By the numbers: the decline of the manual transmission

Australians once bought over 150,000 manual-equipped passenger cars each year. In 2020, that was down to just 11,282 due to buyer apathy and a dwindling number of options.

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William Stopford
William Stopford
Journalist
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In the year 2000, more than a quarter of passenger car sales and more than a third of SUV sales were of models equipped with a manual transmission.

10 years later, those figures were down to 22.81 and 16.32 per cent, respectively, according to figures supplied by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

By 2020, it had sunk to just 5.07 per cent of passenger cars and 1.15 per cent of SUVs.

Just 11,282 manual-equipped cars and 5271 SUVs were sold last year, a dramatic drop from figures of 168,414 and 45,880 in 2000.

SUV sales have skyrocketed over the past two decades, but manual sales haven’t gone with them.

There were 284 individual SUV variants on sale in 2000, of which over 100 were equipped with a manual transmission. That year, 43.48 per cent of SUVs sold had a manual.

At the time, you could get a manual in even top-spec variants of the Toyota LandCruiser Prado and Mitsubishi Pajero, while there was a raft of long-since discontinued models on sale like the Daewoo Musso and Korando and Holden Frontera and Jackaroo.

Notably, every SUV that year came with either all- or four-wheel drive, with even car-based crossovers like the Honda CR-V offering at least some vague suggestion of off-road ability.

This likely goes hand-in-hand with the availability of manual transmissions, traditionally having been preferred for off-road driving.

Fast forward to 2020 and there were over 1000 individual SUV variants on sale, of which just 32 were equipped with a manual transmission.

Manual Pajero models are long gone and the manual Prado was axed last year, leaving stalwarts like the Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series – which may outlive us all at this rate – plus a collection of entry-level mid-sized SUVs that nobody buys and a smattering of small SUVs.

There’s an argument to be made that manual transmission sales could be higher if there was a wider variety, but equally you can look to models like the Mazda CX-3 – which has the widest range of manual models of any crossover – and see the three-pedal option is broadly unpopular.

Would having more manuals in dealer stock really make much of a difference, or is that just a waste of showroom space for a transmission most of the market has moved on from?

Looking at passenger cars, manual transmissions have followed the same downward trajectory as overall sales.

Mind you, a vast number of SUVs sold today are car-based crossovers without all-wheel drive – a Kia Stonic, for example, is essentially a slightly taller Rio with a different body.

In the passenger car segments, there’s been a decline in the overall number of nameplates as we’ve said goodbye to even long-running nameplates like the Mitsubishi Lancer and Nissan Pulsar.

With passenger car lines being discontinued, the overall number of manual-equipped variants has slowly been chipped away. Likewise, the percentage of manual cars sold annually has declined incrementally over the past 20 years, usually by 1-2 per cent most years.

There are no mainstream mid-sized or large cars left with a manual. The last manual Mazda 6 and Subaru Liberty were offered in 2012 and 2014, respectively, while the Honda Accord Euro and its manual option died in 2015.

The Skoda Octavia was the last vehicle in the mainstream mid-sized segment to have one, with 2020 being its last year.

You can’t even get a manual BMW 3 Series anymore unless you step up to an M3, with the three-pedal option not carrying over to the new G20 generation in 2019. It lives on in Europe.

Looking at the the large car segment, by the end the big Aussies offered a manual only in their performance variants.

The ultra-rare base model XT manual didn’t carry over with the 2008 FG redesign of the Ford Falcon, while the VZ, VE and VF Holden Commodores were never available with a manual outside of the sporty trims. If you have a three-pedal Commodore SS/SS-V or Falcon XR6 Turbo or XR8, you’d be wise to hold onto it.

Brands you might expect to still offer a manual transmission have also dropped the option in recent years.

  • Alfa Romeo discontinued the Giulietta Super after the 2019 model year
  • Citroen dropped the C4 Cactus in 2018
  • MG dropped the manual MG 3 and GS SUV in 2017
  • Jeep’s last model year for the manual Wrangler and Compass was 2018
  • Land Rover last offered a manual Range Rover Evoque in 2018

MORE: The cars and SUVs you can still buy with a manual transmission

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William Stopford
William Stopford
William Stopford is a Journalist at CarExpert.
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