I remember the first time I drove a car, I was 13, and I spent hours stalling my dad’s 1984 Toyota Pickup. Over and over we drove around in that circle, my dad refusing to give up on me until I could finally master the art of the manual transmission.
Many of us probably have a similar story (okay, most were probably more gifted and were able to learn how to work the clutch in a matter of minutes, not hours), one of trying and failing until that glorious moment when you get enough (but not too much) gas to the engine and take off for that first time in first gear. It’s a story of pain and struggle, but at the same time it intensely bonded you to the person who taught you an essential life skill, and it ended with sheer joy at the point when you finally mastered the stick shift. Sadly, this experience may not be a common one for much longer.
A right of passage for many a teenager, learning how to drive stick is gradually becoming less and less common, as more and more automakers choose to discontinue production of vehicles with manual transmissions. Just this week, we received the heart-wrenching news that Porsche would no longer produce the 911 Turbo with a manual gearbox. This follows in the footsteps of Ferrari and McLaren, who dropped manual transmissions altogether in recent years, along with Mercedes-Benz and Lamborghini, who have already nixed the necessity on their superstars, the SLS AMG and Aventador. If European makers of supercars can no longer produce fun-to-drive cars with stick shifts, who will?
Luckily, it seems that it is mostly the higher-end versions of cars that suffer from manual-transmission deficiency, and then only certain makers. While some of our favorites have now been discontinued, there are still, thankfully, plenty of fun-to-drive new manual cars that will be on dealer lots for the 2014 model year. Here’s a look at the 10 best:
10. Kicking off our list is a car that’s fresh off a brief hiatus that saw it miss 2013: the Audi R8. Based on Lamborghini’s Gallardo platform, the R8 is the best Audi has to offer. Coming in at $114,900 for the base model coupe with an 8-cylinder engine (a V10 is also available), the R8 is not on most folks’ shopping list. For those lucky ones that can seriously consider the R8, well-off gearheads will be happy to know that Audi has decided to reward them, offering the standard 6-speed manual for $9,100 less than the automatic option. Pumping out an impressive 430 hp, hitting 62 mph in 4.6 seconds and topping out at 188 mph, the R8 is indeed a supercar. The winner of Motor Trend’s Best Handling Car award in 2008, the R8 is not only fast but nimble, making it the first of our 10 most fun cars that still offers a manual.
9. In at the ninth spot is a classic that’s a staple on any sort of fun-to-drive list: the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Launched in 1989, the Miata has become the standard for affordable roadsters. Redesigned for the 2014 model year, the Miata is still shrouded in mystery, with Fuchu releasing little information about the upcoming model other than that it will be closely related to the 2014 Alfa Romeo Spyder. More aggressive in appearance than the 2013 model, the new Miata will likely sport a 1.3-liter turbocharged V4 that should allow it to shed some pounds and become even more fun to drive on long, windy roads. No word yet on options or pricing, but if the new model stays close to the old in that regard, look for a 5- or 6-speed manual with a price tag that would give many that fantasize about the Miata the realistic option of purchasing it.
8. What do you get when you redesign an American classic to make it even more fun to drive? You get the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. For the seventh generation of the Corvette, Chevy went out of its way to make everything about this car fun, giving it more aggressive looks and packing a knockout punch in performance, with the Stingray boasting a 450-hp V8 that gets it from zero to 60 in under 4 seconds. Priced at $51,995, the Corvette comes with a modest price tag for a car that can outrun supercars that set buyers back over six figures. When all is said and done, there’s nothing that’s not fun about the new Corvette Stingray—everything from its performance to its price will leave you smiling. Heck, GM even made the name more fun. However, none of that compares to the simple joy of driving the newest Corvette—with the standard 7-speed manual, of course.
7. Moving up the list we come to the BMW M3. Also redesigned for 2014, the M3 will lose its V8 in favor of a 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline 6-cylinder, capable of 0-62 in about 4.5 seconds while pushing out 444 hp. With a 6-speed manual coming standard, the “highly tunable” M3 is fun not only for its performance capabilities, but also because of all the options that petrolheads have in customizing their car to their liking.
