Analog driving fun can still be yours for less than the price of a well-specced Minivan.
Despite the proliferation of automatics in many cars these days, manual transmissions have always been part of the motoring landscape in the US. In fact, some European models were built in three pedal form just to satisfy US demand. Cars like the manic V10 M5 were only ever offered as manuals stateside and even the twin-turbo M5 and M6 models could be specced with a stick shift up until very recently.
Premium manufacturers like Jaguar and Porsche have also re-introduced manual options on some models to satisfy enthusiast demand but some have decided to cancel them altogether. Of course, most of our homegrown performance cars can be optioned with manual shifters. But not everyone has $100,000 to blow on a sports car. Luckily there are some great alternatives lower down the pricing scale and we have selected some of the best sub $35k manual sporty cars currently on sale.
One of the best handling front-wheel-drive hatchbacks ever, the latest 306-hp Civic Type R is also perfectly capable of doing the school and shopping runs in between track days. Purists who initially bemoaned the loss of the manic naturally aspirated engines in the older Type Rs have seen since the light, especially in this second-generation turbo Type R.
While it may not rev to the red line with quite the same enthusiasm, the power and torque levels are way higher and it is very linear for a turbocharged powerplant. The base car comes in at £300 below our budget and while AWD competitors may be quicker away from the lights, the Type R counters with superb handling and chassis dynamics.
While the base 101hp Fiat 500 may not be the sportiest car on the roads but the 160-hp Abarth versions offer plenty of pace and driving fun for the money. Aside from the aggressive visual add-ons, the Abarth models also get upgraded KONI shocks, performance suspension, uprated 5-speed gearbox and beefier brakes. For your $21,000 you also get a full-day Abarth track experience at the Bondurant Racing School.
The 124 Spider may borrow most of its componentry from the Mazda Miata but it has its own character thanks to a unique suspension setup and the decision to use Fiat’s own 1.4-liter turbocharged engines instead of the naturally aspirated Mazda units.
There are pros and cons to both, the 124 Spider does offer more torque low down which makes for quicker overtaking while the Miata is at its best at higher revs. The engine is, in fact, the same as the one found in the Abarth 500. Producing the same 160 hp in the base 124 Classica, the 124 Abarth adds 4hp to the total. Best stick to the base model here, at $25,000 before options it offers good value for money.
What is the difference between the BRZ and the Toyota 86? Aside from a few badges, not very much. Yet the BRZ seems to be less popular, perhaps because the car itself has more to do with Toyota’s history than anything Subaru has done in the past, aside from that boxer motor.
Nevertheless, the BRZ offers the same sweet handling characteristics and has just about enough power from its 205-hp 2.0-liter boxer inline-four. At a starting price of around $26,000 you will have plenty left over for the short throw shifter, massive rear wing, and STI performance springs.
The Golf GTI started the hot hatch class and has offered a mix of speed, practicality and daily usability that regularly sees it top the competition. The unassuming exterior looks are perfect for the more introverted types and while the Autobahn trim is a hefty $35,070 and offers a massive spec list, the base car at $26,415 is conspicuously good value.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine makes a decent 220 hp but its lag-free 258 lb-ft of torque makes it feel a lot quicker than you might expect.
If you don’t need the interior space offered by the GTI and spend a lot of time driving around in tight city streets then the 228-hp Mini John Cooper Works (JCW) may be the just the thing. You can have a JCW Mini in 2-door Hardtop, Convertible, Clubman and even Countryman body styles so there is practicality in the range if you need it. The 2-door Hardtop starts at $31,900 which leaves you some cash aside for the huge range of customizations on offer.
Our second Subaru on the list is the AWD WRX. It too features a 2.0-liter boxer engine as you would find in a BRZ but it makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque thanks to the addition of a turbocharger. At a base price of $27,195 it costs about the same too, but offers a whole lot more straight-line performance and is way more capable over slippery roads.
It may be more of a blunt performance instrument but that has its benefits too. The full-fat WRX STI with its 310-hp 2.5-liter turbo motor and driver controlled center differential is a hair over £35,000, at $36,595 in base trim, so it doesn’t quite make the cut.
The BMW 230i is a rear-wheel-drive sports coupe that comes equipped with a 248-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine and the sort of handling that BMW built their reputation on. If you can refrain from ticking any of the options (except for the no-cost 6-speed manual transmission) then the base model comes in at $35,300. That may seem like a lot for a compact two-door car, but it is well-built and rather quick despite its entry-level status.
The cheapest Mustang you can buy undercuts the 230i by almost $10,000 and offers similar straight-line performance if not quite the same level of cornering ability. In the real world you will probably appreciate the larger interior dimensions and extra cash in your pocket more than ultimate cornering prowess anyway.
The 310-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder may lack the aural drama of the V8s but it is far more economical and there are plenty of tuners out there happy to crank the power levels way higher for a reasonable outlay. If you really must have the V8, and we would too, then the 460-hp 5.0-liter GT Fastback comes in at $35,355.
The 2018 Chevy Camaro is another great sports car that can still be had with a manual transmission. You are spoilt for choice here as there are four engine options and all can be had with a 6-speed manual, although only the 275hp 2.0-liter turbo and 335hp 3.6-liter V6 come in below £35k.
Both are quick enough for most needs and at a starting price of $26,900, the turbocharged 2.0-liter car provides a lot of bang for the buck. Its 295 lb ft of torque also beats the V6s 284 lb ft effort, so in-gear acceleration times should be marginally quicker too.