The Best Cars for Learning How to Drive Manual
Knowing how to drive a stick shift isn’t yet an obsolete skill and these are the best cars in which you can hit the ground runningby Michael Fira, on
Do you remember the fateful day when you first got in a car ready to understand the intricate workings of a manual transmission? Of pressing and depressing the clutch pedal in tandem with operating that stick in between the seats in such a way as to keep the car going without a hitch? Nowadays, most people learn to drive on automatic cars, but we think that it’s still vital to learn how to drive a manual and these are the 10 best cars to learn everything about the more ’analog’ way of driving.
Believe it or not, out of the sea of new cars that are available for you to purchase in 2019 in the United States, only 40 are offered with a manual transmission. This may sound unbelievable to some of you, especially if you’re older and you’re used to seeing manual cars everywhere. Granted, automatic cars have been around since the ’40s but, in the past three decades or so, they’ve really started to eat into the market share of the manuals and, now, barely anybody buys a manual car. In fact, as of 2016, less than 3% of cars Stateside sport a manual transmission and many high-end manufacturers (such as Audi) have stopped selling manual cars in the U.S. altogether.
Why is it useful to know how to operate three pedals and a stick, then? Because you never know when you may have to drive one and, well, would you rather be the guy (or gal) to shrug his or her shoulders acknowledging defeat or would you rather just get on with it? I thought so... And that’s just one of the many reasons
When compiling this list, I’ve looked at what cars you can buy today that would lend themselves to the task of being your guinea pig as you learn to drive manual. That’s why you’ll (mostly) find cars that are still in production and not some generic vehicle from the ’70s and ’80s. There’s also the fact that older cars weren’t necessarily easier to operate, quite the contrary. Modern cars offer the pinnacle in creature comfort, and this also goes down to how the gearbox works. If in some older cars you’d struggle to find the gears or you’d struggle to locate the biting point of the clutch, new cars are generally smoother and easier to operate thanks to all the assists that are in place even in the most mundane options on this list.
The Ford Fiesta is a car that’s on its very last legs Stateside, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good car and, overall, good value for money.
For starters, you should look at the Fiesta because it's an old car, eight years old to be precise.
What this means is that, by now, Ford has ironed out just about any faults embedded within this model and what you buy now is as refined a car as you could ever hope for and it’s, in my view, probably the best manual car for beginners. Then there’s also the fact that the base S trim costs just $14,260 (the SE starts at $15,790) and you save $1,095 with either trim level if you go for the manual over the automatic. If you want your Fiesta to also be fun once you’ve learned how to manage a stick shift, you should go for the ST variant (with an MSRP of $21,340, a grand cheaper than a bare Kia Optima) with its quick five-speed gearbox with short throws and a cheerful 1.6-liter, 197 horsepower, four-pot.
Specifications (S trim)
|Engine||1.6-liter, Ecoboost four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||120 at 6,350 rpm|
|Torque||112 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm|
|0-60 mph||9.1 seconds|
|Top speed||115 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Ford Fiesta.
The Miata is everyone’s gateway into the world of sports cars, and that’s why you should pick it if you want to learn to drive stick (with the benefit of having a six-speed) and have fun while doing it. It may not seem like an obvious choice but think about it: the Miata with its 2.0-liter, inline-four engine makes 181 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque delivered to the rear wheels. That’s not too much torque to make you spin around when you attempt getting going from a standstill (a Chevy Bolt puts out 266 pound-feet of torque) and learning to manage an RWD manual is useful if you plan to one day go fast (on a track) in a manual car as most high-performance manuals are RWD. Plus, the Miata starts at just $33,240 including destination fees.
|Engine||2.0-liter, naturally aspirated Skyactiv four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||181 at 7,000 rpm|
|Torque||151 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm|
|0-60 mph||5.7 seconds (drop-top version)|
|Top speed||125 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Hondas are known for their smooth transmissions that make them ideal cars for beginners - in both driving as a whole and driving with three pedals under the dash. The Fit is maybe the best car to learn manual and it’s also my choice over a Civic due to its small size (I apply this argument to the car below and the Fiesta too) that makes it a great commuter in the big city and is great if you’re young and can’t afford a bigger gas-guzzler.
What is more, Honda transmissions usually have an extremely short clutch travel that is very friendly to first-time users.
The Fit’s base MSRP is an attractive $16,190, and you’ll save yourself $800 if you go for the six-speed manual. What is more, the manual doesn’t rob you of two horsepower from the total 130 horsepower output like the CVT and, with a manual onboard, the Fit is quicker too.
|Engine||1.5-liter naturally aspirated i-VTEC DOHC four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||130 at 6,600 rpm|
|Torque||114 pound-feet at 4,600 rpm|
|0-60 mph||9.8 seconds|
|Top speed||112 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Honda Fit.
