Why Are Manual Cars So Popular In Europe?

If you’ve been to Europe for business, pleasure or any other reason, you might be a bit of weirdo like me and enjoy spending time paying attention to the sorts of cars that the locals drive. Whenever I go somewhere overseas, I love observing the “state” of the local automotive scene.

Go anywhere in Europe, and there are a couple of things you’ll notice about the cars straight away:

  • They tend to be smaller than what you find in the United States, and even countries like Australia and New Zealand. Although European car makers – especially German ones – do build some superb large cars, the average car in Europe is smaller. Buyers particularly like hatchback cars … you see hatchbacks everywhere.
  • Cars are often more basic in specification, and there seems to be more of an attitude of a car being a tool to get you from A to B, rather than being an extension of your personality (just watch how people in Paris or Rome park their cars). The average person just doesn’t seem to care so much about their car.
  • Many cars have manual transmissions. Here in NZ, automatics dominate – there are very few cars you can even buy with a manual gearbox these days. This trend is even more prominent in the United States.

It’s that last point I want to focus on today.

Just why are manual cars so popular in Europe, particularly when compared to the United States, Australia and New Zealand? What is the future of the manual gearbox for the inhabitants of Europe?

For example, one of my favourite YouTube channels to watch is High Peak Autos. On this channel, a car dealer shows off his latest stock (often focusing on cheaper/older cars) and goes into the pros and cons of various models. It’s more entertaining than it sounds … I’ll embed a video below. What interests me watching from New Zealand is the number of cars that he features that have a manual transmission, where you would never see a manual version on the road in New Zealand. For example, there was a recent video on a cheap Jaguar X-Type – which turned out to be fit only for the scrap heap. The Jag in this video has a manual gearbox. In all my years of being interested in cars I have never seen a manual Jaguar X-Type on the roads in NZ.

When I purchased my Suzuki Swift Sport, it was right during that challenging period of time to be a car buyer where stock availability for everything was terrible owing to Covid supply chain interruptions. The only reason I was able to get my Swift quickly was because there were actually a few spare ones with manual transmissions on the boat coming over. The salesman told me that almost everyone wants the auto, and I would have needed to wait months to get an auto one. It worked out alright for me as I prefer manual anyway, at least for a sporty car, but it was an interesting thing to be told.

In this edition of Car Facts, I’m going to explain the popularity of the humble manual transmission in European markets (I’m including the United Kingdom in this as well).

What Percentage Of Cars In Europe Are Manual?

It’s hard to find exact, scientifically-measured statistics on how popular manual cars are in Europe.

I found some references online to a relatively recent Edmunds.com study that indicated ~80% of cars in Europe are manual.

Anecdotally, having been to Europe numerous times for business and leisure, I’d say this isn’t too far off the mark; particularly in locations where smaller cars are a requirement e.g. large cities like Paris, Rome, Madrid or London.

Automatics have increased in popularity over the years, but nowhere to the same extent as you find in countries like the United States (where well over 90% of cars are automatic, and less than 5% of buyers opt for a manual transmission option).

Why Are Manual Cars Popular In Europe & The United Kingdom?

Money – or should I say the need to save money and reduce the cost of motoring – is the principal reason for the popularity of manual cars in Europe and the United Kingdom.

However, just saying “saving money” isn’t enough.

Let’s look at the specific ways a manual car saves motorists money:

Manual Cars Have Traditionally Used Less Fuel

Firstly, fuel has historically been more much more expensive in Europe than in the United States, and it remains so. This is one of the driving forces behind the ubiquitousness of the manual transmission in Europe. The fuel savings that the typical manual transmission offers really add up.

Modern automatic transmissions – and I’m including the likes of dual clutch gearboxes you find on many new cars – are vastly more efficient than older autos, and can often be more efficient than manual transmissions now because of the addition of extra gears (e.g. you might get an 8-speed auto but only a 6-speed manual, so the auto can cruise more efficiently).

However, traditionally manuals have been more efficient than their automatic counterparts. A 2015 study by Consumer Reports found that manual cars typically enjoyed anywhere from 2-5 mpg better gas mileage/fuel economy than the equivalent automatic versions of the same cars (as mentioned above, some autos were actually more efficient). If you consider the overall age of the European vehicle fleet, many cars will have been purchased new at a time where auto gearboxes were typically much less efficient.

If saving fuel is a motivation, then at the time of purchase it would have made sense for many to buy the manual version of a given car. Although the dynamic has shifted somewhat with modern auto gearboxes being so much better, for many cars the manual is still the fuel-misers choice.

Manual Cars Cost Less To Purchase & Maintain

Manual transmissions are simpler than automatic ones, as a rule.

