Why does everyone in Europe drive a stick shift?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

My fiancee is European, and they all drive stick shifts over there! When I visited, I had to pay more to rent a car with an automatic. It seems to be true everywhere in Europe. Everybody owns a stick-shift car. But why? I thought automatics have become just as energy-efficient as stick shifts. Why does everyone here have an automatic and everyone there have a stick shift?

-- August

RAY: Your observations are correct, August. In Europe, about 85 percent of cars are sold with stick shifts. Here in America, about 95 percent are sold with automatics. Why?

TOM: Traditionally, gasoline has been much more expensive in Europe. So Europeans have always done everything they possibly can to maximize their gas mileage.

RAY: That included buying the smallest car they could tolerate, forcing their mothers-in-law to run alongside them on the highway to save weight and, traditionally, using a stick shift to improve mileage.

TOM: In America, we've never cared much about fuel economy, since gas has always been cheap. We've always bought the biggest cars we could afford, and we've wanted them to be extensions of our living rooms, with everything automatic, from the transmission to the radio volume, the seat position and the climate control.

RAY: But something strange has happened, and it'll be interesting to see whether Europeans take note: Automatics are becoming more efficient than stick shifts.

TOM: Early automatics did get worse mileage than their stick-shift counterparts, due to the inherent "slippage" necessary to make an automatic work, and because automatics traditionally had fewer gears than stick shifts (the more gears you have, the easier it is to find the most efficient gear for any given situation).

RAY: But now, while stick shifts come in five- and six-speed varieties, automatics are now coming in six-, seven- and eight-speed varieties. And where built-in "slippage" used to be accepted as the trade-off for living without a clutch, lock-up torque converters and, especially, new "dual clutch automatics" are reducing or even eliminating the slippage altogether.

TOM: So the question is, How long will it take the European culture to catch up with the changes in technology? Given that they just recently stopped referring to us as "the colonies," I'm guessing the answer will be decades rather than weeks.

RAY: But let us know. Sounds like you'll be heading over there on a regular basis for the next 40 or 50 years. So drop us a note every once in a while and let us know if you're seeing any changes.

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