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The disappearing stick shift in US cars

SAN DIEGO — At auto shows like recent one in San Diego, so much says “new and shiny” it’s easy to miss what’s old and disappearing.

Like manual transmissions.

Fewer than 3 percent of cars sold in the U.S. these days have stick shifts and clutch pedals, and nowhere was that trend more obvious than at the San Diego International Auto Show’s Mini display.

Revered for its quickness and its handling, the Mini has roots in British racing, and in a nod to that heritage all its models come standard with a six-speed manual transmission.

But none of the half-dozen Minis at the convention center had a stick shift. They were all automatic.

It was the same all across the showroom floor, with occasional exceptions for sportier models. A decade ago, almost 50 percent of new cars came with both transmission options, according to a study by Edmunds.com. Now it’s closer to 20 percent.

You can’t even get a stick shift in the car that baptized scores of Southern California teens to the world of driving with four-on-the-floor: the Volkswagen Beetle.

Experts say there are several reasons for the trend. Manual-transmission cars used to be cheaper to buy, more durable, and got better gas mileage. Not anymore, as manufacturers introduce continuously variable transmissions, paddle shifters and other features that improve the performance of automatics.

One characteristic of sticks remains, though, at least for many car enthusiasts: the hands-on thrill of gear-shifting.

“With a stick, you get the feel of really driving,” said Jess Willhite. “It’s not the car doing everything for you.”

He drives a 1969 GMC pickup with a manual transmission. His wife’s car is an automatic, but he’s taught her how to drive a stick, too, just in case.

“I think it’s a skill everyone should have because you never know when you might be some place where the only car available is one with a manual transmission,” he said.

For LaShawn Miller, knowing how isn’t enough. “It’s a deal-breaker for me if I can’t get manual transmission on a new car,” said the Miami resident, who was working the show for Volkswagen.

Now 45, she’s been driving sticks since she was 17 and currently leases a Jetta GLI. “Automatics are boring,” she said. “I want to experience the feel of the car on the road.”

But she also knows she’s part of an ever-dwindling club. Some young people at the show had never seen a stick shift before.

Not Colin Schamp, though. The 16-year-old Oceanside resident has a fondness for muscle cars — his dad drives a 2006 Mustang GT — and he was wearing a T-shirt that had a gear-shift diagram on the front.

“Rolling through the gears — it’s like nothing else in the world,” he said.

He was at the show with James Spotts who drives a 1989 Mazda Miata. With a stick.

“Manny-tranny all the way,” he said, a rallying cry for a dying breed.

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