LAS VEGAS -- Don't call it a comeback, but General Motors is seeing surprising interest in what's rapidly becoming an anachronism, the stick shift.
According to consultancy AutoPacific, only about 5% of U.S. buyers opt for a manual transmission in new cars and trucks — though it can range up to 25% for performance cars such as the Ford Mustang.
Among the about 7,000 enthusiasts who've pre-ordered Camaros — Chevrolet's revival of the Mustang rival — the most popular accessory is a racing-style, short-throw shifter for the six-speed manual transmission. The $378 dealer-installed shifter is by Hurst, a name famous as the choice for 1960s muscle cars with the old "4-on-the-floor" manual transmissions.
"On the vast majority of vehicles, automatic (transmissions) are so good," says analyst Jim Hossack of AutoPacific. "Old people like me (Hossack's 63) like the Hurst shifter."
The shifter was among the Camaro accessories shown off in a presentation at the annual show of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, trade group for the specialty and performance accessories industry.
General Motors Performance Parts has developed a wealth of goodies to personalize Camaros, due in showrooms in March, at starting prices of $22,995 for the V-6 LS model and $30,995 for the V-8 SS.
Automakers still offer manual gearboxes on a surprising array of models. Though mostly on the cheapest models and performance models, they are standard on a few family sedans, too.
Nate Shelton, chairman of Hurst Performance Vehicles, doesn't disagree about stick shift's long-term potential, but says the brand has new life based on fond memories. "I think manual transmissions are probably not long-lived," he says. The shifter's appeal is mostly "buying them because of their nostalgia factor."
But that's good business for the Placentia, Calif.-based company, which on Tuesday unveiled at SEMA its own custom version of the Dodge Challenger muscle car. Shelton said Hurst hopes to make thousands — but they also will be available with automatic transmission.
Chevrolet is not only courting those who remember the Camaro from days past, but also is "chasing a younger, more diverse target," said Ed Peper, the executive in charge of the Chevy brand for General Motors. Manual shifters, especially with the Hurst name, fit both.
Among other automakers, manual transmissions are offered on most Hyundais. While standard on its Sonata family sedan, all but about 4% of buyers opt for optional automatic, says John Krafcik. Most stick buyers do it because "they like to save money," he says.
Dealers like manual-transmission models because they can advertise a lower price, up to a $1,000 cheaper than an automatic-equipped car, even though few sell with a stick.
The manual transmission has proved popular in the new Mazda6 midsize sedan because the car has a sporty image.
Honda has manual standard only for its low-cost Fits and Civics. But its upscale Acura division lets buyers choose manual or automatic in its racy TSX — for the same price, says spokesman Mike Spencer.