Feel of the Road

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Those who buy the Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster with a five-speed transmission will drop more than $40,000 for the privilege.

Driving a manual transmission car has always been an interactive experience, what with one hand on the wheel, the other on the stick, and both feet alternating between the clutch and gas pedals. But increasing traffic congestion and the popularity of automatic transmissions have made operating a manual gearbox relatively rare. Today, only 17 percent of U.S. adults own a car equipped with a standard transmission, and automakers increasingly regard the fans of stick shifts as a niche market — “hard-core driving enthusiasts,� in the words of Art Garner, public relations manager for Honda.

But something more demographically fundamental is at work as well. Whereas cost-conscious Americans used to buy stick shifts lured by lower price tags and cheaper gas mileage, today's owners tend to be affluent, married, and college-educated men over 45 years old, who are drawn to the old-fashioned way of heel-and-toe downshifting. Consumer research shows that driving a stick shift reflects a preoccupation with authenticity and the unrefined (like coarse bread and hemp clothes) that provides its own cachet in our plastic, materialistic age.

Manual transmission owners are more likely than average Americans to do their own financial planning, engage in solo leisure pursuits (such as backpacking, jogging, and skiing), and cook from scratch. Supermarket surveys indicate that they'd rather buy products that require more effort to serve: whole-bean coffee rather than instant brands; pita over sliced white bread; high-maintenance Brie cheese instead of an easy-to-cut slab of Velveeta. The owners of manual transmission cars tend to make their own bread and pasta. “These people don't look at a car as an appliance but as something that engages them in the act of driving,� says Joe Lawrence, BMW's product and price planning manager for North America. “There is some subtle signaling to others that says, ‘I would rather drive the car than have the car drive me.’�

It wasn't always this way. After the arrival of automatic Hydramatic and Dynaflow transmissions in the 1940s, stick shifts became the passion of two smaller consumer segments: Adults who couldn't afford the fancier automatics, and young people who thought popping the clutch at the start of a squealing takeoff was a desired benefit of car ownership. These younger motorists were more influenced by the desire to emulate the drivers of British sports cars, who'd moved from three speeds on the column to four or five speeds on the floor. The image of the owner of a manual transmission car changed from staid family man to gutsy loner who appreciated howling along isolated roads while downshifting the engine in a blast of exhaust.

But as urban roads became congested, more and more drivers chose the comfort and convenience of automatic transmissions. Nowadays, in paved-over America, there are fewer lonely roads, and the car owners who used to grind their gears have grown up to appreciate the no-fuss comfort of sport-utility vehicles with soft suspensions and cushy rides. Today's consumers who've turned to manual transmissions want to add an aspect of entertainment to their driving. As Baby Boomers reach their 50s, some are purchasing stick shifts as a nostalgic consumption experience, hoping to relive memories of their first, cheap, manual gearboxes — and willing to pay for it. Those who buy the Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster with a five-speed transmission will drop more than $40,000 for the privilege.

As shown in the attached map, based on consumer behavior in the nation's 211 media markets, the highest concentration of manual transmission owners are found in Boomer-filled metros like Boston, Denver, and Washington, D.C., as well as college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Lafayette, Indiana. Western states also boast a greater share of stick-shifters thanks to the recent influx of educated and mobile Americans who've moved there in search of higher paying jobs in new industries. “It's an intelligence thing,� notes Lawrence, a former product manager for BMW's 3 series. “A manual driver out on a date may prompt someone to say, ‘Wow, this is a cultured guy.’�

A disproportionate number of such motorists also live in the North due to weather conditions: Stick shifts provide increased traction on icy roads. By contrast, fewer are found in the rural South because of the confluence of mild temperatures, lower education levels, and relatively modest incomes that depress purchase rates for all cars. And manual transmission owners are almost as scarce in coastal cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, which are home to recent immigrants who perhaps lack the money and driving permits necessary for car ownership.

Of course, the owners of manual transmission cars spend their time doing more than driving their vehicles from home to office. These motorists exhibit relatively low rates for publications such as Soap Opera Weekly, that deal with a sedentary activity like watching television, or for acting as armchair athletes who read magazines like Sport. As for music on the radio, their tastes are eclectic: Classical, golden oldies, and modern rock are all enjoyed at relatively high rates. No doubt Toyota paid attention to the market's preference for modern rock when it scored its “I'm Too Sexy� spot for its Camry brand, juxtaposing a hip motorist's dream driving experience with the more usual, mundane reality. The audio features a breathy male singer whispering over the grinding of gears and a funky alternative rock beat: “I'm too sexy … I'm too sexy for the car wash … I'm too sexy for the grocery store … I'm too sexy for the dry cleaners …�

Beyond their desire for nostalgia and sex, these do-it-yourselfers may enjoy the experience of shifting gears, but only to a point. They have below-average interest in “shade-tree mechanic� activities such as changing the oil or batteries in their cars. Ironically, for all their interest in experiencing the feel of the road through downshifting, they show little interest in getting under the hood.

In the future, the passion for standard transmissions may become even more of a rarity. As metro highways become increasingly congested, more and more drivers now choose the comfort and convenience of automatic transmissions. Some driver's education programs no longer teach students how to shift manually, and the market share for automatics — 59 percent of U.S. adults — remains steady. Recently, the market for manuals has faced a new threat, from hybrid auto-stick transmissions, called “manutronics� or “tiptronics,� which allow drivers to hand-shift gears without working the clutch. This innovation is quickly making inroads among aging Boomers weary of the exertion of pumping a clutch pedal. “You've got to have reasonable knees to enjoy shifting,� says Detroit automotive consultant Leonard Wanetik.

But while automakers are bullish on these hybrid transmissions, purists complain that they don't capture the full, nostalgic experience of driving a car with a manual gearbox. In an era of decreasing experiential living — with take-out food, dog walkers, and the virtual reality of cyberspace — using a stick provides drivers with a rare, authentic experience behind the wheel of a car. Having “four-on-the-floor� may yet remain part of the lexicon among the nation's experiential consumers. As Wanetik puts it, “A lot of motorists are realizing that driving a ‘floatmobile’ isn't all it's cracked up to be.�

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