Why do so few Americans know how to drive a stick shift?

When I was a child in the 50’s, an automatic transmission was an extra-cost option that my parents did not purchase. I learned to drive a stick shift. Today, the family minivan is an automatic, but my last four VWs for commuting have been a stick shift.

On a trip to Belgium, my son (27) and I went to rent a car for a few hours. When they learned we were American, they said, “Sorry, we don’t have any automatic transmission”. We didn’t care, but the obvious assumption was that Americans don’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Why is a stick shift so common in Europe, yet rare in the States?

Much higher gas prices in Europe. For a long time automatics had a substantial fuel-efficiency penalty, so stick shifts were substantially cheaper to operate.

In many European countries, if you get your license using an automatic, you’re only licensed to drive automatics. If you get your license using a stick shift, you can drive a stick shift AND an automatic. That might have something to do with it. Might as well learn to drive a stick so you can get licensed for both.

Not many Americans have a car with a manual transmission, or want one. Their loss.

In the UK, at least, something of a chicken-and-egg situation developed. Automatics have always been much less common, for whatever reason, and there are separate categories of driving licence for automatics and manuals. So rather than cut themselves off from 95% of the used car market, almost all learners learn to drive a manual, and their first cars tend to be manuals. And when driving a stick is all you’ve known, automatics feel very weird first time you try them, believe me. So people tend to stick with sticks, as it were.

That said, I think automatics are gradually becoming more popular, now that their fuel consumption is comparable to manuals.

Stick shifts are now fairly uncommon on U.S. cars. You will usually now only find them on performance cars, or entry-level models (and sticks are becoming less common on those, as well). On many models, you can’t even order a manual transmission as an option any longer. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s particularly true for U.S. brands.

Also a chicken-and-egg situation in the US, but going the opposite way: automatics became more and more common, so that it became less and less usual to learn to drive on a stick, so that fewer and fewer people know how to drive on sticks, meaning that automatics become more common. Also, there are no separate categories of licenses for automatic vs. stick here.

I remember when I was learning to drive I didn’t have access to anything but automatic transmission cars. My parents cars were all automatics. The driving school cars were all automatics. It would have taken a deliberate effort to find a car with a stick to learn on.

Same deal in Australia. This article gives some numbers.

My wife and I (both Americans) learned to drive on automatics. About 20 years ago, we took lessons to learn the stick so that we could save money on our next car. We hated it, and will never do it again. The effort of driving in heavy traffic – especially one point when I was on a two-mile uphill incline in bumper-to-bumper traffic – made us give it up forever. It’s just not worth the cost savings; I’d rather take the bus.

One explanation I’ve read is that the daily driving experiences were different for Americans starting at a much earlier time. The move to the suburbs started in the 1950s so that people were doing much of their driving on expressways. This cut two ways. One was that the need for a stick was much lessened when most of the driving was done at highway speeds with no variation. But expressways also led to bumper-to-bumper backups, which are much easier with an automatic.

I’m not sure how you’d prove this, but it is plausible that the type of driving that prevails would be reflected in the type of cars purchased.

I think that’s a big reason why sticks have fallen out of favor with all but auto enthusiasts in the U.S. If you’re driving on the open road, and enjoy the driving experience in general, a stick shift can add to that experience. If you’re driving to get from Point A to Point B, and you’re creeping along in a traffic jam to get there (as many Americans do today), a manual transmission is a pain in the tuchus – or, more precisely, the left foot and ankle…my wife’s old car had a stick, and a half-hour in heavy traffic made my left ankle very unhappy.

Dunno, but I was required (by my dad) to learn to drive a stick before I could get my license. I don’t get the appeal, it’s irritating and painful (for those of us with physical issues) to constantly have to up and downshift in traffic (open road joys aside).

The easy answer - Americans are lazy. :slight_smile: Also most American cars are automatics, Americans don’t learn how to drive them because they are so rare here.

I’m an American who grew up overseas; I learned very early to drive a stick and vastly prefer it. I mourn the demise of the stick shift, I do.

Rebuild or replace a slush-box: $1,000-$3,000. Replace a clutch and all its components: $600-800. Standard shift = better gas mileage and better performance. Standard shift = better control and handling. Caveat - I understand that some modern slush-boxes are more intuitive and better than days of yore.

IMO - people who say that standard-shift vehicles are too difficult or cumbersome to drive in traffic or whatever aren’t proficient with them. I drove a truck over the road for a few years - 18-speed with overdrive - to this day and forever I would rather drive that than a slush-box. My daily driver is a stick-shift and I don’t give the process any more thought than breathing. I don’t get that it’s an "effort’ for a proficient driver.

When I travel overseas I love that I can pay less for a stick-shift rental!

There must be more to it than that, because parts of Europe, particularly the stretch from Britain to Germany, have extremely high population densities and hence absolutely appalling traffic. And yet people are still mostly driving manuals.
It’s true that at highway speeds it makes little difference. With no traffic you can drive for hundreds of miles without ever changing gear.

if they don’t want one, then it isn’t “their loss.”

a big part of it is that the average car in Europe has a much smaller engine with a lot less power than we’re used to in the US. Even though the efficiency penalty of an automatic is vanishingly small now, they can still “feel” sluggish when tied to a 1.6 liter gas or 2 liter diesel. When you’ve got a V8 with a fat-ass powerband, it’s not such a big deal.


I for one am impressed.

disingenuous. a much better comparison would be comparing the cost of a clutch replacement to the cost of a torque converter replacement. There’s a ton of other stuff inside a manual transmission which can break or wear out too.

not true anymore. Ever since manuals and automatics reached forward gear parity, the difference is minimal. in some cases, the automatic wins (see Ford Fusion.) This might have been true in the '80s when you were comparing a 3-speed non-lockup non-OD automatic to a 5-speed manual with OD, but it’s not true anymore.

Further, even in the case where the sticker shows (slightly) better mpg with a manual, that doesn’t mean anything unless you drive the car exactly the same way the operator for the EPA test did. Manuals allow way, way too much variability for one to legitimately claim they get better fuel economy these days.


I don’t know about that…I’ve driven in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul, London, Barcelona, Glasgow, San Jose CR, Mexico City, Colorado in the mountains and flat-land Michigan and points in between…all places with utterly horrendous traffic and also places where most people are driving stick shifts. Also, I drove a semi with an 18-speed manual transmission, like most truckers, all over the USA. Also and most importantly, twitching my left leg up and down is really no big deal, absent physical limitations.

I still prefer a stick-shift, hands-down and wherever. People like me are anachronisms in the USA though.

You mean this Ford Fusion,or some other one?

oh drop it, will you? if people in this country wanted manual transmissions, they wouldn’t be so rare. Manuals used to be called “standard” transmissions. Car buyers voted with their wallets and said they wanted autos.

good for you. we’re still not impressed.

yes, and people like you bask in that uniqueness.

The people I’ve known with standard transmissions have had to replace them more often than I have with my automatic transmissions. Though, to be fair, I suspect that a lot of them just weren’t very good at driving a standard.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why the standard in American switched from standard to automatic. When I was looking to purchase my first car in 1997 the only one I looked at with a standard transmission was a jeep. There must have been some point where those raised on standard transmissions decided to switch to automatic.

yes. what difficulty are you having?