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)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
Behold, Someone Has Manual-Swapped A Ferrari 458 Speciale
The 276 Horsepower 2022 Hyundai Elantra N Is A Blue Collar Sports Sedan Revelation
The New BMW M2 Is A Kick-Ass Manual Performance Coupe With A Surprisingly Attainable Price
Toyota Announces A Manual Transmission For The GR Supra, Finally Giving The Internet What It Wants
Why My Only Car Is A ‘Boring’ High-Mileage BMW 325i
Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.
I’ve driven AT cars three times in my life and none of them were a satisfactory experience for me.
The first time was a S class mercedes which a friend let me drive, and while it was a very comfy and nice drive on a regular motorway, i was scared as hell on local road with constant up/downhills, since i have never used a car with paddles, and the owner, who just allowed me to drive it for 30 miles, just told me to use the brakes. Not being able to downshift on a 2+ ton monster was minus on what it was being a nice experience.
The second one was a rental toyota verso, the experience was shit, it might be a sensible choice for moving people between cities on motorways, but not to drive on twisty roads as a tourist.
The last one was an Audi Q5 which i was upgraded from an AWD Skôda (an Octavia Scout?) I rented in Austria. Once I figured how to switch between the different P, D,R,N, etc settings with the “stick substitute” it had in the same place where a regular stick should be, the ride was nice. The car had no troubles with 25% uphill sections, it was just weird seeing on the console seeing constantly flipping the gear which was being used at the time. I drove it for two days, and didn’t want to mess with the settings, probabily it would have felt better with a regular stick.
Now i drive a non turboed subaru, and the last time i brought to the dealer for changing the timing belt, i saw that in the current lineup, only the top of the line or the most barebone versions are being sold as manuals, and the rest are CVTs. It makes me sad thinking that I’ll have either to look for an used one, or cling to my current car for a long time, if i want to keep driving a stick non-Haldex AWD car. Longitudinal Audis are way out of my league.
I taught my oldest son recently to drive a manual on my ’21 Corolla 6MT. A couple weeks ago we finally bought him his first car and the used market being what it is we took what we could get. Alas no manual trans for him. From time to time laments this and tells me how much he misses driving a stick. Makes me smile every time.
Damn! The kids are getting wise to the joys of manuals and driving up the prices. Just like they did with cheap beer – Stag, PBR, Hamms, etc. my buddy’s dad was a HUGE PBR fan, and the local bar always kept some on hand just for him as it wasn’t a big seller. He goes in one day, and they are all out because “some young hipsters drank it all”. Here we go again..haha
And yet Jeep is on the verge of *another* recall on their clutch because they designed it so poorly that it likes to cause fires.
Anyway, I contributed to the 2022 numbers. Hopefully manufacturers will keep the good times rolling.
my brother tells me about half the cars in Australia are still manuals.
In South Africa everyone I know drives manual, and most non-luxury new cars are manual.
My usual manual drive here is a 2003 WRX with a 6-speed STI manual, which is fun to drive but horrid to commute with. The rental car in SA, a Toyota Starlet (rebranded Suzuki Baleno), had a remarkably pleasant manual which scarcely bothered me at all in heavy commute traffic. After driving the WRX I’d forgotten how easy and simple a manual can be. It was also a real pleasure to get downshifts on demand in the mountains, instead of waiting patiently for the automatic to catch up or kicking it hard in the accelerator..