In your quest for better fuel economy and more value, don't overlook the benefits of a manual transmission. In our tests, we've found that a stick shift can improve gas mileage by a notable 2 to 5 mpg, compared with an automatic transmission, and can cut a car's price by $800 to $1,200.
Manual transmissions also improve acceleration, sometimes significantly. That can be a welcome benefit with a smaller engine. And many drivers find driving with a stick more engaging and fun, although that can depend on the car.
We bought several manual transmission equipped vehicles of different types and ran them through our fuel economy and acceleration tests. Then we compared them with similar automatic-equipped versions that we'd previously tested. (An exception: We compared the Mini Cooper manual with the automatic Clubman version, which is a bit longer and heavier, though it has the same engine.)
Of course, there are disadvantages to choosing a manual transmission:
- Manual transmissions are available on only a relatively few models, which narrows your choices. They are typically found on small cars and sports cars.
- Manuals require more skill and experience to operate well. For example, a car with a manual transmission is harder to get under way when stopped on an uphill (although some cars, such as the Mini and Subaru, come with a helpful hill-holder feature).
- Congested traffic conditions require a lot of shifting and working the clutch pedal.
- Because relatively few buyers are choosing manual transmissions, the car could be harder to sell later.
A manual transmission can deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. But there can be big differences in how the shifter and clutch feel and operate, so try before you buy. The manual Focus reduces noise by lowering engine revs. But the manual transmissions in the xD and the Forester had rubbery, vague-feeling shifters, which detracted from the driving experience. We also found that the Scion's awkward driving position is aggravated by having to operate a clutch pedal.
Remember, despite a manual transmission's advantage, you can sometimes do better by buying a different model altogether. For example, at 32 mpg overall, an automatic Toyota Corolla still beats a manual 29-mpg Focus.
||Price (as tested) Fuel economy
|Fuel economy (overall mpg)
|Acceleration, sec. (0-60 mph)
|Chevrolet Sonic LTZ/LT
|Hyundai Accent SE/GLS
|Mazda 3 i Touring