Why drivers may give up the 'stick'

Clutch, shift, gas. Clutch shift, brake. The pattern is too familiar to the minority of American commuters who slug into traffic each day in cars with standard transmissions.

For some in this crowd, driving with a stick shift is a way to connect with their cars, for others, it's a fuel-saving device.

But over the next decade, the stick shift may become as obsolete as an eight-track tape player. Credit two new breeds of transmissions making their way into automobile showrooms.

The new trannies – continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and automatic manual transmissions (AMTs) – are technically not automatics as we know them, though they both do the shifting for you. And each uses new technology to improve fuel efficiency.

The advances, say some auto experts, will eventually influence more drivers to give up the "stick."

Today, only 9 percent of new cars are sold with stick shifts, according to Edmunds.com, in Santa Monica, Calif. Over the next 10 years, CVTs and AMTs will push that number to zero, predicts the automotive website's editor in chief, Karl Brauer.

Neither the CVT nor the AMT use a traditional automatic's energy-wasting fluid drive – a fact that won't be lost on today's drivers. More than 6 in 10 new-car buyers rate efficiency as very important to them today, says Thad Malish, director of alternative power for J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif.

That's up from 40 percent before 9/11 and last summer's spikes in oil prices.

CVTs are more fuel efficient than either a manual or an automatic transmission. Mr. Malish estimates a 5 to 15 percent improvement over a traditional automatic.

And neither new transmission uses a clutch pedal, which should be good news to those stick-shift commuters.

The CVT uses no gears. Instead, a pair of pulleys that vary in size creates an infinite number of gear ratios.

To get a sense of the improvement, think of riding a 21-speed bicycle up a hill compared to riding a three-speed. The 21-speed lets you pedal at a more comfortable pace. In other words, you use less energy.

The CVT originally appeared in tiny economy cars, but has ventured from that realm to the Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle, some luxury sedans from Audi, and the sporty Mini Cooper. (It still appears in ultraeconomy cars such as Honda's hybrid vehicles.)

Nissan will introduce the midsize Murano SUV with a CVT this fall. By next year, CVTs will be available in nine different models, up from one in 1998.

One problem drivers experience with most CVTs: When they step hard on the gas, the car hesitates while the engine winds up to speed (sort of like a rubber-band-propeller airplane).

"Customers aren't asking for a new shifting experience, so the [technology] has to be transparent," says Jim Hall, an auto analyst with AutoPacific in Detroit.

Today, the only CVTs that mimic the gears of a traditional automatic are those found in Audis, says Mr. Brauer, who happens to own a Mini Cooper with a CVT.

Another motivation for developing new transmissions is to replace traditional automatics, which are now so complex they cost automakers almost as much to build as engines, says David Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

So what will happen to drivers who still want control of their gears? For starters, they'll pay more. With fewer drivers in the US buying cars with stick shifts, manufacturing costs are exorbitant, says Mr. Hall.

Still, many are willing to pay for cars with an AMT. These transmissions let the driver do the shifting while the car's computer controls the clutch.

AMTs first came into vogue in Formula 1 racing a decade ago, because they shifted faster than drivers could and diverted less attention. In the late 1990s, these transmissions trickled down to road-going Ferraris and Aston Martins.

Last year, AMTs entered the – relatively – terrestrial end of the market, appearing in the $25,000 Toyota MR2 sports car and the $48,000 BMW M3.

AMTs are easy to drive in stop-and-go traffic and confidently start without slipping on hills. But because the car is still working the clutch, they don't feel as smooth as a traditional automatic. All but the MR2 offer a fully automatic mode (the BMW offers six variations on "drive").

The next step, according to Hall, is called a twin-shaft manual transmission – which uses two automatic clutches inside to seamlessly shift gears. That technology, with automatic shifting, could feel as smooth as an automatic.

Volkswagen is launching one model in Europe next year, but it could take 10 years before this technology appear in the US, Hall says.

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