Stick-shift cars lose horsepower in U.S.

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An overwhelming majority of car buyers aren't interested in autos with manual transmissions; most auto marketers don't even advertise their stick-shift vehicles.

But Volkswagen of America realized it had too many unsold five-speed cars in the tri-state New York area. So Lanny Brown, mid-Atlantic region team leader at VW in Columbia, Md., recently kicked off a 40-day radio and newspaper ad campaign. The ads, from Arnold Communications, Boston, offer a free, in-trunk, six-disc CD player to buyers of stick shift Jettas, Golfs and Beetles.

"We did it to address an inventory situation," Mr. Brown said. "What do you do? You market your way out of it."

RADIO SPOTS

Alan Pafenbach, exec VP-creative director at Arnold on VW, said the shop created two radio spots for the effort promoting the free CD player. In one, a driver finds only polka music and farm reports on the radio when his significant other gets amorous. The other features an annoying radio disc jockey.

Mr. Brown declined to discuss the media budget, but said he'll spend nearly $3 million in radio in the tri-state area this year. Arnold's regional staff in New York convinced VW to return to radio earlier this year after a long regional absence.

"A lot of young drivers don't know how to drive a stick," Mr. Brown said. "But a five-speed is less expensive to buy and gets better fuel economy than a manual, he added.

That's why manuals are so popular in Europe, where gasoline can cost as much as $4 a gallon, said Belgian-born Philippe Defechereux, a former car ad executive turned book author. Automatic transmissions also lose horsepower, more noticeable in Europe's popular small cars, which average 90 horsepower vs. the 150-horsepower average in the U.S., he said.

LOW POPULARITY IN U.S.

Stick shifts accounted for a mere 16.9% of all vehicles made in North America last year, compared to 86.9% in Europe, according to Automotive News.

Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America doesn't advertise its manuals because roughly 85% of its models are automatic, said Greg O'Neill, senior VP. The only two models available with a five-speed are the Mirage and Eclipse.

A rare example of five-speed advertising came last year, when Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand was launching its new LS. The brand ran a single print ad from Y&R Advertising, San Francisco and Irvine, Calif., showing off the car's leather stick shift. A TV spot also showed a quick shot of the shifter.

"It's part of redefining the brand--we wanted to give driving enthusiasts another option," a spokesman said.

The LS is the first Lincoln since 1951 to offer a five-speed. Still, the marketer is selling only about 350 manual LS cars monthly, about 3% of total sales, he said.

INFO VIA INTERNET

BMW of North America's last ad touting a five-speed came roughly two years ago in a print ad from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, said Jim McDowell, VP-marketing. Consumers get more information about the marketer's manual transmission models on the marketer's Web site (bmwusa.com) and in its brochures, he said. The 7 Series sedan, for example, is only offered in an automatic, while the Z8 roadster only comes with a manual, he said.

Art Spinella, a VP at consultancy CNW Marketing/Research, said his consumer research found that the number of buyers who rate a manual transmission as an important car attribute has been declining steadily.

CNW's annual survey of new vehicle intenders last year revealed only 16% of them rated a manual transmission an important attribute in their next car or truck. In 1996, the figure was 27%.

One reason for the decline is the availability of manuals. Mr. Spinella said entry-level cars of the 1970s and into the '80s were only available with stick shifts. Today, most people learn to drive on automatics.

"Another part of it is traffic in metropolitan areas," he said. "Who wants to be on the Long Island Expressway at 5 p.m. with a manual?"

Copyright April 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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