Is There Still Life for the Manual Transmission?

Fans of manuals are sticking with their favorite gearboxes.

Cream-colored Mazda MX-5 Miata parked in garageMazda

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Recent analyses of consumer behavior suggest manual-transmission vehicles might be enjoying a small renaissance. Research firm J.D. Power found that in 2023 manual-transmission vehicles, also known as stick shifts, have so far constituted 1.7% of all new-vehicle purchases, compared with 1.2% in 2022 and 0.9% in 2021. Online vehicle marketplace Autotrader reported that there was a 13% bump in viewers looking at manual-transmission vehicles in 2023 compared with 2022.

Industry analysts at publications including The Wall Street Journal and Robb Report attributed the rise in stick-shift sales to younger buyers, many of whom belong to Generation Z.

Red Nissan Versa parked in front of metal and concrete structuresNissan

Manuals Are Still Hanging On

As of mid-2023, you can order a manual gearbox in approximately 30 makes and models. These range from rugged SUVs such as the Jeep Wrangler to sporty models such as the BMW M4.

In rare cases a manual is the only gearbox available. Both the Honda Civic Si and Civic Type-R are sold exclusively with six-speed manual transmissions.

According to Acura, Honda's luxury brand, 25% of people who buy a manual-transmission Acura Integra are between the ages of 18 and 34, suggesting newer drivers might have more enthusiasm for operating a stick shift.

Red Mazda MX-5 Miata parked near water-facing overlookMazda

MX-5 Miata and Mini to the Rescue

Manual gearboxes remain available in a few budget-friendly small cars, such as the Nissan Versa, and in sporty versions of some mainstream models. For example, in its 2023 model year, Volkswagen gives drivers the option of manual gearboxes on its performance-tuned Golf GTI and Golf R models. Similarly, you can get a stick-shift Hyundai Elantra if you opt for the 276-hp Elantra N for about $34,000.

The chirpy Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster is another vehicle that bucks the dominance of the automatic transmission. According to Mazda USA, customer interest in the Miata's six-speed manual is high, and more than 60% of all Miatas were equipped with a manual gearbox for the 2022 model year. Additionally, of the Miata's manual buyers, approximately 25% were between 18 and 35 years old, according to the automaker.

To promote the fundamentals of driving a manual transmission, the Mini Manual Driving school was recently launched by automaker Mini. Held at the BMW Group Performance Center in Thermal, California, the program targets newcomers to manual gearboxes as well as experienced drivers looking to hone their shifting skills.

Silver mini with black racing stripes parked near pier with sailboats on the water in backgroundMini

Don't Blame EVs

The growing field of electric vehicles isn't helping the cause of drivers who prefer stick-shift cars. Today's EVs have automatic transmissions, often with a single-speed gearbox.

Still, all may not be lost. Several automakers, including Toyota and its luxury brand Lexus, say they are working on EV-compliant, multispeed transmissions that are intended to deliver some of the tactile nature and mechanical feel of a traditional manual. While they may not have a clutch pedal and are likely to have an automatic-drive mode, they could bridge the gap from one stick-shift era to the next.

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Nick Kurczewski
Nick Kurczewski is a freelance automotive journalist based in the New York metro area. With approximately 20 years of experience, he has covered all aspects of the car world, from the pit lane at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to car shows around the world, and a Zamboni lesson in Lower Manhattan. He’s also adept at providing helpful car advice and steering people towards the ideal car, truck, or SUV for their driving needs.