I’ve picked the Sonic over the Spark because, while there isn’t much to tell them apart as far as the manual transmission goes, you won’t get blown off the highway by a semi in a Sonic while this is a plausible scenario in the lilliputian Spark. If you go for the manual in the Sonic, you’ll save up to $1,400 (that you would’ve spent if you would’ve gone for the automatic) on the $17,920 LT and $1,500 on the Premier trim.
Then there's the fact that the manual helps it reach 38 mpg on the highway (paired with the turbocharged unit) and the gearbox itself is quite uncomplicated and ready to be abused.
|Engine||1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm|
|Torque||148 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm|
|0-60 mph||9.7 seconds|
|Top speed||110 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Chevrolet Sonic.
Here’s a fun idea: what if you blend learning how to drive a manual with learning how to drive off-road? If this is something that sounds interesting to you, you should pick the Jeep Wrangler as your workhorse. It starts at $23,995, but every trim offers a part-time four-wheel drive system, skid plates, and an almighty ground clearance while upper trims offer limited-slip diffs and disconnecting sway bars.
While the Wrangler's transmission may not be as smooth as the ones seen in the subcompact models on this list, remember that it's also good if you learn things the (slightly) harder way and this truly applies to learning stick shift driving.
|Horsepower||285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm|
|Torque||260 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm|
|0-60 mph||7.5 seconds|
|Top speed||120 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Jeep Wrangler.
The Elantra GT isn’t, as you may expect, a Grand Tourer. Instead, Hyundai slapped the ’GT’ badge to the back of the hatchback version of the Elantra, the model designed to do battle with the Volkswagen Golf and other cars in the small segment. You and I both know that Hyundais are reliable and the only issue here, really, is that the bulk of the more high-end options (like some of the driving assists and the panoramic roof) are only available on the automatic models.
With this being said, there's less in the manual version that could break down, and this can only mean you've got fewer things to worry about while you make your way to the throne of manual gearbox tamer.
The non-N-line model starts at $20,450.
|Engine||2.0-liter, DOHC four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||162 horsepower at 6,200 rpm|
|Torque||150 pound-feet at 4,700 rpm|
|0-60 mph||8 seconds|
|Top speed||130 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Hyundai Eantra GT.
The Forte is a great deal: the FE Sedan with a six-speed manual costs just $2,400 than an LX Rio and for that, you get loads more room and more creature comfort. This is a perfect car if you want more cargo space while also staying within a rather tight budget - the Forte starts at just $17,790 - and, given it’s a Kia, it will withstand your clumsiness with stoicism.
The only downside of the manual is that it gets worse fuel economy (27 mpg city and 37 mpg highway) than the automatic version (31 mpg city and 41 mpg highway), but the IVT transmission comes at a $900 premium.
|Horsepower||174 horsepower at 6,200 rpm|
|Torque||132 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm|
|0-60 mph||8,6 seconds|
|Top speed||122 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Kia Forte.
The Versa Sedan is the car for you if you really can’t afford to break the bank buying a new car with a stick. Nissan’s bulbous sub-compact sedan has an MSRP of $13,245 making it the cheapest new car money can buy and, as such, one you can feel free to use and abuse as much as you want making it arguably the best first manual car. It comes with a five-speed manual probably only because nobody makes four-speed manuals and it is as bland as a car can get but, hey, you’ve got to pick your priorities and if your priority is to learn to drive a manual and then end up with a usable daily-driver, the Versa is a strong choice although it will leave you unimpressed in terms of styling, equipment, and performance.
|Horsepower||109 horsepower at 6,000 rpm|
|Torque||107 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm|
|0-60 mph||9.1 seconds|
|Top speed||113 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Nissan Versa.
The Subaru WRX is a great car to learn to drive manual if you’ve got a lot of empty room at your disposal to do it. Car & Driver doesn’t recommend you go for the cheaper Impreza because "the shifter flops imprecisely into its gates, and its ratios aren’t optimized for the boxer four’s narrow powerband," leading the publication to suggest the CVT instead. However, the WRX, with its 268 horsepower turbocharged four-pot that is mated to a six-speed manual just works.
Yes, it's not cheap with an asking price of $27,195, but it will offer more stability than, say, a $25,000 Camaro or a $27,000 Mustang that also come with three pedals.
|Engine||2.0-liter, turbocharged boxer four-cylinder|
|Horsepower||268 at 5,600 rpm|
|Torque||258 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm|
|0-60 mph||5.2 seconds|
|Top speed||145 mph|
Read our full review on the 2019 Subaru WRX.
Any older car you can mess with worry-free
At the end of the day, any older car you can get your hands on will do just fine as long as you understand you can’t learn this coordination game from day one. Yes, some cars have heavier clutch pedals, some cars have clunkier gearboxes or longer gears and, in some, the clutch bites quite early compared to others. But, after you’ve got the hang of it, getting to grips with other manual cars and their own quirks isn’t by any means an impossible task as long as you give yourself time to adjust and you don’t ask too much of the car (some cars, for instance, don’t like it when you overrev them which happens if you attempt a hill start overenthusiastically).