Sticking with it: 10 interesting cars keeping manual transmissions alive
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The motor car as we know it has progressed further in the last decade or two than it has at any other point in history. Safety, economy, and the advent of all sorts of incredible technologies from EV power trains to automous emergency braking has reinvented the car. But, that's not to say there's drawbacks to all this progress.
Car enthusiasts and long-time drivers alike are known for their passion and nostalgia for the humble, simple, engaging manual transmission. Sadly, less and less cars are being offered new with manuals these days. But, there's still a handful of options out there for those wanting 'to do the work themselves'.
Here's 10 of the most memorable and most interesting sticks in the game.
1. Suzuki Celerio
Cheap Suzukis will go down in the future annals of history as gems that we took for granted when they were plentiful. But it isn't just about the wafer-thin plastics you sometimes find strewn on the dashboards; Suzuki is also a bit of a leader when it comes to preserving three-pedal cars.
The most obvious pick is the superb, stupendously fun Swift Sport (and, to be fair, the standard Swift manual is a hoot, too). There's also the Jimny, which utilises an archaic but ultimately fitting and somewhat charming five-speed.
But this is a list about interesting cars, and you can't get more interesting than the cheapest new car on sale today; the $15,990 Celerio GLX manual. To be fair it's a pretty dull car on paper and in visuals, but once you hop into one you'll be positively floored (or maybe just mildly impressed) at how much fun they are to throw around.
The cheapest car in New Zealand is also one of the easiest to own, with a tiny 4.7-metre turning circle, also tiny 4.8L/100km economy, enough headroom for even the most dedicated top hat enthusiast, and a trusty 5-speed.
2. Mazda MX-5
You can't really have a discussion about manual transmissions without referencing Mazda's iconic little sports car somewhere.
That's not just because the MX-5 (and its Miata cousin) continue to be offered with a manual. Rather, the manual the MX-5 comes equipped with just happens to be universally recognised as one of the best fitted to any car today.
The throw is nice and short, with each gear accepted nice and sweetly. Even today there are exotic sports cars and supercars that could learn a thing or two from the way an MX-5 changes gear.
Those with a particular thirst for analogue goodness should look at the very bottom of the MX-5 line-up. The 1.5-litre GSX Roadster manual doesn't have the extra power of the larger 2.0-litre, but is more balanced and satisfying at speed.
3. Mini Cooper
A glance at BMW's line-up is rather sad for connoisseurs of the stick. Nothing in the German manufacturer's line-up comes equipped with a manual these days; including the (still totally fabtacular) M2 Competition. A bit of a shame, given how many of the marque's most celebrated past projects were manual.
That leaves it to the brand's UK-made sub-brand Mini to keep the tradition alive. Mini is doing what it can to balance both ends of the tech spectrum with its 3-door Cooper line-up. At one end is the upcoming fully electric Cooper SE — a funky 200-230km EV set to take on the likes of the Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Ioniq.
And at the other end is the relatively true-to-tradition Cooper and Cooper S. The 'wheel on each corner, go-kart-like handling' cliche is one of the most repeated sentences in motoring, but only because it's completely true. Even in today's world of hyper hatch craziness, the experience you can have behind the wheel of a Cooper S holds up.
And, at least for now, they're all acailable with a six-speed.
4. Mahindra Pik-Up
So, there's nothing terribly revolutionary or interesting about a ute being fitted with a manual. They're still the transmission of choice for plenty of commercial fleet buyers and those buying vehicles for towing and off-roading. So, why bring up the Mahindra Pik-Up?
It's certainly one of the most unique and most bizarre looking vehicles in the ute segment, with the aerodynamic coefficient of a washing machine and an iffy three-star ANCAP safety rating. But lurking under the panelwork is a vehicle padded with mechanical gems.
The BorgWarner low-range transfer case and Eaton locking diff help make the Pik-Up an excellent off-roader. But maybe the best surprise of all is the transmission. The Aisin six-speed is, hands down, one of the best manual transmissions in class. Shifts are oddly slick, and make for a weird contrast with the rest of the Indian ute's rustic aesthetic.
5. Toyota Hilux
Putting a Mahindra in a list of interesting cars is one thing, but to include the second most prolific seller in New Zealand might look like an outright insult on the face of things.
