Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 31° Partly Cloudy
News >  Spokane

It’s What You Get With Uncle Sam In The Driver’s Seat

Eric Peters Knight-Ridder/Tribune

Have you noticed that manual transmissions have been disappearing from the equipment list of many new cars - even sporty cars?

Here are a few cases in point:

When Mercedes-Benz unveiled the gorgeous SLK retractable hardtop roadster last year, it was announced that the U.S. version of the car would only be available with an automatic - despite the fact that SLKs sold in Europe come standard with a five-speed stick.

The 1997 Ford Taurus SHO boasts a DOHC V-8 in place of the V-6 used on the previous generation model - but the manual transaxle option is gone. All SHOs are automatics or nothing.

For one full model year, the Toyota Supra could not be ordered with anything but an automatic in the U.S. market - although Supras sold in Europe and in the Japanese home market did offer the manual gearbox.

What gives? Has shifting gears the old fashioned way become passe? Well, yes - to a certain extent. Crowded U.S. roads and the bump-and-grind of commuting have made automatic transmissions more popular than before. It’s just less bother to leave the selector in “Drive” and turn up the radio than it is having to constantly clutch.

But another factor is at work that not many people are aware of: Before any new car model can be offered for sale in this country, it must pass a battery of complicated and time-consuming emissions certification tests - called the Federal Emissions Test Protocol.

It is harder for engineers to tune a stick-shift car to meet the requirements of the test because of the way engine speed drops and then picks up between shifts. On automatic cars, this transition is much smoother and it’s therefore easier to calibrate engines to run as cleanly as possible.

This is not to say that manual transmission vehicles are polluters; the amounts at issue are nominal and what we’re really talking about here is satisfying an arbitrary test standard established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Often, conforming to the FTP rule costs more money, time and effort than can be justified by anticipated sales of stick-shift models. So the automaker in question says, in effect, “to heck with it” and sells all its cars with automatics only.

For smaller, relatively low-volume automakers the problem is especially acute.

Consider the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz SLK. The German automaker did some market research and found that only 5 percent or so of projected SLK sales in the U.S. would be stickshift models. For such a small number of cars - less than a few thousand - it just didn’t make sense to hassle with the extra compliance costs to make the manual-equipped model available in the U.S. market, company insiders told me.

Hence, only Europeans can get a non-automatic SLK.

Toyota nixed the stickshift Supra (at least those bound for America) for exactly the same reasons.

Ironically, the European emissions regulations are at least as strict - probably stricter - than U.S. regulations. But because they’re written differently and employ different testing procedures and guidelines, an automaker can’t qualify for U.S. certification just because its cars meet the European standard.

This is absolutely arbitrary and capricious - and it’s taking away choice from American consumers. It also raises the price of cars since it generally costs more to equip a car with an automatic (and its related hardware) than a manual. And, of course, automatic-equipped cars get somewhat poorer fuel economy than stick models.

All of these things you must pay for - whether you want to or not - courtesy of Uncle Sam’s endless trail of paperwork and “rules.”

For the enthusiast driver, however, the absence of a manual often detracts significantly from the enjoyment of cars like the SLK and Supra, both of which are theoretically sporty machines. But you can’t blame the automakers. They’re just trying to make a buck in a business environment full of perils and hazards that would have kept Henry Ford from selling a single Model T, had they been in force at the turn of the century.

Whether you personally like to shift gears yourself or not, it should concern you that a rigid bureaucracy is limiting the range of options available to you as a car buyer.

I know it rankles me.


The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.

Annual health and dental insurance enrollment period open now

 (Courtesy Washington Healthplanfinder)

2020 has been a stressful year for myriad reasons.