This increased simplicity means two things from a financial consideration point of view:

Firstly, a manual version of a car will typically be less expensive to purchase. Here in NZ, if you look at Suzuki cars (Suzuki being one of the last mainstream car brands to offer a manual gearbox across much of the range) you’ll typically a couple of thousand dollars by option for a manual. Car companies can make and sell cars for a lower price point by incorporating manual transmissions, which suits how many Europeans like to buy cars; primarily as appliances for getting you from A to B with as little fuss, hassle and cost as possible.

Secondly, manuals are typically more reliable and also easier and cheaper to fix when they do go wrong. This isn’t always the case, as components such as a dual-mass flywheel can be very expensive to replace, but at a high level it’s cheaper to maintain and repair an automatic car.

Manuals Offer Superior Performance

As mentioned in the intro to this article, European buyers have tended to prefer smaller cars with smaller, less powerful engines to boot. Small cars like Fiat 500s, Renault Twingos, VW Polos, Skoda Fabias etc are much easier to live with in crowded cities and easier to drive on narrow roads.

City cars (also known as ‘A-segment’ cars) and Superminis (aka B-segment cars, which are slightly larger and constitute approximately 20% of all European vehicle sales) don’t tend to offer the last word in engine power. In these segments you’ll see small engines, although modern turbocharging technology has massively increased what power can be extracted from a pint-sized engine.

A manual gearbox helps the driver to get the best possible performance from the engine.

Outside of high end cars, where modern DCT and auto boxes typically outperform a manual gearbox in the performance stakes, in the economy car segment you’ll typically find that a manual-equipped car is just nicer to drive in prevailing conditions. Okay, there is the need to change gear and use the clutch, but you can extract the absolute best from whatever the engine has to give. If you need to nip out into traffic or make a quick pass, being able to drop a cog and tap into the power as best as possible via a manual gearbox is a huge boon versus relying on a more sluggish automatic transmission that saps power.

A few years ago my wife and I went on holiday to New Caledonia (which is effectively part of France, if my knowledge from high school French classes serves me right) and many people drive similar cars to what you would find in mainland France. We had a Peugeot 108 as a rental car, boasting a paltry 1.0L engine. However, with its manual gearbox it was more than sufficient for local conditions, and actually a huge amount of fun, as you could always drop down into first or second gear to really ring the neck of the engine and get moving as quickly as possible.

In many countries in Europe you’ll encounter twisting country roads, often going uphill and downhill. Once again a manual gearbox is just better here, allowing easier acceleration uphill and then superior engine braking downhill.

For European driving conditions and roads, the manual gearbox just makes more sense.

Will Manual Cars Always Remain Popular With European Buyers?

Probably not, and there’s a good reason for this.

Europe is moving faster than just about any other market towards mandating the end of petrol/diesel cars, and the requirement for all new vehicles to be electric. In fact, the European Union has just agreed a ban on new ICE car sales from 2035.

As you might be aware, electric cars don’t have manual gearboxes (the transmission – as it applies to an EV – is very different to what you find in ICE cars).

Realistically, the end of the manual gearbox on new vehicles is approaching at an alarming pace … unless something comes along to disrupt the uptake of EVs.

I don’t want to get drawn into the socio-political arguments for or against EVs, but if uptake continues and ICE-powered cars are forbidden, that should spell the end of the European love affair with the manual transmission.

Recap – Why Do Europeans Prefer Manual Cars?

Ultimately, manual cars are popular in Europe because they make financial and practical sense for the conditions of the local market.

Europe is much less car-centric than the United States, Australia or New Zealand (due to smaller travel distances, less urban space, and prevalence of public transport and the ability to walk/cycle where you need to go). Although this is a bit of a stereotype, the car in Europe definitely seems to be less of a status symbol and more of a practical necessity than in many other parts of the world.

Europe has also long had a tradition for small, practical, economical cars like the original Fiat 500, the Mini, the Citroen 2CV and many other “cars of the people” that allowed for affordable motoring. In the Japanese domestic market (read our JDM meaning guide here) the nearest equivalent would be the Kei car class; simple vehicles built for economical transport.

If the goal is to get from A-to-B as economically and reliably as possible, while having a car that works as effectively as possible in local conditions, then Europe’s traditional love for the manual transmission makes a huge amount of sense. You save money on the purchase price, you save money on fuel, you save money on repairs AND the car will drive better – what’s not to love?

The inexorable march towards electric cars is likely to change this, however … and even in recent years automatic and dual clutch/robotised manual gearboxes have become more popular as the technology has improved to the point where they can be just as efficient as manuals, if not more so.

In my next piece, I’ll be looking at why American buyers love autos so much, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

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