In a time of rising living costs, distracted driving, and joyless commutes, we can’t think of a better time to bring back the manual transmission. A manual can save you big bucks that you can then spend on rent, travel, or a down payment on a house. Plus, manuals inject some fun into your commute, gamifying your drive to work as you master upshifts and challenge yourself to learn advance techniques, like heel-toeing.
If you’re considering a manual (and we hope you are), which one should you buy? Well, here are our top picks for manuals in four of our generation’s favorite categories.
The budget-friendly one: The Toyota Yaris iA
With the manual trim starting at $15,950, the Yaris iA isn’t quite as inexpensive off the lot as a competing Chevy Cruze ($15,150), but if you can stomach a few extra bucks on your lease rate you’ll enjoy a car that could easily be mistaken for one costing $10,000 more. With a surprisingly high-quality interior and sharp driving dynamics, the Yaris is the inexpensive subcompact to beat.
Fun fact: The Yaris iA was formerly the Scion iA, but underneath it’s really a Mazda2, making it perhaps the most lovable mutt in the automotive world.
The practical one: The VW Golf GTI
King of the hatchbacks since the 80’s the Golf GTI is the best car in the VW lineup by a wide margin. Despite being front-wheel drive, it handles and grips like a much more expensive sports car and hops to 60 in just 6 seconds. But rarely are GTIs lauded for their day-to-day practicality, and they should be. Boasting 52.7 cubic feet of cargo space, the GTI can haul nearly as much as a Toyota RAV4, but unlike most crossovers, the Golf GTI will leave you grinning the entire way to the campsite.
The off-roader: The Jeep Wrangler or the Subaru WRX
Like the idea of dropping into second gear so you can hit the redline and spray mud on the rally enthusiast behind you? Though limited, your options for off-road manual cars are excellent.
Starting at under $23,995, the American-as-apple-pie Jeep Wrangler remains an off-road staple thanks to its heavy-duty suspension and sophisticated 4WD system. If you plan to take your car anywhere Bear Grylls can go, there are few better options for under $30,000. However, the Wrangler’s deafening road noise and gas-guzzling MPG may turn off non-enthusiasts.
For an equally iconic off-roader with better road manners, consider the Subaru WRX. Standing for World Rally Cross, the WRX is the Japanese company’s proud off-road sports sedan, boasting 268 horsepower, unstoppable four-wheel drive, and a legendary rallying pedigree.
Renowned as one of the best cars to drive in the snow, the $26,995 WRX would make an excellent choice for those of you living North of the Wall (or just north of the Mason-Dixon Line).
The fun one: The Mazda MX-5
Our love for the MX-5 has evolved from a passionate honeymoon into a strong marriage. Drives through California’s wine country were predictably blissful, but even through the rain-soaked Costco runs and plodding traffic, we never fell out of love with Mazda’s sublime two-seater. Combining speed, comfort, perfect driving dynamics, and head-turning looks, the MX-5 offers nearly everything you could want from a supercar for a tenth of the cost.
Honorable mentions for a fun manual include the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86. We like their slick transmissions and handling, but couldn’t get over their cheap-feeling interiors and attached boy-racer persona. Plus, the MX-5 is significantly cheaper to insure.
While we singled out the MX-5 as the “fun one,” in reality, all manuals are more fun than their automatic counterparts.
That being said, what are some tips for learning to drive a manual?
Tips for learning to drive your new manual car
Driving a manual is like riding a bike—it can be tricky to learn the first time, but once it “clicks,” it’s mostly muscle memory from then on, and you never forget. With patience, you can learn to drive a manual in less than two hours.
It’s best to learn with someone who can already drive manual. They can help you get your car to a safe place for practice and offer you tips.
Great manual practice grounds include empty church parking lots, industrial parks, and flat, quiet neighborhoods. It can feel embarrassing stalling your car over and over, so it’s best to learn somewhere where there’s no one around to make you feel judged!
Going from a stand-still to first gear is the hardest part of driving a manual. Once you’ve mastered that, shifting between the upper gears is much easier.
If the car stalls, the engine has stopped and you’ll have to turn it back on. You need to give it more gas next time.
If the car lurches forward, the clutch, the part between the gears and the engine, is having difficulty connecting because you’ve given the engine too much gas. Easier on the gas next time!
Find the sweet spot. The “sweet spot” is where the clutch best connects the gears and the engine, resulting in smooth acceleration. Try lifting the clutch about ¼ of the way up, and applying a little gas as if you were pulling up in a drive-thru line. The engine may sound like it’s revving louder than an automatic, but that’s natural in a manual.
Shifting between gears 2-6 will be much easier. Your co-pilot can help you.
One of the best things about manual cars the price tag—they tend to be a little cheaper than automatics. These are just some of our favorite, more budget-friendly models.