6. Yet another all-redesigned-for-2014 model takes the next spot on our list: the Subaru WRX. Formerly known as the Impreza WRX, the 2014 WRX will split from the Impreza in more ways than name, set to carry a host of mechanical features that will not be available to the new Impreza. Equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer 4-cylinder (making the car a distant relative of the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S) kicking power to all 4 wheels through a 6-speed manual (the only transmission option), look for the new WRX to keep its focus as an enthusiast-oriented car, meaning that it should be even more fun to drive than the already impressive 2013 model.
5. In at number 5 is a car that’s often overlooked in favor of its big brother: the Porsche Boxster. (We couldn’t find a photo of the ’14 Boxster, so had to fudge this one a bit.) Living in the shadow of a giant is never easy, but the Boxster manages to hold its own, giving owners a chance to experience all the joys of driving a Porsche while having to shell out only $50,400 (a far cry from the $130,400 required for a 911). Just because it doesn’t have quite the same technology as a 911 doesn’t mean it’s less fun—we’d argue the contrary. Redesigned for 2014, the Boxster’s appeal comes through in the same places where the Miata’s does: on long, windy roads. The new Boxster is lighter and has tighter handling than earlier generations, making it a thrill to drive in turns. It may not outperform the 911, but on a nice day with the ragtop down (the Boxster only comes as a soft-top convertible), nothing will put a bigger smile on your face than sliding the manual transmission into sixth gear to take advantage of all of the Boxster’s 265 ponies.
4. What company would already produce one of the most fun cars to drive and decide it needed to produce an even more fun one? Subaru (in conjunction with Toyota/Scion). Making the fourth spot is the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S. Known as the Toyota 86/GT86 outside of North America, the BRZ/FR-S is poised to become one of Toyota/Scion/Subaru’s most popular cars ever amongst enthusiasts, offering a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car that’s more than capable of being a daily driver. Outfitted with Subaru’s 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder boxer engine, the car puts out 200 hp and thrives in the turns with its 6-speed stick. With its impressive, agile handling, coupled with Subaru/Toyota/Scion quality and reliability, the agile BRZ/FR-S will light up the face of anyone that sits behind the wheel.
3. If you’re looking for a fun-to-drive, go-anywhere car, look no further than the Jeep Wrangler with the standard manual transmission. Born to tear things up in the great outdoors, the Wrangler allows drivers to go literally anywhere and have a blast doing it. However, as any hard-core off-roader will tell you, going off the beaten path is far more fun with a manual, giving a driver even more control of the vehicle as it navigates some of the world’s toughest terrain. Seeing as the Wrangler can conquer most of that terrain, it only makes sense to get this American icon with a stick shift.
2. In the runner-up spot is a car that most probably never expected to see on this list: the Ford Focus (ST, that is). Developed out of Ford’s vision to create a “global performance car,” the Focus ST is available only with a 6-speed manual, meaning that the car is meant for fun and fun alone. In fact, the Focus ST is so fun that it will even have a Shelby version this year. Developed by Ford Europe and capable of taking on Europe’s best performance wagons, the 2013 Focus ST came in at a modest $24,495, and don’t expect the 2014 version to be much higher. Boasting 252 hp, a 0-60 speed of 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph, this front-wheel-drive hatch sits lower than a normal Focus and has body modifications that differentiate it from the standard version in terms of both looks and performance. As if all that wasn’t fun enough, the Focus ST actually has a sound symposer that funnels engine noise into the cabin to enhance your driving experience. We love it.
1. Claiming the number-one spot is a car that does nothing but scream “fun”: the Nissan 370Z NISMO. Updated for 2014, the new NISMO 370Z packs a 3.7-liter V6 with a 6-speed manual transmission, pumping out a whopping 350 hp. While the performance factor definitely makes this a fun car to drive, what allows it to soar to the top of our list is everything else. With an updated look, including new gray accents at the bottom of the car, mirrors and rear wing and an updated interior, the car builds upon its already fun cosmetic credentials, and the monstrous exhaust puts out a sound that allows all around it to smile as well. Behind the wheel or watching it drive by, there is no possible way that one can experience a 370Z NISMO and not grin from ear-to-ear, easily making this the number one car on our list.
Which is your favorite of the cars on this list? Did we miss one of your picks?