How to Save the Manual Transmission

  • July 26, 2023

One of the great things about a free market is that it freely responds – to demand as well as its lack. If something is wanted by enough people, the demand creates an incentive for those interested in making money to satisfy that demand.

Interestingly, no force – as in the form of “mandates” – is necessary to meet that kind of demand.

If there is no demand, the market responds by recognizing that there isn’t any for whatever it is and that item disappears from the market.

Like Dylan Mulvaney, for instance.

But here’s the really interesting thing: If market demand for something is strong enough, it can even overcome government’s demands – which have the effect of countering what the market wants. Put another way, if enough people demand something – and will not accept something else – the market pressure to satisfy the stronger demand will sometimes win out.

Case in point, BMW’s M cars – models like the M2 and its bigger brother, the M4. M cars are BMW’s highest-performance cars and one of the very interesting things about them is that they are currently the only cars BMW still sells that are available with manual transmissions.

They actually come standard with them.

But every other car BMW sells – even the Z4, which is a sports car – comes only with an automatic transmission.

The reason why has a lot to do with government demands, as readers of this column are already aware. Automatic transmissions eliminate driver variability from the equation, in terms of how a car performs on a government fuel economy test. These tests are, of course mandatory. Notwithstanding the fact that the market never demanded them.

Anyhow, an automatic can be programmed to shift gears in such a way as to deliver the highest-possible city/highway gas mileage numbers on the government’s test.

The difference between 25 city and 32 on the highway (with a manual) and 27 city and 35 on the highway) matters a lot in terms of complying with the government’s mandatory MPG minimums – Corporate Average Fuel Economy, in bureaucratese. If a given vehicle doesn’t quite meet the minimums, it can reduce the manufacturers’ CAFE “fleet average” numbers and this will trigger “gas guzzler” fines, the government’s way of punishing the manufacturer for building what people want to buy – no one is forced to buy a “gas guzzler” – as opposed to building what the government demands.

There is also another factor, related to taking the driver out of the equation.

It is that a given car – especially a performance car – with an automatic transmission will usually perform slightly better in 0-60 and quarter-mile testing and will always be more consistent, because there is no “driver variable.” Just floor it – and the car goes. An automatic never misses a shift – and will upshift (and downshift) at precisely the right moment for best-case numbers. These numbers are very important to manufacturers, who want to tout the best numbers a performance car can deliver.

It is the main reason why the Chevy Corvette is no longer available with a manual transmission – even as an option. It is no longer America’s Sports Car but an American super car that competes with others, with the victor determined by numbers that often aren’t even whole ones (as in fractions of a second).

But numbers cannot convey intangibles.

The people who buy BMW’s M2 cars value them as much or even more than numbers. And probably the most important intangible to a buyer who likes to drive is being able to shift for himself – even if he misses one every now and then.

The point here is that BMW is meeting that demand – for intangibles – by equipping its M cars with manual transmissions. Because M buyers want not only want them, they won’t accept what they don’t want.

The lesson here is that if enough people make plain what they want – and what they will not abide – then it is much more likely they won’t up not getting what they want.

It is interesting to note in this context that the manual-available version of the BMW Z4 – sold as the Toyota Supra (which gets 19 city/27 highway vs. 23 city/31 highway) is selling better this year (1,621 sold so far vs. 1,121). This may be partially due to the Toyota-bodied version of the BMW being considerably less expensive than its BMW-badged sibling.

But it may also have to do with intangibles rather than numbers.

. . .

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