GRR

The best manual gearboxes

03rd June 2024
Russell Campbell

The AA has predicted a quarter of new drivers won't bother learning to drive a manual – understandable when cars as ubiquitous as the VW Golf now only come as automatics. Either way, the rise of EVs means the days of manual gearboxes are numbered. Here, though, we make a case for the silent majority who want to shift cogs themselves and extract as much enjoyment out of their cars while doing it. These are the best manual gearboxes available today. 

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Mk1 Mazda MX-5

For sheer gearshift purity, the original Mazda MX-5 could well be the best option on this list. Its action is a delightful mix of a stubby gear shifter, a short throw and a mechanical action that's an absolute delight to use, especially because it's matched to your choice of a pair of rev-hungry twin-cam four-cylinder engines The gearshift is so good that you expect it to be custom-designed for the MX-5, but in fact, it is a reworked version of the one fitted to the less-than-inspiring 929 saloon.

The MX-5 remains one of the cheapest ways to access gearchange royalty, and if you can't quite raise the price of a MK1 MX-5 – which is rapidly gaining classic status – the MK2 is mechanically identical but much cheaper. Whichever you go for, check the sills, chassis legs, and, in fact all of the car for rust. 

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Caterham Seven 360

If the Mazda MX-5 has a sweet shift for a road car, the Caterham Seven 360 has the gear change you'd expect from the classic racers inhabiting Goodwood at the weekend. Its solid metal gear knob acts like a broadband connection to the engine sending reverberations and vibrations from your fingers to your core. The shift is as tight and direct as the metaphorical rifle bolt, and it's mated to the best engine you can have in a Caterham – Ford's naturally aspirated Duratec.

That the Caterham's gear shift feels like a classic racer is no revelation; the Caterham is a classic racer for the road, based on the Lotus 7, it ignores 'luxuries' – proper doors, windows, and the like, in favour of a 500kg kerb weight and price that makes it attainable to enthusiasts willing to make some, er, small sacrifices to usability. 

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Toyota GT86

You don't need to cast aside doors and windows to get a proper sports car with an excellent manual gearbox – the Toyota GT86 ticks both boxes on a budget of less than £10,000. The Toyota is just as focused on being a sports car as the Caterham, but while the British car is committed to giving a race-car feel on the road, the Toyota exists to teach the world and its dog the art of car control past the limits of adhesion.

Admittedly, the GT86's gearshift did come in for some criticism; it could be knuckly when cold, and its ratios meant the engine briefly dropped out of its power band, although we'd be inclined to blame the gutless motor, and its famed torque dip for the latter foible. Bring it up to temperature, and the 86's gearbox is delightfully short and direct, hardwiring you emotionally to its gruff flat-four engine. 

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FK8 Honda Civic Type R

Honda could have written the rulebook on the perfect gear shift and followed it precisely for every Civic Type R it's ever built – they're all brilliant. Still, as I ran an FK8 while working for another parish, it's this model we'll focus on here. 

The FK8's gear shift had no right to live in a bog-standard hot hatch. The car's driving position was excellent, which also went for the gear shift. The roomy pedal box meant you could play the gearbox and engine in harmony. Then there's the titanium gear knob – cold in winter and too hot to use in summer, which seems to add the perfect weighting to the Type R's mechanical feel and tightly stacked ratios. Combined with the rev-hungry power delivery of the Type R's engine, the seemingly endless bite of its brakes and the beautiful mechanical interaction of its limited-slip differential, it's easy to understand why the FK8 remains one of the best-driving hot hatches ever made. 

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Toyota GR86

Okay, so we've cheated a bit by adding the GT86 and GR86 to this list, but the fact is, if your budget doesn't stretch to the newer car, you'll like the GT just fine, and if you can spend the extra dough, well, the GR is like the GT but just slightly better in every way. 

The GR shares its six-speed gearbox with the GT, but the knuckley-ness is gone when the car is cold, the throw is shorter and new synchronisers and bearings make it smoother to operate. It's also now mated to a 2.4-litre engine that is easy to keep within its power band. Factor in the excellent driving position, well-space pedals, and the responsiveness of the naturally aspirated engine, and you can use the gearbox to get a tune out of the GR like a composer directs an orchestra. 

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BMW M2

The manual-equipped BMW M2 doesn't make it onto this list because it offers excellent shift action. No, it's here because it makes a complete car of the junior M. Springy in action and mated to a cramped pedal box, the M2's six-speed manual may be, but it easily crests the level of interaction offered by the seven-speed DCT that comes as standard (you pay a £500 premium for the manual). The manual allows you to head into and out of corners, with a complete understanding of precisely what the gearbox is doing, while leaning on the hearty torque of the M2's twin-turbocharged straight-six. 

As a result, the M2 is as analogue as fast BMWs get and a car that we'll likely not see the likes of for very much longer. All of which make the dodgy looks and questionable wide-boy image easier to live with. 

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Suzuki Swift

Consensus will tell you that time is up for the small, simple, manual hatchback; Ford's stopped building the Fiesta, has the time has come for Volkswagen's Up and the Golf? Nowadays, you can only buy it with an automatic gearbox, but one company is bucking the trend – Suzuki, which has just launched the Swift hatchback with a manual gearbox. 

Now, we're not going to waste your time making a case for the Swift having a gearbox to compete with the likes of the MX-5 or Civic Type R. But while slightly long-of-throw, the Swift’s manual is well weighted and beautifully precise, giving you a direct connection to this humble hatch's heart. The Swift represents an outlier in the perceived wisdom that automatic gearboxes are what everyone wants in their vanilla hatchback, which is why you find it here.

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Porsche 911 GT3 Touring

While the Suzuki Swift represents a grassroots resistance to the automatic gearbox, we need to send in the big guns to make a proper case for the manual – and they don't come much bigger than the Porsche GT3 Touring.

The GT3 Touring represents everything we love about the 911. It looks all the better for not having the GT3's swan-neck spoiler – the downforce it produces is rarely available at road speeds anyway – allowing you to feast your eyes on the classic shape of a widebody 911. Yet you still get the GT3's beautiful natural aspirated flat-six, producing a spine-tingling sound like bottled motorsport. Match that engine to Porsche's tightly-stacked and beautifully weighted gearbox, the perfect positioning and the gorgeous finish of the shifter, the lovingly spaced pedals and the just-right driving position, and you have a manual-car package the likes of which you won't better anywhere else.  

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