Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a friend about manual transmissions. My friend is one of the few non-auto-journo folks I know who drives a vehicle with three pedals, and he made a comment about the slow death of the stick shift, especially as cars increasingly become electric, or at least electrified.
I pushed back gently, suggesting that there will also be a market, perhaps quite small but a market nonetheless, for internal-combustion engine vehicles, even after the market flips in favor of EVs. Unless the ICE is outright banned, of course. I also believe there will be a market for sports cars with hybrid and EV setups, and some might be able to offer manuals. Either way, I figure that as long as some car enthusiasts demand sports cars, including those with manuals, and as long as automakers won’t take too much of a hit to the bottom line to produce such cars, there will be a market.
What I am not sure about, though, is how many enthusiasts there will be, and how vocal they will be about keeping the flame of the “enthusiast” car alive.
This may sound like the usual worries about the younger generations not being as into cars as their forebears, but it isn’t — I think there’s enough evidence that suggests the youths still like to play with cars out there, even if my own non-automotive-media social circles don’t contain many car people: Off top of head, I can only think of a handful of friends/family who are into cars, and only two or three don’t have some professional or personal connection to one part or another of the automotive industry.
But I do wonder if today’s enthusiasts might have different priorities than asking for hot performance cars — even ones with more environmentally friendly powertrains — and how that might change things.
For example, I am just barely old enough to vaguely remember the revolt that Ford set off when it planned to make the Mustang front-wheel drive. Ford heard the voices of the faithful, backed down, and kept the Mustang rear-drive while producing the Probe as a front-drive sportster. Would that happen today if Ford decided to make a huge change to the Mustang that would almost certainly hurt performance and/or make the car radically different from what it has traditionally been?
I’m not talking about the Mach-E, here — that’s a separate car that shares the name. Nor am I necessarily talking about an EV powertrain — an instant-torque EV Mustang might be pretty awesome. But what if Ford decided to drop the manual? Make the car front-drive? Or drop the V8 (that one might not be totally bad, given the EcoBoost’s power numbers, but still…)? Would the enthusiast crowd stand up, and if so, would their crowing be enough to stop Ford from such hypothetical changes?
I mean, BMW and other marques that sell performance/luxury cars have been reducing the number of sporty cars available with manual transmissions and the backlash hasn’t been all that fierce.
This isn’t a post to debate the pros/cons of manuals. That can be done elsewhere. Rather, my conversation about manuals and sports cars led to a jumping-off point, and now I am wondering — what does today’s car enthusiast want? Does he/she/they have the same power over OEMs that enthusiasts apparently once did? Or do harsh market realities mean more than what enthusiasts want — even if car people will put their money where their mouth is?
I remember buff books worrying that the market was going to kill off “driver’s cars” back in the ’90s, thanks to the proliferation of vanilla mid-size sedans and the slow decline of the stick-shift. Now the crossover craze fuels concerns. But the truth is this: For a very long time, perhaps going back to the beginning of the automobile, the “fun” cars were almost certainly always a small part of the market. We remember the cool ones from the ’50s and ’60s, but we forget the boring ones that were relegated to history — unless, of course, they provided the underpinnings of a muscle car.
So, I don’t want to go down that road. Instead of asking you if car enthusiasts still exist in large numbers and will continue to do so — they do and I think they will — I want to know if the future enthusiast can fight back against market forces (and, perhaps, regulations) that might end the fun.
Sound off below.