It doesn't matter the era, driving enthusiasts have always wanted automobiles willing to play along when the mood strikes. That has traditionally meant something with a manual transmission. As any car guy can tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than rowing the gears of a close-ratio, five- (or six-) speed box. If you don’t understand what this means, the enthusiast driver has traditionally regarded you as the enemy of fun, one of those “lazy” drivers who prefers to slap it into “D” and let an automatic do all the work for you.
Automatics have long eroded the market for manuals, but recent technological developments have only further threatened the manual transmission. Dual-clutch automatics and automatic manual transmissions have been increasingly deployed in sports cars, and they’re even winning converts among the enthusiast crowd. The good news for traditional lovers of manual transmissions is that the ones left in the market are as good as they’ve ever been. Here’s a look at some of the best.
The other ongoing theme when talking about drivers' cars is handling, something the Mini has in spades, due to its small size. But let's not discount a lively powertrain for entertainment value. The turbocharged 1.6-liter Mini Cooper S has a wide powerband that tops out at 172 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, with a short-duration “overboost” to 192 lb-ft that provides a real kick in the seat. A tachometer lashed to the steering column gives you the cues on when to shift the slick six-speed manual, and you’ll need it. The little four-cylinder revs so quickly once the turbo is on the boil that you can often find yourself banging against the rev limiter if you don’t pay close attention. Good thing that the Cooper S makes it easy to lose yourself in the driving experience, with a responsive chassis that provides plenty of feedback through both the steering wheel and the seat.
Plenty of power and handling exist in other cars, too, but none have the neo-retro charm of the Mini's distinctive styling. The car is a four-wheeled uniform for a legion of driving fanatics. It's not uncommon to see Mini drivers waving at each other as they pass, and the multitude of customization options means that your Mini can be an accurate extension of yourself. The Mini Cooper S may be small, and at $22,300 it’s not expensive, but it’s a premium car and feels like a million bucks even when you're not trying out rally-driver moves. Despite its whimsical hatchback appearance, the Cooper S is one of the best sports cars on the market.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
It may have an affordable price and only modest power, but the Miata is as serious a driver's car as they come. While the MX-5's 2.0-liter four cylinder isn't a fire-breathing V8, the 167 horsepower it serves up is plenty, offering a deep well of fun and even allowing you to get you into some trouble if you push it too hard. This is a car that does its best to make you a better driver, and part of that is its superb six-speed manual transmission. With short, crisp throws and a stubby shifter that feels like it came from an aftermarket racing catalog, there’s probably not a better manual available, at any price. MSRPs range from $22,960 to $28,400, making the MX-5 as affordable as it is fun.
The MX-5’s calling card is its deft handling, and from behind the wheel, it definitely makes you feel like a hero. The car’s low weight is distributed in perfect balance with a similarly low center of gravity. This inherent lightness also lets the engine deliver thrills without gulping fuel, delivering 22-mpg city, 28-mpg highway. That only adds to the MX-5’s affordability, but don’t get us wrong, this is no cheap car. An optional power retractable hardtop and a nicely appointed leather package can make the MX-5 into a plush ride. But even the base model is an outstanding value, just as it has been for over twenty years. There's an entire racing series devoted to the Miata, for crying out loud, and if that's not the mark of a first-class sports car, what is?
The obvious Mustang to pick might seem like the V8-powered GT. There's something to be said for the fist-to-the-mouth wallop of Ford's new 5.0-liter V8, but the bigger news is still this year’s new V6, a steal at $22,145. The ancient 4.0-liter V6 the Mustang shared with the Ford Ranger has finally been deep-sixed in favor of a modern engine, a 3.7-liter V6 that delivers 305 horsepower, a number that's 75 horsepower brawnier than the original 5.0 V8 that became famous in the ’80s. That healthy horsepower is joined by an equally eyebrow-raising 29 mpg highway rating for the six-speed manual. (Choosing the six-speed automatic nets you two extra miles-per on the highway, a feat Ford is touting as the first-ever for a 300-horsepower vehicle.)?
If it were all about the engine, the V6 Mustang wouldn't be as noteworthy, but with the optional Performance Package, you get all the good stuff underneath, too. The lighter engine lets a suspension borrowed from the Mustang GT (and even a piece or two from the Shelby GT500) carve asphalt like a racecar. With the suspension upgrades and near-ideal weight balance, this Mustang can hang with some very big dogs when the roads get kinky. A quick and precise chassis, looks that turn it into a conversation piece, and the best interior in its class add up to a giant-killer. Forget calling this just a pony car, a Performance Package-equipped Mustang V6 is a full-fledged sports car like never before.
In terms of purity, the Lotus Elise is about as distilled a driving experience as you'll find without going fully off the deep end with an exo-skeletal car like the Ariel Atom. Elemental, with an interior that doesn't waste time with too much carpet or padding, the Elise's driving environment is a modern sculpture rendered in exposed aluminum. The lack of creature comforts makes driving the Elise an assault on the senses. Sound insulation is in short supply, but the perfect control relationships mean you won’t mind the noise, vibration and harshness as much as you’ll revel in them. Driving an Elise means your palms thrum with direct feedback through a steering rack that's chattier than a tweener with a cell phone, making the car feel as surgically attached as that phone is to a pre-teen ear.
The knock on British cars has always been their unreliability, but Lotus has worked that out by going right to the source of some of the world's most reliable vehicles, putting a Toyota powerplant into the middle of the Elise. The standard 1.8-liter engine's 189 horsepower is no joke, and a six-speed, close-ratio transmission is the proper way to lay the power down. A targa-style roof panel affords the wind in your hair (or tall people to even fit) and makes the visceral Elise even more exhilarating. With a curb weight of less than 2,000 pounds and a starting price tag of $47,250, the price per pound ratio may be high, but so is the value, as this is a true driver's car that you can never outgrow.
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder
An "entry level" Porsche does not exist. The Boxster may be considered by many to be such a car, but it's just as much a Zuffenhausen masterpiece as the classical 911. In fact, many may consider the rigid chassis and mid-engine layout of the Boxster to be the better of the two. Combining the open-air driving experience with the euphonic flat-six snarl everyone loves, it may well be the perfect Porsche. The top of the line model is the new-for-2011 Boxster Spyder. Heavy use of aluminum and some trick pieces – like a new top -- allowed Porsche to shed some 176 pounds from the package, making the Spyder a lighter, faster car. Less is only a bit more, as the Spyder carries a price tag of just $3,200 more than the Boxster S’s $58,000.
The 3.4-liter flat-six in the Spyder makes 320 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, and it’s mated to Porsche’s excellent six-speed manual transmission. The increase of 10 horses and seven lb-ft over the Boxster S helps 60 mph to arrive in five seconds flat, six tenths faster than in the Boxster S. Porsche claims a 166 mph top speed in the Spyder. A lowered suspension and lightweight wheels help improve its handling, and seats borrowed from the 911 GT2 better the interior. Like other Porsches, the Spyder offers plenty of customization opportunities and a long options list, one of the many reasons Porsche owners have so much enthusiasm for their favored marquee.