In the absurd, crossover-heavy, increasingly-electrified car landscape of 2023, a small yet mighty voice comes rumbling through the storm. Against all possible odds, the manual gearbox is making a sales comeback. Who had this on their 2023 bingo card?
JD Power statistics shared by the Wall Street Journal claim that market share of new vehicles with manual gearboxes rose by a third in 2022 from 2021, and has risen roughly another 41.7 percent in the first few months of 2023. Granted, at 1.7 percent take rate, the manual gearbox is a very small fish in a very big pond, but look at it this way: Only 43 models sold in 2022 were even available with manual gearboxes, the majority of which had a perfectly competent automatic option. We’re talking a fraction of the sales of 43 new vehicle models making up 1.2 percent of all vehicles sold last year. That’s a pretty big deal.
It’s not just new cars that are seeing a manual boost. Hop over to your used car classified site of preference, punch in an enthusiast car available with two or three pedals, and you’ll likely see that manual models command a premium. One of the most outrageous examples of this comes courtesy of a Hagerty valuation report claiming that manual Lamborghini Murcielago examples carry a 35 percent premium over two-pedal models. For context, that single-clutch automated manual E-gear gearbox carried a $10,000 premium over the gated manual on new 2007 cars according to Car And Driver.
However, it’s not just the exotics of the world seeing a manual tax on their heads. Manual examples of the BMW 3-Series are more coveted than their automatic counterparts; manual Mazda MX-5s are more desirable to spec racers and weekend warriors than slushbox roadsters are; manual W204 Mercedes-Benz C300s often carry a premium over automatic cars despite having genuinely awful shifter feel. The manual tax is seemingly everywhere, but who is driving it? When in doubt, blame the kids.
Yes, the Wall Street Journal claims that it’s not collectors or Luddites propping up the manual gearbox, it’s Generation Z. Admittedly, it has some strong statistics to back this up. Acura claims that more than half of manual Integra buyers are between the ages of 18 and 43, so Gen Z is playing some role there. What’s more, Mazda claims that roughly a quarter of manual Miata buyers last year were between the ages of 18 and 35, or roughly eight years of the Gen Z demographic and a decade’s worth of Millennials. Mini commissioned a survey of 1,000 people and found that, “Impressively, two thirds (67%) of younger respondents aged 18-34 were most eager to learn to drive a manual transmission car.” While I could see the data set being skewed as respondents could be more likely to be enthusiasts, that’s compelling stuff.
As a fellow youth raised on Superbad, Odd Future, and Skate 3, anecdotal experience indicates that there’s truth behind the numbers. Far and away, the most popular question asked about my 2004 Infiniti G35 while I was in college was if it was a six-speed. Fellow students with even a modicum of automotive interest were stoked when I said yes. An unnatural two-thirds of my rented student house driveway featured three-pedal cars, and my one housemate who didn’t have a manual bought a brand new manual Elantra GT after graduation.
However, I reckon it’s more than just youthful exuberance spurring a manual gearbox resurgence. People of all ages can appreciate that manual gearboxes are just fun. Most everything is better when it requires mechanical involvement. You don’t see James Bond fumbling for a capacitive-touch button to fire an ejector seat, do you? No, it’s a purposeful switch, one that’s likely satisfying to use even if it doesn’t result in a baddie being voluntold into the space program. It’s the same thing with watches: I have an ancient mechanical watch that’s a bit rubbish to tell time on due to the somewhat tacky pearl face, but take it off, flip it over, and all the tiny gears and springs working away behind a sapphire back are enough to spark joy once I wind the watch up. Manual gearboxes are involving, theatrical, and unabashedly mechanical. You are the transmission control unit, ergo the gearbox will never feel dull or slow so long as you keep your skills sharp. Toe on brake pedal, dip clutch, stab throttle with heel, downshift, release clutch pedal and effervescent rush of endorphins. Even though the latest automatic gearbox are objectively fantastic, paddle shifters will never feel this good.
In a world where electrification is seemingly just around the corner, your last chance to buy a brand new car with a manual gearbox could be right here, right now. Sure, people 100 years from now will eventually look at us three-pedal rowing club members the same way most of us look at steam car enthusiasts, but we’ll all be dead by then so sod whatever opinions your great-great-grandchildren will have. Whether new or used, life is short, get the manual. I know I did.
(Photo credits: Toyota, Bring A Trailer, Mini, Thomas Hundal)
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