissions. But in a blow to fans who appreciated the virtues of those models, the new TLX offers no manual option. Acura notes that just 2% of US buyers chose the stick, so it made little sense to retain such an unpopular piece of hardware. And so Acura, like Lamborghini and Ferrari, is headed to the dark side of MP3 sound files and digital photography.

For those who enjoy shifting for themselves, however, Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, VW, BMW, Porsche, Mazda and others continue to supply the goods.

Your move, Jaguar.