Automakers subscribe to the theory that carrying a big stick speaks quite loudly.
A stick shift, that is . While less than 10% of new cars sold in the U.S. have a manual transmission, that small percentage carries a halo of performance, a rub-off effect from high-performance European autos and racecars. That's why Mini, Cadillac and Ford, among others, are spending to market vehicles with an auto-operating system that 's largely become an American anachronism.
"It's all about making a statement," said Christopher Chaney, VP-automotive research for Strategic Vision in San Diego.
According to the researcher's data, Fiat, Mini and Toyota's Scion division all show comparatively strong sales of manual-equipped cars. That result for Mini may well be due to marketing. Late last year the company and Butler , Shine, Stern & Partners, Sausalito, Calif., took up the mantle of manuals; they even gave their media campaign a name, "Manualhood" and taglines like "Stick Happens."
"Manual is the essence of Mini," said Tom Salkowsky manager-brand marketing. Digital and point-of -purchase were the focus of the marketing, with "Manualhood" featured on Mini's Facebook page and ads on a variety of auto-shopping sites, he said. The automaker supplied its U.S. dealer network with a gaggle of propagandist paraphernalia -- decals, floormats, buttons -- and encouraged them to train prospective stick-shifters in the art of the smooth clutch pickup.
Ford didn't initially plan to introduce a manual option in its high-end Focus model Titanium.
"It figured that at the price level [about $27,000] buyers would want their amenities, and it wasn't about rowing their own gears," said Chris Terry, a member of the product communication team for Focus. "But dealers had big numbers of people saying, "I'm gonna load up this car, and I want a manual.'" Ford was befuddled by this, "but we said, "OK, you want it, we'll start making it.'"
Cadillac's ultraluxury sports sedan, the CTS-V, will offer a six-speed version in its coming BMW-fighter, the ATS sports sedan, slated for the summer.
"We think the manual exemplifies some of the technical achievements meaningful to all of our cars," said Cadillac spokesman Dave Caldwell. Although the marketing for the stick-equipped car is limited, the brand's agency, Fallon , Minneapolis, created one 30-second spot last fall that featured the stick-shift model. "Why did we build a 556-horsepower car with a manual transmission?" asks the voice-over. "Because there are those who still believe in the power of a firm handshake."
Mr. Chaney theorizes a parallel between the declining numbers of enthusiasts who seek out a stick shift and younger drivers who are "just not interested in driving at all," he said. "That's a challenge for the entire industry."
Robert Stahl, who runs a driving school near Los Angeles and is head of the Driving School Association of California, can reinforce one part of that theory. "Very few of my clients ask about learning manuals," he said. "Most driving schools here don't own a manual car, because it's not cost-efficient."
Other reasons cited for the shift's demise are traffic conditions, driver laziness or indifference, and significant advances in auto-transmission technology that can make an automatic more fuel-efficient.
Lobbying car companies to give buyers the choice has become something of an obsession with Eddie Alterman, editor of Car and Driver magazine. Mr. Alterman devoted his column in a recent issue to inaugurating the "Save the Manuals" campaign: It may be a faux crusade to promote his magazine, but the spirit is there.