“We hope stick shifts never die,” says a stirring print ad for Dodge as part of their “Never Neutral” campaign. But that hope hasn’t amounted to much action. Currently, the only vehicle that Dodge makes with a manual is the Challenger. Enthusiasm is there for its expansion to a manual, or so claimed Dodge design guru Ralph Giles during Jay Leno’s review of the 2011 Charger R/T. He mentioned that Dodge engineers were looking into it. But despite the wealth of heartbeats skipped at this revelation, we have yet to see a manual Charger.
And that’s a shame, because it means there’s only one RWD, manual muscle sedan left in America: the Cadillac CTS-V, which is admittedly a bit too salty for most of us. What if we broaden our search, then, to all-wheel-drive? It seems, after all, that many of the front-drivers can now be had with AWD.
Well, there’s the Ford Taurus SHO. It’s big and burly in its styling, rocking a grill determined to chew up the world, and even a smart diffuser on the tail. There’s plenty of power, too. It only carries a V6, but the mill’s been EcoBoosted to 365 horsepower, far more than the SHOs of yore. (The third generation had a V8 that only managed 235 hp, but we won’t discuss those dark Taurus years.) Yet for all this hairy-chested bravado, the new SHO sacrilegiously lacks something the classic versions required- a manual transmission. It came standard on first and second gen SHOs. Instead, the new model comes with a pair of paddle shifters for when you feel like pretending.
We Americans have, in recent decades, developed some strange aversion to large vehicles with manual transmissions. If you need proof, try searching for a modern full-size truck or SUV with a stick. You might have a time of it.
So what about smaller cars? If we can’t have massive manual muscle for the whole family, perhaps we can try something in the high-revving, front-driving segment. Europe hopes we do.
Mini recently started a new ad campaign highlighting “The Joys of Manualhood.” It’s a hilarious take on those embarrassing puberty-prep videos and brochures we all had to separate for and experience in 5th grade. According to their priceless PDF, the Becoming a Manual Manual, “There comes a time in your life when you begin to crave more exhilaration than an automatic can provide. You’re maturing. You’re changing. You’re becoming a manual.”
Despite their cutting satire, they do present some important advantages of the stick shift. It tends to improve gas mileage and costs less to buy. It’s more responsive when climbing hills and more engaging to drive, or as Mini puts it, “Feels stuntmanly.” One might add that a manual is cheaper to fix and maintain, too. And, if you ever hope to drive anywhere outside America, you’ll need to learn to shift for yourself, since about 90% of the vehicles in the world have manual transmissions.
It’s a bold move for any automaker in America, but Mini doesn’t have to worry about alienating anyone. Most Mini customers prefer a stick. Fiat has a little more to risk with their 500. Though the Italians don’t seem to be pushing stick on us poor, uneducated Americans, a manual does come standard on two of the three current 500 models.
Sometimes an automaker might have to sacrifice a little money and a few whiny customers to preserve driving experience. Mini and Fiat know that driving their little space-savers is most enjoyable with a row-your-own, and we must salute them for pushing people to discover this for themselves.
But driving muscle cars used to be just as active an experience. It’s a shame that American automakers can’t defend that experience in the same way manufacturers across the pond defend theirs.
To sum things up, take a look at the heart-stopping Camaro ZL-1, due next year. It’s the most powerful production Camaro ever to roar into a Chevy showroom, loaded with 550 hp and a trick magnetic suspension system. It was announced recently that the ZL-1 will be available with an automatic. It seems that GM needs to draw a line here somewhere. They need to simply stand up and say, “If you want this car with an automatic, you’ll have to build it yourself.”
What do you think? Would the Charger or SHO be more enjoyable to drive with stick shifters between their seats, or are they just as much fun with their safeboxes?