Way back in 2010, we noticed the auto world’s inconvenient truth: Manual transmissions are dying out. Any red-blooded gearhead will agree that learning to drive a manual-transmission car is a rite of passage, an art form every true CarGuru has to learn. The trouble is, how do you learn to drive a manual if you don’t own one? Many of us learned in our parents’ cars, where the sound of grinding gears didn’t incite mechanic-shop nightmares. Others had friends who cared about sharing the secrets of the stick shift more than preserving the mechanical well-being of their own transmissions.
If you don’t have a friend or family member willing to loan you a stick-shifting beater but are dead-set on learning to drive a manual-transmission car, you might think you’re out of luck. Fear not! We’re here to help. We’ve put together a selection of used cars that represent good value, have solid transmissions, and won’t break the bank when you begin your journey toward motoring nirvana.
BMW’s version of the MINI Cooper arrived for the 2002 model year and found its connection with shoppers looking for a compact, fun-to-drive car that was a little different. It doesn’t boast huge power, but its lineup has always included the S and John Cooper Works (JCW) trims, which offer more power and better handling. The Cooper has grown in size, refinement, power, and expense over the years, but it’s still highly regarded for driving enjoyment, and as our reviewer makes clear in his 2015 Cooper S video, a manual transmission offers MINI drivers more control and more fun. Coopers range from 115 hp and $5-7K for used 2002 Base trims to 228 hp and $30K for a new ’16 JCW. We’d recommend sticking with a second-generation version (2007 or newer) and getting as many horsepower and as few miles as you can afford.
Volkswagen introduced the Golf as a front-wheel-drive replacement for the Beetle way back in 1974. More than 30 million Golfs have been sold since then, making the hatchback not only Volkswagen’s best-selling model, but one of the best-selling ever. It’s hard to argue with numbers like that. We recommend the 2011 Golf, one of the more widely available and better-priced years from the vehicle’s sixth generation. You can outfit it with a 5-speed manual, which gets up to 30 mpg city/42 highway when paired with the 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder turbodiesel in the TDI trims. It’s somehow reassuring to see such a great combination of quality, performance, and practicality—all with a manual transmission.
We’ve sung the praises of the Honda Fit in the past, and for good reason. It’s a terrific all-around car to drive, and we’ve previously called the Fit the best “Starter Car” if you’re getting into the automobile market on your own for the first time. It turns out this hatchback is also a great place to start when learning to drive stick. With its more-than-reasonable price tag, it’s a more reasonable investment to learn to drive stick than some of the pricier hatches with manuals like the Subaru Impreza WRX, MAZDA3, or Honda’s own CR-Z, all of which fall in the $20 to $30 grand range.
In recent years, we’ve seen a rebirth of fast, front-wheel-drive sports cars. The Ford Focus and Fiesta STs, Fiat 500 Abarth, and the venerable Volkswagen GTI are all great examples of compact commuters that have been set free thanks to a powerful engine and a manual transmission. If you’re still learning how to drive a manual, though, there’s one other near-legendary car worth looking into. The turbocharged Dodge Neon SRT-4 is a tricky car to find, but if you can get a good one, you’ll have a capable sports car to practice heel-toe shifting (it dominated its class in SCCA racing). Before you drop $30K on a brand new GTI, take a look at used Neon SRT-4s—you’ll get 200+ hp and plenty of street cred for a fraction of the price.
If you’re determined to learn to use a manual transmission, you’re willing to do things a little differently than most. So you might consider driving a car from a company that makes most of its money on motorcycles and no longer produces cars for the U.S. market. Introduced as an inexpensive, practical compact with a generous warranty and feature set, Suzuki’s SX4 was offered in sedan, hatchback, and crossover SUV form. It didn’t sell well, so will be hard to find, but 2010 and newer versions have a more powerful and easier-to-service engine. And the car was offered new at such a great price that we’re hard-pressed to find any listed for more than $12K, even with the optional navigation system and all-wheel drive.
The 2011 Ford Ranger earns its place as the only truck on this list–and a compact pickup at that. But smaller pickups seem to be experiencing something of a resurgence in the U.S., and a used Ranger can offer a remarkably sturdy and reliable ride for a decidedly reasonable price point. Drivers and reviewers alike have noted the Ranger’s well-built feel and solid platform. A few of the trims come with part-time 4WD drive; and yes, all trims are available with a 5-speed manual transmission, which achieves slightly better mileage than does the available automatic, among other things. 2011 was the U.S. Ranger’s last year, but Ford has continued to manufacture an international version (the T6), also available with a manual transmission.
The Scion xB may not be the most attractive vehicle at a glance, but this boxy wagon billows with personality. Like most models with the Scion badge, the xB uses its distinctive looks and low price tag to attract a younger consumer market. And it’s hard to call the xB anything but distinctive; it remains one of just a couple of sharp-angled wagons still on the market. Now that the Nissan Cube and Honda Element have been discontinued, the xB and Kia Soul remain the only boxes you can drive in current editions. And of course, the xB is the only one with a manual transmission. So with used models going for well under $15 grand, you shouldn’t hesitate to cruise around the city in an xB with its 5-speed manual.
The Mitsubishi Mirage is not going to win many awards. It won’t help you win friends or influence people, and it definitely won’t win any drag races. The Mirage is the Spirit Airlines of the automotive marketplace. While you’re in it, you’ll complain about how the ride is terrible and the wind-noise is deafening, but at the end of the day none of that matters—what matters is the price. Consider that you can buy a 2014 Mirage ES (the higher trim level) with push-button start, Bluetooth, and hardly any miles on the odometer for under $10,000. Suddenly, all the irritating shortcomings start to fall by the wayside as the big picture comes into focus. The Mirage has a 5-speed transmission, 7 airbags, and returns almost 38 mpg combined. It’s not just a cost-effective way to learn how to drive a manual—it may very well be today’s best value in the car market.
It’s well known in the automotive world that the Toyota Matrix was the result of a joint venture between Toyota and GM. There aren’t many people who realize that the Pontiac Vibe is essentially the exact same car as the Matrix, but for a couple grand less. Unfortunately, the Vibe was discontinued (along with all of Pontiac) in 2010, so the Matrix, with its slightly extended lifespan, offers some of the better low-price manuals on the market. Oriented to compete in the affordable, functional hatchback segment, the Toyota Matrix brings you a peppy 158 hp in a hatch with some great cargo room and a manual transmission.
Why not learn to drive stick in the best selling two-seat convertible ever? Because it’s light and compact, a Miata will make learning to row your own relatively easy, and because it is a blast to drive and communicates well, you’ll get a great education and loads of enjoyment out of driving it with a manual. The Miata’s been fantastic since its 1989 debut, but 2009 versions got a small horsepower boost and higher redline, which makes them feel noticeably quicker than older ones. They can be found in the neighborhood of $15K, but beware: Most used Miatas have been driven very hard, so you’ll want to look for one that’s been babied and invest in an inspection by a pro mechanic before purchase.
What car would you recommend for first-time stick-shift drivers?
–Chase Hammond, John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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