As cars continue to morph into $60K compact crossover jellybeans with battery packs and a one gear transmission, the days of vehicles with manual shifters seem numbered. We decided to check and see how many fun and affordable vehicles with a stick we could find that manufacturers are still making in 2022. The list was surprisingly long.
To an investment banker, a $130,000 Tesla Model X may seem affordable. Good for her! By our way of thinking, “affordable” is a polite way of saying cheap. Not cheap as in fragile, but cheap as in cheap Yankee, which is the perfect way to describe your author. The average new vehicle today has a transaction price of about $45K. Let’s call 'affordable' about $35K for this story, just so we have a reality check on how much folks looking for a fun, affordable stick shift car can expect to budget.
If we have to explain fun to you, stop reading Car Talk and head over to Psychology Today. They have what you need.
Fun, to us, means the car excites you. When you drive it in the real world on your favorite twisty back road you feel glad that you opted not to buy the Lidocaine 2000 with its push-button tranny. We will break down our list into categories. Not everyone can fit a two-seat sports car into their family fleet.
The Honda Civic line offers you a choice of three trims with a stick shift. All of them have a price tag well under the $35K self-imposed limit we set for this rant. The great thing about the Civic Si is everything. Literally, every single thing about the car is perfect and it only comes with a six-speed, rev-matching manual transmission.
The Civic Si has grown up. It’s no longer a hot hatch, but a four-door sedan that can fit your whole family. As long as your family has five or fewer members. The Civic is now about the size of an Accord from about a decade ago. Commodious, capacious. Well, you get the point. What makes the new and improved Civic special is that when Honda made it comfort-fit instead of skinny-jean style, they didn’t engineer out the joy.
We tested the 2022 Civic Si and found its clutch takeup to be ideal. Its springiness is just right, its engagement sweet spot is gradual and placed from 20% to 60% of travel. It’s a clutch that won’t give you sciatica if you happen to get trapped in traffic. The shifter is snickity-snick, and the reverse lockout isn’t a hassle. What makes the Civic Si manual so special though is how well it gets along with the engine. It is a small turbo with gobs of torque, but also willing to happily rev past 5,000 RPM all day long. Ask us how we know.
An engine with this much torque offers the driver the opportunity to skip shifts in mundane commuting without lugging the engine. Getting up to speed in normal driving you can shift 1-3, or 1-2-4. As you enter a crowded freeway you can shift 3-6 if you wish. If you are over 30 you know why skipping shifts is a thing.
Alternatively, you can use every gear, shift the Civic Si at redline all day long, and never feel like a piston will fly through the hood. The engine is smooth all the way up and also down the rev band. Speaking of down, this car will match revs as you enter a corner. It makes downshifts smoother. If you are an old-school heel-toe bodhisattva, you can shut it off and reach enlightenment by using two feet to work three pedals.
The Mazda Miata is the best convertible. It also comes with a stick shift. What makes it even sweeter is that you don’t just get a base Mazda Miata for $35K, you get the best one the company offers. If you want wind in your hair, birdsong in your ears, and joy in your heart, the answer is the Miata. If you want sideways drifts and supercar braking, Miata is the answer.
The reason the Miata is so brilliant is hard to nail down. It’s not one thing. A big part of its fun comes from being rear-wheel drive, which makes operating a stick all the better heading into and out of corners. The engine loves to zing to its redline, and fast shifts are rewarded with a solid pull anyplace in the rev band above 3,000 RPMs. The Miata is a vehicle you wear. It’s a car that when driven properly seems to fade from view. It’s just you, the three pedals, a wheel, and a stick.
Averse to owning a convertible? Toyota and Subaru teamed up to make a rear-wheel drive, boxer-engine-equipped sports coupe that is something like a Miata, but not a convertible. Toyota’s is called the GR86. Subaru calls its version the BRZ. We’ve driven both on and off track in past model years and loved every second of our time behind the wheel. We’ve also driven the automatic-equipped versions. If ever there was a fantastic car that was spoiled by an automatic, it’s these two.
