The art of driving a manual is not dead — at least not yet. But with new manual-equipped cars disappearing left and right, it’s getting a lot tougher to snag seat time in a stickshift, let alone purchase one to drive long-term. And whether you begged, borrowed, stole or sneaked away, we all had to learn to drive a manual transmission on something. Well, now it’s time to pass that down to the next generation (whatever age they may be) of car people.
Keep this in mind before we get to the formal rules: This week’s challenge is as much about the car you choose as the person you choose it for, and your selection will say a lot about the relationship you have with that person. If you pick a Mazda RX-8, for example, you’re either saying you trust this person to pick up the process quickly, or that you hate their guts and hope they stall on an onramp and die. There’s really no middle ground, so tread carefully.
Anyway, here are your guidelines:
Your choice can be new or used.
This is not necessarily the beneficiary’s first car, just the first one they’ve owned with a manual transmission.
The gearbox has to actually be a traditional manual transmission with three pedals (or any reasonable equivalent) and a gear lever. It’s of no consequence where the latter is mounted so long as it exists. No sequential or automated units, period.
No swaps. Factory applications only.
You may spend less than $18,000, however no points are awarded for frugality.
The points aren’t real anyway.
Now, on to the staff picks:
2019 Volkswagen Golf Wagon
Senior Editor James Riswick: Volkswagen manuals are very easy to drive. Torquey, turbocharged engines generally make for an easier row-your-own experience (there’s a reason recent Honda Civics have become even better), while VW’s clutch takeup and engagement point are incredibly forgiving. The gearbox may feature longer throws than a driving enthusiast would prefer, but they’re precise and the general rubberyness makes it, again, forgiving. That’s what you want from a manual when you’re learning. Or when stuck in traffic. Or just driving around mundanely. All of this is consistent with cars that hail from a place where people still opt for manual transmissions in cars that have zero performance potential (or, you know, at all). Now, to be perfectly honest, I originally thought about finding a previous-generation Honda Civic, but the Golf selection had fewer miles and were newer. And this one is a wagon! Asking price is $16,997 and it has 59,232 miles on it. And if we’re talking “first manual transmission” because it’s also a teen’s first car, the excellent fuel economy and cargo versatility should come in handy at college and beyond.
2016 Mini Cooper
Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: I learned to drive in an old Volkswagen Beetle. It had a manual transmission, and I think it was an awfully good experience. Not only did I learn to row my own gears and use a clutch pedal, I also learned a lot about how cars work — old air-cooled VeeDubs are quite simple and straightforward devices when compared to modern cars, and keeping them running well takes some easy but necessary upkeep from time to time. All that said … no, I would not specifically choose an old Bug as someone’s first manual unless I knew they were really going to get into the experience. Instead, I’d choose something small and easy to drive, with a light clutch, well-designed transmission and with a reasonable amount of power. Enter the Mini Cooper. While early Minis earned a reputation as unreliable, more recent vintages are holding up pretty well. The turbocharged three-cylinder engine has the right amount of power, and all the controls — importantly including the gearbox — feel nice and direct. This one is a 2016 model for less than $14,000, and I chose it mostly because I like the color. There are plenty to choose from for less than $18,000, so take your pick.
2015 Honda Civic Si
Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: I will always argue that the best car to learn on is a Honda. The gates are always clear and coherent to shift through; the clutch is easy on the left leg but still full of feel, and they’re normally never powerful or torquey enough to get you into any trouble. That means there’s no enormous barrier to your learning and instantly starting to have fun. Enter this 2015 Honda Civic Si. It’s the last of the naturally aspirated Si models, which I think makes it a great candidate for someone new to engines and transmissions. Turbos are cool and all, but this will give anybody a good idea about how an engine naturally produces torque as the revs rise all the way to redline of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Of course, the car itself should be mighty reliable, and if driving around in a manual Si as your first experience in a three-pedal car doesn’t turn you into a car enthusiast, I’m not sure what will.
2012-2015 Nissan Xterra PRO-4X
Associate Editor Byron Hurd: Curveball, baby! Everything listed so far seems very prudent, efficient and friendly for a new stick driver, but not everybody wants (or plans) to drive a car. I stuck an image of a Jeep Wrangler up top there for fun, but anybody who’s driven a manual-equipped JK or earlier Wrangler can tell you that they’re not all that fun to learn on. Trust me. Been there, done that. The current (JL) Wrangler and Gladiator are far better, but good luck finding one in this price range. While the Nissan’s gearbox is nothing to write home about, it’s more pleasant to interact with than anything Jeep sold prior to 2018, plus you’ll get weird car cool points. Just like the points in this challenge, they mean absolutely nothing, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t at least a little bit of a car geek. You get it.
2014-2018 Mazda3 s
News Editor Joel Stocksdale: Miata is so often the answer, and definitely would be excellent for this list, but it’s certainly not the only answer from Mazda. The Mazda3, a perennial favorite small car among our staff (there’s a current-generation one in the Palmer garage, and a previous generation in my parents’ garage), is a great way to learn the ways of the stick, too, especially for a broad audience like we have for this challenge. My recommendation would be for the version with the larger 2.5-liter four-cylinder, sometimes given the “s” trim name. It has the most power and torque, which makes it more fun in general, but is also good for avoiding stalling out when you’re still working on setting off from a stop. The Mazda has a very forgiving clutch that isn’t too heavy and has decent feel. The shifter isn’t spectacular, but is light and has clear gates. And once you’re familiar with the manual, you have one of the best handling and steering cars in the segment that’s efficient, reliable, practical, and if it’s a higher trim level, like the s Grand Touring you see above, full of comfort features that make it a fantastic all-around car.
2018 Subaru Crosstrek
Managing Editor Greg Rasa: I’d concur with Zac on Hondas. But really, most Japanese cars have clutches and shifters that are easy to learn on — a Subaru, for example, of which there are a ton out there at this price. In the case of this orange Crosstrek, if your stick-driving student stalls the car in traffic, it’ll be easy for other motorists to see, so hey, that’s a plus. That joke aside, an actual serious plus is the hill-holding feature, which takes one worry out of the picture for a neophyte. Later, at a time when they’re more confident, a student will, of course, have to learn how the basic skill of juggling the parking brake / clutch / accelerator to take off on a hill, so the hill-holding feature can be turned off for that more advanced lesson. Until then, hill holding is a nice set of training wheels. This car doesn’t have a lot of power, either, so they really need to learn to use the gearbox to its fullest advantage.
And you know this, but whatever they learn on, drill into them that they must not ride the clutch. Because, they absolutely will. Make them put their left foot on the floor between every shift.