Shifting gears yourself is almost becoming a bit of a lost art. A couple of months ago, we compiled a list of sports cars with manual transmissions and it was seriously short, and will get shorter when the VFII Commodore shuffles into retirement.
If you still relish the art of the perfect manual gearshift, what are your best options? A few years ago, there was a huge range of choices available, but finding one now requires a little more research. So we did, and we’ve narrowed the list down to five of the best, presented here in no particular order.
That thing about no particular order? That was a lie. This is the best three-pedal combo you can buy right now. And yes, before you ask, the six-speed manual in the 718 Boxster and Cayman is a better transmission than the seven-speed unit that 911 buyers tend not to choose. All of the key ingredients for a lovely shift are here.
The lever is tactile and relatively short of throw. Pedal placement is perfect for heel-and-toe downshifts. There’s a lovely consistency of control weighting that makes you feel utterly in tune with the car. Perfection? Not quite. The turbocharged 718 engines don’t quite offer the zingy response and aural feedback to the perfect throttle blip. But that’s about the only criticism that can be levelled.
2. Mazda MX-5
One of the best things about the current crop of great manual ‘boxes is that they tend to be bolted onto cars that don’t cost an arm and a leg to purchase. The Mazda MX-5 is a case in point. Everything about this shift is light and well-oiled in feel. You’ll find yourself guiding the lever across the gate and feeling a smidgeon of resistance as it eases into the next gear.
It’s a subtle piece of engineering that rewards a certain mechanical sympathy, an understanding of the car’s rhythmic weight transfers. Get it right and everything seems to work with you, the pace of your downshifts unweighting the car’s rear wheels with unbelievable delicacy. It’s a bit special.
Where the Mazda is all liquid fluidity, there’s a pleasantly mechanical precision to the Polo GTI’s shift. No, we’re not going to wheel out and dust down the ‘rifle bolt’ cliché because the Volkswagen’s shift isn’t like that, but there is a very Germanic reassurance to the way the lever thunks home into the next gear.
Its feels both quick and indestructible, which are two qualities that aren’t often synonymous with manual shifts. The pedal placing is well considered and, like the Mazda, you can have a lot of fun on track in a Polo GTI before the brake pedal goes long and ruins downshift precision.
If this list were a list of best manual gearboxes of all-time, the tie for first place could well have been between an EP3 Civic Type R and an S2000. Honda has form when it comes to fantastic manual gearshifts, and while the shift on the latest CTR isn’t quite up there with the old stagers, our reporters claim that it’s good for a modern car and you do get the titanium gear knob that will freeze/cremate your palm during extreme weather events.
Despite being a turbocharged unit, the Civic’s 2.0-litre lump requires frequent stirring with the stick to keep it on the boil, which is how we like our Hondas. Yes, there is a rev-matching function for downshifts but if you pride yourself on your footwork, you can override it.
The prize for the most extreme manual shift has to go to the Caterham Seven. The stubby gear lever requires some serious muscle to shift it about two millimetres up the gate and into the next gear, but that physicality matches the feel of the car, which requires heft to steer.
The pedal box is unforgiving of clodhopping feet, but the flipside of that is that the brake pedal tends to drop too low to finesse a textbook heel-and-toe, which is where a size 12 and a certain ankle flexibility can come in handy. There’s little that’s more satisfying than wringing a Caterham out on track, smashing the shifts like a pool break and listening to its 177kW 2.0-litre lump get all shouty. Old’s cool.