I was reading an article in The Atlantic that bemoaned the end of manual transmission on cars, or, as they call it in the United States, the ‘stick shift’. The funny thing is that in the US, a vast majority of cars sold are actually automatics and have been that way since the economic boom after World War II. Stick shifts have been popular among enthusiasts, and now, manufacturers are increasingly shying away from manual transmissions, which is going to die out — in India as well.
But the story is a bit different in India, which is the world’s third-largest car market in terms of volume. Automatic vehicles were anathema in India until the turn of the millennium, with very few options available. Older generations might remember the three-speed Maruti Suzuki Zen Automatic, which was a class of its own. Of course, most imports came with automatic transmissions, but — and I’m not the one to use the phrase — in ‘the good old days’, imports were few and seen only in Delhi and Mumbai along with some second-hand ‘embassy’ sales. And when luxury manufacturers like BMW entered the market formally, they decided to sell only automatics. Yes, some one-off manual transmission cars were brought in and Audi did sell a basic version of the old Q3 with a manual box. But other than the occasional ‘exotic’, all luxury cars sold in India today are automatics.
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AMT Celerio accelerated the shift
In these columns, I have written about the veritable alphabet soup that is automatic transmission today. But even before the low-cost ‘Automated Manual Transmission’ (AMT) dramatically changed buying preferences in India, the trends were clear and visible in vehicles such as the Honda City and Hyundai Creta. Buyers, particularly those in major urban centres, were gradually shifting to automatic transmission cars. But with automatic vehicles costing a lakh or two more than a standard vehicle, they did not take off on buyers of small hatchbacks, other than enthusiasts who ponied up for Volkswagen’s dual-clutch DSG models of the Polo and Vento.
AMT changed that. To give a small recap, it is effectively a robotic ‘leg’ moving the clutch for you when gears are changed. It is not as advanced as traditional automatic gearboxes — let alone a dual-clutch — but it was a lot cheaper. And if one defines an automatic car as one in which you removed the clutch and the need to shift gears, it did its job. Maruti Suzuki put an AMT on the first-generation Celerio, and it became extremely popular. Clearly, Maruti had cottoned onto something: There was an underlying demand among buyers who wanted the convenience of not changing gears.
And that demand is explained by the explosive growth of traffic in Indian cities in the past few years. Mentions of the Silk Board junction in Bengaluru, the Western Express Highway in Mumbai, or the Barapullah elevated road in Delhi often elicit horror from those who have been stuck in hours-long traffic jams. Those who commute on such stretches daily were the ones who shifted to automatic transmission vehicles the fastest.
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Automatic the new norm
The popularity of the AMT-equipped Celerio led to the launch of many more such cars by Maruti Suzuki, Tata, and Hyundai. Sure, the response on an AMT car when you want to get a move on is often languid, but the convenience of not changing gears every few seconds in the middle of traffic hell outweigh the negatives by a significant margin. Indian car buyers become more sophisticated and can afford better, and when you talk to car companies, the sales breakdowns support this.
Hyundai India’s Tarun Garg once told me that one in three Hyundai buyers was purchasing an automatic. In 2021, 10 per cent of car buyers in India chose automatics. Don’t be surprised if that number would have doubled in 2022, a bumper year for carmakers. We will only know once the data is collated.
It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that by 2025, as many as half the cars sold in India might be automatics. And there is another reason for that. Electric cars do not have gears. Some models in the Audi e-Tron range have ‘flappy paddles’ on the steering column with which you can manually intervene on an automatic car. On an electric, it is used to control the level of regenerative braking. That is cool, but not quite the same as using the paddles while you are rocketing down the straight at the Buddh International Circuit in a Lamborghini.
But few mass-market electric cars have such paddles — some allow you to select the amount of energy recovery you want. An electric vehicle with different levels of regenerative braking and energy management software can eke out a significant amount of energy; they all have a simple ‘drive’ mode. Some electric vehicles, both cars and two-wheelers, could have a ‘sports’ mode, or, in the case of Tesla models, a ‘ludicrous’ mode. But this mechanism is nothing more than the vehicle shifting more electrons down the high-capacity wires rather that a ‘gear change’.
I know many people talk about the feel of manual transmission cars, but even internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles have become more complex. In fact, why luxury carmakers only offer automatic transmissions is not just convenience, it is the fact that automatic transmissions prevent lasting damage to the engine from bad driving habits, besides helping to maintain fuel consumption and manage emissions. Despite many automatic cars allowing the driver to intervene through the flappy paddles or even a more basic ‘H-gate’ next to the gear selector, if the car’s computer believes that a change might damage the car, it will not let you do it.
The Manual Transmission is not dead as yet, especially in smaller towns across India where usage is lower. Among the cost-conscious buyer, it will remain popular. But make no mistake, it is dying out.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)