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New Fuel Economy Rules Are Beginning of the End for Stick Shifts

Today the US officially adopted the stringent new corporate average fuel economy regulations -- better known as CAFE -- that will raise average mpg across the board from today's 27.5 mpg to 35 mpg by 2016. What does that mean for the cars of tomorrow?

There's the obvious: design changes like better aerodynamics, lighter components, less rolling resistance, etc. And then there are the not so obvious implications... the unintended consequences.

The big unintended consequence the last time around, when the government first introduced stringent CAFE regulation, was the death of the big family station wagon, and the concomitant rise of the minivan and the SUV. It was the 70s and CAFE, as intended, forced the car companies to stop making gas-guzzling family haulers (like my favorite of the era, the Pontiac Safari, which came with a 400 cubic inch V8).

However, the CAFE regulations were full of loopholes -- like an exception for trucks. The Democratic lawmakers who dreamed up CAFE regulation didn't want to cramp the working-man's style -- not to mention piss off the union vote -- so gas-guzzling trucks were OK. It was General Motors' genius to realize that as far as CAFE was concerned, something built on a truck chassis was exempt from the mpg regulations, even if it was a "truck" designed to haul a family. GM's next Safari, the GMC Safari, was a minivan. Ford countered by inventing the SUV on the same principle: truck on the outside, but station wagon on the inside.

The new CAFE closes the truck-as-car loophole that eventually led to environmental monstrosities like Hummers rolling on city streets shod in "low profile" race-car rubber. But that doesn't mean the end of unintended consequences.

This time around we will likely see the end of the stick shift, thanks to PowerShift, Ford's new automatic transmission technology that, for the first time ever, makes the automatic transmission-equipped cars more efficient than the manual versions. It used to be that any self-respecting sports car enthusiast would get a stick shift too, but it turns out that machines can punch a clutch faster any humans can, and so clutch-pedal free "paddle shifting" is the emerging trend at in high-end cars. There is now no rational reason to want a stick. And because of CAFE concerns, the automakers have been incentivized not to sell you one.

The PowerShift automatic transmission and was first unveiled as an option on the 2011 Mustang -- the new tranny is a big reason why the 305 horsepower car achieves a 30 mph highway rating. (That's two miles per gallon better than same car with a manual.) With the New York Autoshow comes the news that the PowerShift will be in 2011 Fiesta, giving it a best-in-class 40 mpg rating. Average the Mustang's 30 and the Fiestas 40, and you just about have full compliance with the 35 mpg CAFE mandate -- but no more clutch.

Photo: via nataliej