The unintended consequence of electric vehicles: More demand for manual transmissions

(NEW YORK) — When Nissan launched the all-new, seventh-generation Z sports car, company executives had a specific requirement: a manual transmission.

“In the more than 50 years of Nissan Z, we’ve never offered a Z without a manual transmission,” Brian Hoekstra, chief marketing manager of Z, told ABC News. “We recognize that for many Z and sports car enthusiasts, there is simply no alternative to a manual transmission.”

The coupe, which went on sale last summer, comes with a 3.0-liter V6 twin turbo engine that delivers 400 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque. Drivers have a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a nine-speed automatic. Hoekstra said sales are equally split between the manual and automatic, with younger owners preferring the “nostalgic experience” of three pedals.

“The manual transmission offers that classic sports car experience — it’s the ultimate driver-car connection, where you really feel like a part of the vehicle and can control it in ways you wouldn’t be able to with an automatic,” he said. “As long as there are still new internal combustion engine vehicles on the market, there will be an interest in manual transmissions.”

The car community has been decrying the death of the manual transmission for nearly two decades, said Henry Catchpole, a longtime automotive journalist who now hosts videos for Hagerty. As more automakers allocate resources to building electric vehicles, drivers are choosing engagement over pure performance, he argued.

“People are reassessing what they want and are going back to analog cars. It’s a big story in the industry,” he told ABC News. “There’s a shift in terms of how we look at performance cars. We don’t wax lyrical about paddle shifters as we do about manual gearboxes. Drivers are enjoying the manual again.”

Electric vehicles like the Porsche Taycan, Audi RS e-tron GT and Tesla Model S Plaid post performance numbers that few traditional supercars and sports cars can match. Straight-line acceleration and 0-60 mph times, however, may not matter to every motorist, said Bob Sorokanich, editor-in-chief of Jalopnik.

“Tesla has the quickest car on the market — just floor the accelerator and hang on,” he told ABC News. “It doesn’t take any driver skill.”

Automakers like Nissan, Toyota, Porsche and Honda are continuing to extol the manual transmission, he said, a “last hurrah” before the industry completely goes electric.

“It’s inevitable EVs are going to take over and people are getting misty-eyed that the manual won’t be around forever,” he said. “That’s why people are flocking to these specialty cars. Young people are interested in the opportunity to experience them as internal combustion engines come to a close.”

When Toyota released the Supra sports car in 2020, enthusiasts had one objection: there was no manual gearbox. The automaker listened and decided to offer the 2023 GR Supra with a newly developed six-speed manual transmission that was engineered and tuned specifically for the coupe’s straight-six engine. At least 25% of GR Supra sales are expected to be the manual, a company spokesperson said.

Then, to much acclaim, Toyota revealed the GR Corolla, a lightweight, vivacious hot hatch that meets every enthusiast’s requirements. It’s also built exclusively with a manual. Sorokanich expects Toyota to sell every one.

“The GR Corolla is meant for engagement,” he said.

Lindsay Lee, a senior manager in vehicle marketing and communications for Toyota, said demand has been unprecedented for the GR Corolla.

“There is excitement in the market for a vehicle of this size with this amount of performance,” she told ABC News.

Porsche takes driver engagement so seriously that it offers 25 models with a manual transmission at no cost. Certain 911 models, like the Carrera T and GT3 with Touring Package, come standard with a manual gearbox.

“We see the highest degree of interest in manual transmissions on particularly enthusiast-focused variants such as the 718 Cayman/Boxster T, 718 Cayman GT4 and 718 Spyder or 911 GT3, where the manual take rate in the U.S. can reach 50% or more,” a Porsche spokesperson told ABC News. “We aim to offer the manual transmission as a choice as long as regulations permit.”

Stephanie Brinley, an associate director at S&P Global Mobility, said recent market conditions have dictated what automakers build, leading to less investment in manual transmission technology.

“Automakers are faced with difficult choices and manuals are things that have been sacrificed in the last two years,” she told ABC News.

Pleasing a dedicated group of owners who are willing to pay above MSRP for a niche product can, however, outweigh the costs, she noted.

“It’s a niche space but sometimes customer loyalty is a reason to keep it going,” she said. “EVs are here and growing. They do have a different feel and level of engagement. For people who want that manual transmission connection, now is the time to grab one before they go away.”

BMW’s head of M products confirmed that the German automaker would keep manuals around until the end of the decade. The S58 engine in the company’s new M2 coupe can be paired with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a dynamic eight-speed M Steptronic transmission.

At the unveiling of the seventh-generation Ford Mustang in September, company executives touted the Blue Oval’s commitment to the clutch pedal.

“Ford has saved the manual transmission for a new generation and the 5.0-liter V8 continues to offer a standard six-speed manual transmission for customers who want an uncompromised connection to eight-cylinder power,” according to a company press release.

The Dearborn automaker has also seen sizable interest among manual buyers in its Ford Bronco 4X4, with the take rate topping 20%, according to Brinley.

Honda’s latest Type R hatch is visually different from its predecessor, with an aggressive front bumper design, lower stance and a redesigned rear spoiler. What hasn’t changed? A manual transmission. Honda’s Civic Si, like the Type R, has been manual-only since its inception and the company sees “consistent interest from enthusiasts who want the engaging driving experience that can only be had by shifting your own gears,” according to a spokesperson. When Honda’s Acura brand premiered the fifth-generation Integra in March, enthusiasts lauded the return of the manual.

“At launch, nearly 70% of the Integra preorders were for the manual transmission,” the spokesperson said. “Since then, the mix rate has leveled out, but we’re still seeing high demand for the manual transmission, more than enough to justify its development.”

Catchpole said the unrelenting pressure on automakers to keep the manual alive has benefited an industry that’s rapidly closing the door on gas-powered vehicles.

“Some people see manuals as a chore but they’re not. They bring more color to life,” he said. “Porsche listened to enthusiasts and brought back the manual in the GT3. I hope other manufacturers will listen too.”

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