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STICK SHIFTS FLIRTING WITH EXTINCTION

Mike Brown has a problem. He worries about it, tries to pretend it doesn't exist. But he says he has to face the truth: "I've got to get out of my Porsche."

It isn't a matter of money. Brown and his wife, Willene, who are in their forties, do very well. He's a videotape editor at the United States Information Agency. She's a lieutenant commander in the Navy. They live in Mitchellville, Md.Problem is, the Browns are changing. In the process, they and other car owners like them are shrinking the market for manual-transmission cars, such as Brown's 1983 Porsche 911 SC.

Manuals usually require stepping on a clutch and shifting a stick - a lever - to move from gear to gear, thus transferring power from the engine to the drive wheels.

Such transmissions have long been minority shareholders in the U.S. auto market. But now they're flirting with extinction, falling to an 11.8 percent share of the market in 1995 from a 28.6 percent share in 1960, according to the Ward's Automotive Yearbook.

Higher quality and lower costs in the production of automatic transmissions, which require no shifting, are helping to force out manuals. But changing demographics - fewer carefree youth and more responsibility-laden adults - are playing a major role.

"It's so frustrating," said Brown. "My 911 can do 90 miles an hour in third gear. But I can't drive like that downtown."

"I used to take it out on the weekends and look for good roads to run," he said. "But now, I have two boys - a 10-month-old and a 4-year-old. I can't put them in a sports coupe, and I can't take time away from them on the weekends looking for good roads."

So?

Brown sighed. His pain was obvious. "Man, well, do you know where I can find a good, used Cadillac Eldorado?" he asked.

Of course, the transmission and everything else in a Cadillac Eldorado is automatic. It's a big, comfortable thing with pretensions of sportiness - a car for adults trying to hold onto illusions of youth and freedom.

Ron Harbour, an auto analyst in Troy, Mich., understands.

"Manuals are mostly found in sports cars, and the market for sports cars has virtually gone to nothing," said Harbour, a partner in Harbour & Associates Inc., an auto industry consulting firm. "The people who used to buy those cars don't buy them anymore, mostly because they're getting married."

Statistics support his argument.

Sports cars in the United States - such as the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan 200SX, Audi S4 and Mazda Miata - have the highest concentrations of manual transmissions. They are mostly low-volume cars, often selling fewer than 25,000 annually. They have a high appeal among young, single people - such as Cynthia Case.

Case, 31, is a public relations professional here. She said she's in the market for a BMW 318is coupe sports car, "or something similar." Her basic requirement: "It must have a manual transmission. I like to drive. I like to shift. I will not own a car with an automatic transmission. Nor will I ever date a man who drives an automatic," Case said.

Why?

Such men are bound to be boring, Case said. But she conceded she'll probably have more luck finding a manual car than she will finding a man who drives one. Some local dealers, including those selling sports cars, say she is right.

"We see the trend toward automatics in our dealership," said Todd VanHouten, general sales manager at Tischer Autopark in Silver Spring, Md. Tischer sells Audi, BMW, Porsche and Subaru models - cars that appeal to what the auto industry calls "drivers," people who are looking for maximum control over a vehicle's operation.

But the only "drivers" coming into Tischer nowadays "are young people, enthusiasts, people who believe that driving is fun," VanHouten said.

The eventual phaseout of manual transmission cars "probably is inevitable," said Fred Mackerodt, a pilot, General Motors Corp. spokesman, and self-confessed "throttle jockey" - that is, a person who likes to drive and fly at speed.

"The manuals are going to go, because the automatics have gotten so good," Mackerodt said.

"Today's automatics are computer-managed. You'd have to be one hell of a fine driver to shift gears better than them. And the manufacturing costs for automatics have come way down, which means they aren't that much more expensive than manuals."

Some industry analysts say Mackerodt is right about the quality of today's automatic transmissions. For example, GM's Northstar system, which includes a V-8 engine and an electronically controlled automatic transmission, helps its big Cadillacs get 25 miles per gallon on the highway. Previous automatic Cadillacs barely got 15 mpg.

Though prices for automatic transmissions have come down, they still tend to be more costly than manuals, analysts point out.

For example, a base 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse with a five-speed manual transmission is priced at $13,590. The same car with an electronically controlled, four-speed automatic is listed at $14,270, a $680 difference, according to the Automobile Invoice Service in Sunnyvale, Calif.