I Want a Reliable Manual Car so My Kids Can Learn to Drive Stick! What Should I Buy?

I Want a Reliable Manual Car so My Kids Can Learn to Drive Stick! What Should I Buy?

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Image: Mazda

Scott wants to get a car with a manual transmission before everything goes electric. He also wants his kids to have the skill of operating a clutch. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but he does want something newer and very reliable. What car should he buy?

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Here is the scenario.

Is it time to give up wanting a manual? I’m 48, would love my teenage and young adult kids to learn – have missed my 5 speed Mazda 6 ever since trading it in 7 years ago. But my 18 mile each way commute occasionally involves highway backups (which I can avoid) – part of me wants my next car to be a manual before they’re gone or before I go full in on electric.

The key feature is RELIABILITY – been spoiled by Honda and Toyota the past several years, can’t remember what it’s like to worry that your car won’t get you where you want to go. Also like some pep for merging and getting out of peoples’ way. Not a fan of bells and whistles. Needs a back seat and ability to carry some stuff (family also has an Odyssey so we’re good with hauling big stuff). Also, no rear-drive cars, must be AWD or FWD. My budget is up to $30,000

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $30,000

Location: Hartford, CT

Daily Driver: Yes

Wants: Reliable, manual, simple

Doesn’t want: Something with a lot of maintenance or rear-wheel-drive

Expert 1: Tom McParland – A Forgotten Sport Compact

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Scott, this is certainly a noble undertaking to have the kids learn the almost lost art of rowing your own gears. Yet, it seems to be a secondary benefit and the primary is for you to have an enjoyable car before they are even harder to find. Of course, there aren’t that many manuals at sub $30,000, to begin with, and avoiding any rear-drive cars narrows the field even further. Given your positive experience with Hondas and Toyotas, I was going to lean you toward the Corolla hatchback, but the manual has been discontinued in the standard car for the 2023 model year. I guess anyone that wants a manual Corolla is spending the big bucks for the GR version.

Perhaps a wildcard is a way to go and there is a really solid sporty import sedan that most folks totally forget is available with three pedals. The Kia Forte GT is a competitor to the popular Civic Si, with a 200 hp turbo motor, all the modern safety features you can expect, and a price point of about $26,000 for the manual version. That’s about $3,000 cheaper than the Si, before the Honda dealers add markups. Reliability shouldn’t be a concern with the Kia given the long warranty, and while the Korean brand has been in the news recently for cars that are easy to steal, you are opting for what might be the best anti-theft device around…a clutch pedal. While these manual Fortes are not common, here is a sharp grey one in New England that’s not terribly far away.

Expert 2: Andy Kalmowitz – Go With the Best

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Photo: Sloan Honda Philadelphia

If you’re going to teach your kids how to drive a manual, you may as well start out with the best there is. For the money, that’s Honda. Lucky for you, the company makes the exact car you’re looking for: the Civic Si. It’s got a beautiful transmission and front-wheel drive, it’ll be reliable (since it’s a brand new Honda with a warranty) and for better or worse it won’t have too many bells and whistles (damn you Honda).

A brand new Civic Si will come in under your $30,000 budget, and plenty of them are available within a couple hundred miles of where you live. So, you’ll really have your pick of the litter. It’ll cost a bit more than the aforementioned Kia Forte GT, but I promise you the transmission in the Civic Si will make up for it. I challenge you to find a better feeling shifter action. You can’t do it. You just cannot.

There are no less than 50 brand new Honda Civic Sis within 200 miles of Hartford. However, the one I’m choosing for you is in Philadelphia for a couple of reasons: 1) the listing actually includes pictures. 2) It’s red. (More cars should be red.) And it is listed at $28,595. However, the listing says to call for the price. I am begging you not to pay over sticker for one of these. Shop around, you’ll find one at the correct price!

There are dozens of others that are closer to you that shouldn’t have an ADM. Scott, for the love of your family, go with the correct answer: the Honda Civic Si. You will not be sorry.

Expert 3: Owen Bellwood – Small and Mighty

A photo of a blue Hyundai Veloster N hatchback.

Photo: Carmax

Scott, you’re definitely right that now is the time to have one last manual hurrah before the electric overlords take over. And, thankfully, in your sub-$30,000 budget there are some really fun stick-shift cars to get behind the wheel of – as Andy and Tom have proven already.

But I’m happy to say that I’ve found the car that you want, that you really, really want. It is, of course, the Hyundai Veloster N – a phenomenal little hatch that looks sleek, is great fun to drive and comes with a back row of seats and a bit of trunk space. Oh, and it ticks your reliability box and will easily come in under budget.

A new Veloster N might set you back upwards of $32,000, but I found a few secondhand models that are up for grabs and well under budget. If you want to play it safe, there’s this 2020 one that’s dressed in white and comes with just 16,000 miles on the dash. But, this is a performance Hyundai, so you want to get it in the right color. You should buy this Performance Blue Veloster N to be sure to make the most of the final years of manual driving. I promise you’ll have a blast.

Expert 4: José Rodríguez Jr. – Remember the Niiiice Jetta?

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Photo: Volkswagen

The Volkwsagen Jetta went through a bit of a renaissance in the late aughts and early teens, but crossovers and SUVs gradually overshadowed the once popular small sedans, which often came with the option of a manual transmission. Now, it seems like manual transmissions are mostly left for so-called enthusiast cars while popular crossovers and compact SUVs are left with boring CVTs.

But some small sedans (and bog-standard base models) can still be found with a stick shift, including the 2023 Volkswagen Jetta which starts at around $21,760. This new model is not that far from Hartford, and it seems practical enough, especially for teens and young adults. The Jetta always seemed like such an appropriate car for the young and young-at-heart. High school parking lots seemed to be overflowing with Jettas and Corollas and Civics when I was a kid.

Learning to drive stick is something everyone should get a shot at, but it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone needs a Miata or GR86. A perfectly serviceable small sedan with a stick shift would make an excellent classroom and daily driver, too. The VW badge might scare you off, Scott, as a former Honda and Toyota owner but the base Jetta’s combination of a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission is tried and true. If you want more pep, I’d say try a GLI, but the faster Jetta would break the budget.