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EVs are clearly the future, and hands-free driving is coming as well. That progress is undeniable, but it’s countered by another industry trend. Manual transmission cars are selling like hotcakes in 2023. It seems the buying public is gaining an appreciation for three-pedal cars, even as electric vehicle sales continue to rise. On the surface, it’s hard to see what one has to do with the other. But a deeper look shines a light on a growing desire for a less sanitized driving experience.

Transmission preference is no longer about speed

Toyota GR86 Trueno Shifter
2024 Toyota GR86 Trueno | Toyota

By now, it’s no secret that automatic transmission sports cars are faster than their manual transmission cars in 2023. Whether it’s the crackling shifts of a dual-clutch automatic or the smooth speed of a torque-converter auto ‘box like the ZF-8, letting computers sort out shift timing and throttle cuts has proven a quicker route from zero to 60 time and time again.

But with EVs, that dynamic has shifted yet again. The best automatic gearbox is  no longer the optimum recipe for lightning-fast acceleration. Now, it’s all about electric power. And whether it’s full EV like the Tesla Model S Plaid, or the battery-assisted punch of the hybrid-powered Polestar 1, electrification is now the key to speed.

As such, performance-minded buyers have two options, depending on what they want. For outright pace, it’s impossible to beat the instant torque of electric power. And for an engaging experience, the three-pedal involvement of a manual Supra or even Toyota Tacoma lets drivers feel more connected to the drive.

Manual transmission cars aren’t cheaper in 2023

Toyota GR86 Trueno and the original Trueno manual sports car
Toyota Trueno heritage | Toyota

In years past, a manual transmission model would be a base-level choice. But in 2023, a manual transmission car is often a specialty option within a model lineup. And let’s be clear, automatics still rule the automotive landscape, making up over 98% of sales in 2023. But according to J.D. Power data, manual take rates have nearly doubled since 2021, despite being equal or higher on price.

As with most niche products, a small band of enthusiastic buyers are snapping up manual-transmission models almost as soon as they arrive. In speaking to an employee from Shearer Volkswagen in Burlington, Vermont, manual-equipped Jettas and GTIs don’t hang around on the dealer lot for more than a week. Oftentimes, “Customers will see our incoming inventory and reserve a test drive before the car even gets here. We don’t get many, but they’re almost always gone in the first three or four days”.

Don’t call it a comeback

While the doubling of manual car sales seems big at first, it remains just 1.9% of the greater automotive market in 2023. However, the numbers are more significant when taken model-by-model. Nearly 50% of Supra sales are manual transmission models, according to Road and Track. This came after Toyota initially declined to offer a three-pedal option for the first three years of the Supra’s lifecycle. And in the latest BMW M Cars, the M2, M3, and M4 all see a large percentage of manual models in their sales mix in 2023.

How EVs are driving the surge of manual transmission cars in 2023

GR Supra Shifter, as EVs help save the manuals
2023 Toyota GR Supra | Toyota

Like all major shifts in culture, there is a counter to the sanitized and automated EV driving experience. On the one hand, electric vehicles are presenting drivers with a new option that combines speed in luxury like no automatic transmission could manage. Drivers looking for a carefree, comfortable drive come away impressed by the smooth silence of an EV.

Meanwhile, those looking for an analog drive during the EV revolution are leaning hard in the other direction. That means a three-pedal sports car (or pickup, thanks Tacoma), for maximum engagement and a throwback driving experience. Their voices are loud enough for some automakers to experiment with simulated manuals in electric vehicles. But overall, even BMW’s M Performance division is resigned to the end of the three-pedal sports car.

Nothing sells like scarcity

In addition, as EVs continue to drive forward, many realize that the current crop of manual transmission vehicles may be the last. The manual Corvette is already dead. Volkswagen’s GTI and Golf R are next. And BMW has committed to an automatic-only BMW M lineup with its next-generation sports cars. As such, many buyers are jumping onto the manual bandwagon while they still can. At this point though, it’s a classic case of “too little, too late”.

Parents like manuals for their young drivers

Golf R manual transmission pedals
2023 VW Golf R | Volkswagen
Related Manual Supra: It Is Here, GR Supra Stans

Manual Supra: It Is Here, GR Supra Stans

In addition, a manual transmission is seen as an antidote to distracted driving for parents with young drivers. Speaking to WardsAuto, CarMax General Manager Mark Collier stated, “We’ve also heard from parents, who are car-shopping for their teens, that they find stick shifts appealing because they require the use of both hands, which may serve as a deterrent for texting while driving”.

The 2023 manual transmission car resurgence isn’t likely to stick

Despite the counterculture punching back at modern automation and electric vehicles, the manual transmission is on the chopping block. Between environmental regulations and the slim market for manuals, this generation of manual transmissions is likely one of the last. So if you haven’t already, now is the time to nab that three-pedal driving experience before it’s gone forever.