Why Do North Americans Drive Automatic, But Most Europeans Drive Manual?

Fewer North Americans are learning to drive stick shifts, but Europeans prefer them. These are the reasons why.

Burning out the clutch and stalling as you roll back on a hill used to be part of learning how to drive in North America. But these days, fewer and fewer people are driving cars with stick shifts in Canada and the United States. In fact, Edmunds.com reports that stick shifts made up just two per cent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018.

“For automakers, it will be simpler when the manual dies,” Ivan Drury, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s kind of a hassle for them to offer both, same with dealers. Given market forces, it’s going to go away.”

Contrast that with Europe, where almost everyone learns to drive a stick shift, and manual transmissions account for roughly 80 per cent of vehicles on the road. Here are some of the reasons why:

Why more North Americans drive automatics

Automatics are much more utilitarian cars that get people from point A to point B, says Lauren Fix, the Car Coach. As such, North Americans are much more likely to be doing several things at once when they’re driving. That’s not the case in the rest of the world. “Americans eat while they drive and they multitask while they drive,” Fix says. “Europeans do not.” (Keep in mind, eating while you drive is definitely one of the things you’re doing in your car that you shouldn’t.)

Europeans are also more likely to own higher-end cars. You would never see a manual Porsche Cayenne in North America, but you will in Europe.

Why Europeans like manual transmissions

The preference starts early. In Europe, 15- and 16-year-olds learn to drive on Microcars with stick shifts. Fix says she doesn’t know anyone in Europe who doesn’t know how to drive one. In addition, driving a car with manual transmission forces people to be more engaged with their car and what’s going on around them.

“They pay attention to the road much more so than we do here,” Fix says. “I have been all over Europe and nobody’s on the phone while driving. Not even on speakerphone. They just don’t. That’s just not part of their culture.”

That’s not to say that the Europeans don’t have fun on the road. Germany is also home to the Autobahn, where there’s no speed limit and drivers are often going well over 160 kph. Europeans also prefer cars with manual transmissions because they use less fuel—an important consideration when people in Norway pay an average of $2.07 CAD for a litre of gas, according to Sixt.com.

Who still drives manual cars in North America?

The idea that cars with manual transmissions are less expensive than automatic cars isn’t really true, according to Edmunds.com.

A few brands do still make stick shift models, including Volkswagen, Mini, and Miata, Fix says. Porsche has also gone back to making cars with manual transmission after switching to a PDK, or a paddle-shift, Fix says. Sports cars known for their loyal fans such as Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros are also still made with stick shifts. “You find them to be manual because it is a joy and a thrill to drive them,” Fix says.

Whether you’re looking for an automatic or manual transmission, here’s the best time to buy a new car.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest