It was a tough call whether to be awestruck or appalled. Stopped at a red light, the first thing I noticed about the car alongside was the coffee cup in the driver’s left hand — a regular china mug. No lid. Then I noticed her right hand was holding a lit cigarette. And then, as the light turned green and she started her left turn, I caught a glimpse of the manual shifter.
Call her the exception that proves the rule. It’s mainly because of people like her that the manual transmission, if not yet extinct, is certainly an endangered species.
Most Canadians simply don’t enjoy driving, especially in the stop-and-go traffic where most of us live. It’s a chore, a necessary evil to be performed with the barest minimum of physical and mental effort. Why put in all that footwork, that concentration, all the labour of shifting a gear lever when an automatic can reliably relieve you of all that effort?
Automatic transmissions have been around more than 70 years. They’re almost ubiquitous in North America. So why does the manual gearbox still exist at all?
Historically, automatics were more expensive. That might not matter on a luxury car, but it could deter buyers in the basement of the market. To keep advertised prices down, most small cars have manual as standard, with automatic as an extra-cost option.
In future, however, the price advantage of the increasingly rare manual box may be erased, or even reversed, by simple economics: Lower production volumes mean higher unit costs.
Historically, manual transmissions have also been more energy efficient. They usually had more gear ratios than contemporary automatics, requiring less compromise between ratios that favour quick acceleration and those that favour quiet, economical cruising, but more importantly, the torque converter of traditional automatics allowed a lot of slip and wasted energy. A well-driven manual could usually outaccelerate its automatic equivalent, and use less fuel.
Just grabbing some numbers at random from my archives, a 1995 VW Golf, for example, was rated at 8.6 litres per 100 kilometres with a five-speed manual and 10 litres with the four-speed automatic. And it took 10.1 seconds to hit 100 kilometres an hour with the five-speed manual and 11.9 seconds with the four-speed automatic.
But automatics have evolved dramatically. Lock-up clutches minimize traditional torque-converter slip, and ratio counts have soared from typically three in the 1980s to as many as 10 today. With intelligent electronic controls, these ratio-rich transmissions can always pick the right gear at the right time.
Then there are the variants: efficient CVT transmissions with their continuously variable gearing; and those dual-clutch “auto-manuals” that combine manual-gearbox hardware with robots that actuate the clutch and do the shifting much faster and more smoothly than any human driver.
Bottom line? Today’s surviving stick-shifts are, almost without exception, slower and thirstier than their automatic siblings. For example, the Toyota Corolla SE is rated at 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres with a six-speed manual and 6.7 with a CVT automatic. The latest Porsche 911 GT3 claims zero-to-100 kilometres an hour in 3.9 seconds with the six-speed manual, and 3.4 seconds with the dual-clutch seven-speed automatic.
Yet a dedicated minority of engaged drivers still want to shift with a stick. For them, driving isn’t just about getting from A to B; it’s about mastering a machine and perfecting a skill. There is tactile delight in the action of a slick shifter, and deep satisfaction in pulling off perfectly executed shifts. And despite what the official numbers may say, a well-driven manual can still outperform or use less fuel than a poorly driven automatic.
So what are your options? By my count, about three dozen cars and trucks remain available with manual gearboxes in Canada.
Cheap and cheerful
About a third of the surviving manuals are on subcompact and compact cars and front-wheel drive crossovers. Very few are sold, not only because most buyers can’t or won’t drive a stick shift, but also because they’re usually limited to the lowest trims. On higher trims with more bells and whistles, automatic becomes standard. Some examples are the Nissan Versa subcompact sedan, Hyundai Venue subcompact crossover, and Kia Forte compact sedan.
One exception to the base-trim rule: sportier models higher up the range. Nissan, for example, recently added a six-speed-manual option to the SR version of the Sentra. The only Honda Civics to still offer a manual are the (soon-to-be-redesigned) Hatchback Sport, and the performance-intense Type R.
Other subcompact and compact vehicles to offer a manual gearbox include the Chevrolet Spark; Hyundai Elantra; Kia, Forte and Rio; Mazda3 and CX-3 FWD; Mitsubishi Mirage; Nissan Qashqai FWD; Subaru Impreza; Toyota Corolla; and the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta.
If pickups are your thing, you have two options, both of them four-wheel-drives strongly skewed toward off-roading (or the pretence thereof): the Jeep Gladiator and the Toyota Tacoma. On the Gladiator, a six-speed manual is standard on all but the highest of the seven available trims. The Tacoma’s available six-speed stick is limited to the base Access Cab, or Double Cab Short-Box in base or TRD Pro trims.
Off-roading also flavours the only four-wheel-drive SUVs or all-wheel-drive crossovers that still offer a manual. The Jeep Wrangler can be stick-shifted on most trims, but only with the 3.6-litre V6 gas engine. Ford’s reborn Wrangler-rivalling Bronco has a seven-speed manual in which the extra ratio is a crawler gear; it’s available on most trims, two-door or four-door, but only with the base 2.3-litre engine. The Subaru Crosstrek — more of a more soft-roader than the above — can be had with a six-speed manual on three 2.0-litre trims without the Eyesight assisted-drive package.
All sorts of sports
At the relatively cheap-and-cheerful end, there’s the Hyundai Veloster N, the Mazda MX-5 and its platform cousin, the Fiat 124 Spider, and all versions of the Mini family — three-door, five-door and convertible, Cooper and Cooper S.
Sport sedans offering a gear shift include the Genesis G70 (rear-wheel-drive 2.0-litre only) but that is going away for the 2022 refresh. The only BMW 3 Series with a stick shift is the M3. But guess which unlikely brand is adding a six-on-a-stick option for 2022? Cadillac will make a six-speed standard on the upcoming Blackwing versions of its CT4-V compact and CT5-V mid-size sedans.
Other sport sedans offering a six-speed gear shift include the Subaru WRX/STI, the Volkswagen Golf GTI/R and the Volkswagen Jetta GLI.
Coupe and convertible muscle
Traditional American muscle cars still preserve DIY shifting in the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger — and on pretty much all their respective engine choices. Europe’s closest equivalents to stick-shiftable Detroit muscle are BMW’s M coupes — the M2 and M4.
Beyond that, you’re into exotica. Aston Martin still lists a manual version of the Vantage V8; otherwise it’s down to Porsche to keep the stick-shift alive among performance cars. A six-speed manual is available on all versions of the 718 Boxster and Cayman, a seven-speed on S versions of the 911, and a six-speed on the upcoming 2022 GT3.