But, the manual transmission offered in upper-spec manual Toyota Hilux models is quite the interesting thing. The six-speed actually comes with rev-matching, a bit like a premium hot hatch. Toyota says that it's something designed to minimise 'shift shock' when downshifting while towing, but it also has the curious side-effect of making high-speed downshifts a piece of cake — blipping the throttle automatically.
A similar feature is offered in manual Corollas overseas, although sadly none of them are sold in New Zealand.
6. Ford Fiesta ST
Speaking of hot hatches, there's three sold in New Zealand exclusively as manuals. And this is the first.
The Ford Fiesta ST is a fresh arrival to the hot hatch space race, aimed squarely at the likes of the Suzuki Swift Sport and Volkswagen Polo GTI. Its 147kW/290Nm three-cylinder is a slight departure from the four-popper it replaces but brings plenty of thrummy character to the nameplate.
The littlest ST has always been a manual-exclusive hatchback; a trait that's growing rare as performance car manufacturers pivot to favour automatic transmissions. The six-speed in the current Fiesta ST doesn't necessarily stand out, but it does do a better job than the Swift Sport's equivalent. The GTI, meanwhile, skips manuals entirely.
The fizzy little hatch will soon be accompanied by its larger Focus ST cousin, which will sadly be seven-speed automatic only.
7. Honda Civic Type R
Speaking of exclusively favouring manuals, here's the Honda Civic Type R. Not only has the 'CTR' always been shift-it-yourself only, but the same goes for all Type R Hondas. Whether it's an Integra, NSX, or Civic Type R — they're all manual only, no exceptions.
The trend even extends to the Accord, which was offered in Europe as a region-specific Type R and offered in Japan for a few generations as a Euro R.
The current FK8-generation Type R's 6-speed is one of the sharpest in class, with a relatively snickety throw actioned by its familiar metal cue-ball shifter. Like the Hilux, the Type R's transmission incorporates rev-matching capabilities.
And, that's the only time you'll see the Civic Type R and Hilux compared in the same sentence today.
8. Hyundai i30 N
Last but not least of the manual-only hot hatches is the Hyundai i30 N — a segment giant killer.
It arrived on the scene a few years ago as only the second hot hatch to ever come out from Korea (following on from the likeable, oddly named, poor-selling Kia Pro-Cee'd GT), but defied any pre-existing minnow status with the way it drove.
The i30 N doesn't have the track record of the Type R (figuratively or literally), but it does arguably pack a dash more fun factor for the money. Its six-speed manual isn't as precise as that of the Type R, but in N-Mode it can be used to prompt ear-shattering explosions or meandering overrun silliness from the exhaust pipes.
But, the times they are a changing, and the i30 N's set to soon gain a dual-clutch eight-speed in its efforts to topple the Volkswagen Golf GTI it was made to beat.
9. Ford Mustang GT
'LGF437' is a near fully-optioned yellow Ford Mustang GT that I had the pleasure of driving a few different times. It was there at the launch of the refreshed Mustang in early 2018, and then it popped up again on at the chilled out Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds for some snow-drifting action a few months later.
It packed the brand's six-speed, which is admittedly not the sharpest transmission around. But, it does provide a basis for the revamped rev-matching six-speed offered exclusively in the Mustang Bullitt — a car that's much more interesting than the overrated action flick it's named after.
Maybe the most curious thing about manuals in Mustangs is that the four-cylinder EcoBoost has never been offered with one here. Given how much fun that powertrain is with a manual in the (now dead) Focus RS, and given the Mustang EcoBoost's position as the performance-car purist's choice, it's a surprise that a manual was never part of the line-up.
Hmm. Maybe one day.
10. Porsche Cayman GT4
Not least but clearly last is one of the most pure pieces of track-day weaponry on sale today.
As engines in sports cars and supercars become more powerful and manufacturers become more transfixed on shaving tenths off their 0–100km/h times in order to one-up the competition, manual transmissions lose their lustre next to quicker dual-clutch alternatives. But, no such issues for the 309kW/420Nm 4.0-litre flat-six Porsche Cayman GT4.
Its six-speed is a dainty, short, precise thing that pairs perfectly with the quick Cayman's 'no compromise' track-orientated ethos. And I know, the mere precense of a manual transmission is compromise personified in the eyes of those wanting absolute performance. But, absolute fun deserves to be higher on the priority list anyway.
DRIVEN actually got to have a hoon in the new 2020 Porsche Cayman GT4 recently. Be on the lookout for our full review of the sharpened little monster from Stuttgart in this weekend's edition.