During the coming year, Acura plans to relaunch an icon. The Acura Integra returns and we expect nothing less than excellence. We’ve spoken to Acura’s spokesperson, Chris Naughton, who tells Car Talk that the Integra will start at around $30K and will definitely have a stick shift available. Want a Civic Si with a bit more velvet? Look no further.
The 2022 Subaru WRX has landed a special place on our list. Three of the four trims start under $35K and come with the six-speed. All of them have AWD standard. If you want to recreate the Baby Driver bank scene, opt for red and save the local constable the trouble. Make sure to cut your license in half before you head out.
This car should also have won for the coolest name. The Hyundai Veloster N is available with a six-speed, rev-matching manual transmission and a 275 HP turbocharged engine. The Veloster has attitude to spare, and is a fun vehicle in any of its trims. The N stands for fast, in case you were wondering.
Leave it to Jeep to build a 4X4 vehicle with more horsepower than the sports cars on this list and at a lower price. Configure a 2-Door Sport Wrangler and stay clear of the options (like air conditioning) and you come up with a price of $32K including destination charges. We’ll also call this soft-top a runner-up for best convertible on our list as well. If your budget is tight, don’t forget that the Jeep Wave Program covers your first three years of maintenance.
If your preference swings less Jeep and more Ford, check out the all-new Bronco. It has a similar vibe to the Wrangler and of course, a stick shift. Its party trick is seven gears instead of six.
Ford’s been busy building F-150 Lightnings to fill a couple hundred pre-orders, so we’ll forgive the brand for being a little late updating their ordering info. We configured a 2021 Mustang with the EcoBoost engine and a six-speed manual and came up with a price of under $30K. That’s 310 HP and 350 lb-ft of torque under the control of your right hand and left foot. Rear-wheel drive means you can smoke the tires all day long if you have the coin.
The VW GTI is still available for under $35K. Select the S trim and a standard color (like blue) and the price is under $31K. The GTI is as refined as anything in the world at this price point.
Warranty and price. That’s why the Mitsubishi Mirage is on our list. Mitsubishi is crazy enough to offer you a manual transmission entry-level runabout with a 10-year-long powertrain warranty. Couple that with a $16K starting price and you have one of the least expensive stick-shift-equipped cars left in America. It only has 76 HP and five gears unless you count reverse, but it will get you to where you need to go.
Fun, affordable manual-transmission-equipped cars are still plentiful in America. Our list includes cars with front-wheel drive, cars with rear-wheel drive, cars with all-wheel drive, and even vehicles with a 4X4 drivetrain. One has a V6. One has three cylinders. Some are four-bangers, a few are turbocharged. Horsepower ranges from under 100 to over 300. One of them comes in at half of our maximum budget. One model offers three trims under $35K. You can’t swing a dead catalytic converter and not hit a fun and affordable stick-shift car model in 2022.
Here is a list of even more stick-shift-equipped models for 2022 that either broke the bank, or were better represented in the fun category by another vehicle based on our testing:
By our count, there are about 30 different models from more than a dozen popular brands offering manual-transmission cars in 2022.
Every trim of the Subaru WRX comes standard with a six-speed manual for 2022.
Quite the opposite. Rev-matching one’s own downshifts in a manual-equipped car is fun, if you know how to do it. The idea is to make the downshifts smoother and not upset the torque balance to the axel driving the wheels while turning. Modern cars with rev-matching have off buttons for the feature. If you want to heel and toe the car, you can. If you are tired and just want to get home from work, let the car match revs for you.
The best car to learn to drive a stick shift is one you don’t own. Burning up one’s first clutch is a right of passage among auto enthusiasts. Stripped synchros and ground gears are optional. Trust us. Buy a beater to learn how to row the gears and work the third pedal. Don’t start with a Porsche Cayman.