2008 BMW M3 Convertible (© BMW North America)Click to enlarge picture

Manually shifted transmissions are an endangered species. In 1980, more than 35 percent of cars sold had a stick; in 2007 the number had dropped to 7.7 percent.

Is the manual transmission — the tormentor of generations of driver’s ed students — going the way of the buggy whip, the eight-track, the Hummer? That sounds like heresy to driving purists like me, who have always assumed that automatics are for wimps, for people who couldn’t tell a clutch pedal from a daisy petal.

Yet here I am, flying at 140 mph down the banked straightaway at Pocono Speedway in the new BMW M3. This 400-horsepower beauty of a sports sedan happens to be equipped with BMW’s latest high-tech, no-clutch-pedal 7-speed automated-manual transmission — basically a manual gearbox that can shift by itself.

A right-hand turn approaches, and it’s time to stand on the brakes. But instead of mashing the clutch, yanking the stick and blipping the gas with the same foot that’s squeezing the brake — the old “heel and toe” downshift maneuver — I simply flick a little metal paddle attached to the steering column. Both hands stay put on the steering wheel, making it easier to stay on path.

With no clutch pedal to push, my left foot sits there, as unoccupied as a teenager on summer vacation. The BMW even blips its own throttle automatically, danke schoen, making sure the dolt behind the wheel doesn’t screw it up. I arrive back in the pits, and the guilty thought flashes like a checkered flag: What’s the point of a stick, if I can have a self-shifting transmission this good?

Let’s be clear: I’ve been a stick-shift disciple for nearly 30 years. In fact, I’ve never owned an automatic transmission car in my life. But these new gearboxes are just so versatile, so easy — swift, precise, convenient – that I’m considering a date with the dark side. As with similar systems, BMW’s M DCT with Drivelogic offers the best of both worlds: Sit back, relax, drive it like any conventional automatic. But when the curvy road beckons you can shift manually, even selecting settings that boost the intensity of gear changes until you’re in Speed Racer territory.

Manually shifted transmissions are certainly an endangered species. Back in 1980, more than 35 percent of all cars were sold with a stick. Because they cost less and boosted fuel mileage, manuals were more popular when gas prices went up or the economy went down, according to Mike Omotoso, powertrain analyst for J.D. Power and Associates.

Then the SUV appeared, which often came automatic-only. By 2005 only 6 percent of all buyers bothered with a stick. Skyrocketing fuel prices and more choices in small cars brought a mild uptick to 7.7 percent last year, but the trend is clear.

Porsche is one carmaker that has kept the faith. The sports car-centric brand sells a higher percentage of sticks than any other, from 60 to 65 percent on all its sports cars. Yet even Porsche officials say that automated gearboxes are a key to maintaining the brand’s appeal among new generations. “So many young people never learn how to drive a stick, unless a parent makes a point of teaching them,” said spokesman Tony Fouladpour.

If performance improves, does the tranny matter?

As such, the German automaker expects its new PDK dual-clutch automatic to be the company's most popular automatic ever. "That's the progression even pure sports cars have taken," says Porsche spokesman Dave Engelman. As a result, Porsche anticipates that 70 to 80 percent of 911 owners will opt for the auto box, especially in the early going.

These systems are dramatically defying the old arguments for a manual transmission. For instance, it's widely believed that manuals are more fuel-efficient than automatics. Sorry, that's no longer true. The latest Porsche is one of several cars that's more economical with the automatic: 19/27 mpg in city/highway driving, compared to 18/25 mpg with the stick.