If you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have learned to drive a manual transmission on your parent’s car, you remember the feeling of absolute terror of stalling out in traffic, grinding the gears in front of dad, or – worse – burn out the clutch entirely and risk having to drive the old station wagon to high school. There was a time when sports cars didn’t come with automatic transmission, but today Porsches have to be special ordered with a manual gearbox and Ferrari no longer even sells them.
Why? A lack of interest from the North American buying public is one factor and that still very real fear that manual transmission equipped cars require too much attention, effort, and nowadays don’t offer any real fuel economy advantage. But those in the know, those lucky drivers who faced their fears of stalling in an intersection or starting on an uphill, they know the pure joys of what it means to be a driver.
Fortunately, some carmakers still know how to churn out a car that’s both fun to drive and easy to learn stick on, whether you’re teaching your 16-year old or trying to master the art yourself at any age. Here are five of our favorite manual transmission cars, the most idiot-proof manual transmissions for first-time owners.
(Note: The following models were picked because they are available in both new and used over a wide range of budgets.)
Honda Civic Si: The Honda Civic Si has, for the last two generations, been synonymous with having one of the easiest and smoothest shift actions available in any vehicle a new car buyer could afford. It is often times called “rifle bolt accurate” which means it is near impossible to miss either a down or upshift should you need some extra power to get out of the way of that oncoming 18-wheeler.
Mazda3 SKyActiv: Mazda premiered the SkyActiv Technology in 2012, making the 3 lighter yet more rigid, faster yet more efficient. The new 6-speed manual gearbox is just short of the Miata’s zoom-zoom capabilities. The Mazda3 was completely redesigned mid-2013 and comes with the only manual gearbox we rate as highly as the one in the Civic. In fact, the Mazda’s clutch is probably more forgiving for first timers. (Editor’s note: The editor learned manual transmission in a 2011 Mazda2 – that clutch is highly forgiving.)
Scion tC Coupe: This affordable, yet surprisingly roomy, two-door from Toyota’s Scion division starts at about $20,000 new, can actually carry four people, and comes blessed with a secret Toyota virtue: a nearly stall-proof manual gearbox. Sure, the gearlever is a bit notchy and might slow down the shifting of a seasoned pro, but that makes it easier for a first timer to find the next gear. Add in a lively enough 2.5 liter 179 horsepower 4-cylinder (EPA rated at 23 MPG city/31 MPG highway), and it’s easy to see the appeal of this sporty coupe.
Hyundai Veloster Turbo: The car that inspired this list! There may be no manual gearbox more forgiving than the one in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. This happens to be my personal car; I have taught people to drive stick and let others who said they knew how drive it, and even when they forgot to downshift after slowing well below stalling speed the Veloster never wavered in powering forward. In fact, in the whole time I have owned it the car has never stalled. (And I, of course, am an expert and never stall a manual transmission car wink, wink).
Ford Fiesta ST: Starting just over $20,000 before options, the Ford Fiesta ST is a newer model so there won’t be a lot of used cars available. but the sweet, short shift in this zippy five door hatchback. The reaction of the clutch and gearlever are so quick and crisp you may have to adjust to it, but the car never hesitated no matter how ham fisted we were with shifting or the clutch pedal. The 1.6 liter 197 horsepower Ecoboost 4-cylinder is also one of Ford’s finest.
Hopefully this list will ease the fears of anyone who tried to learn manual on a less-forgiving model designed to give even seasoned drivers a challenge. Our best advice if you want to learn to drive manual is to just buy the car and start driving – and maybe ask someone to help you with the basics. Just like learning to drive an automatic, it’s the time spent behind the wheel that determines how fast or how well you pick it up, and there’s no motivation like having no other option to get to work but that shiny new manual in the driveway.
James Hamel is a freelance road tester, auto journalist, and Motor Press Guild full member. Find past work at Autobytel.com and current work at iSeeCars.com. Contact James at [email protected].