Volkswagen Golf GTI Drops the (Shifter) Ball As the Manual Mounts a Comeback in the U.S.
Imagine for a minute that you’re a Volkswagen engineer in Wolfsburg. As recently as 2018, 70% of the cars sold in your home country had manual transmissions. Though that number is declining a bit, stick shifts are still preferred by most enthusiasts. So you painstakingly engineer a fantastic manual option for cars such as the Golf GTI. But less than one percent of the ungrateful U.S. drivers go for three pedals. Most don’t even know how to drive a manual.
This is the struggle that Volkwsagen found itself in just a few years ago. As it was redesigning the Golf GTI, it had to decide whether to go through the trouble of getting a stick shift approved for the North American market. And manual sales here had been plummeting for decades. You can’t really blame VW for cancelling the GTI manual, effective for the 2025 model year. But in hindsight, they were wrong.
I know exactly what some of you are thinking: Oh great, another automotive journalist singing the praises of the holy manual transmission!
But wait one minute, I have the sales numbers to prove there is a renaissance among the “row your own” crowd. Here’s the deal, as recently as 2021 less than one percent of cars sold in the U.S. were optioned with a manual transmission. But during the 2023 model year, that number climbed to 1.7%. I know that still sounds like a sliver, but the percentage of manuals purchased practically doubled. And it may be due to the types of cars we’re buying.
The number of Mazda Miatas sold in 2023 skyrocketed, its up by over 40%. For a 30+ year old car, that’s unprecedented. There’s a surging interest in sports cars right now. Toyota’s stick shift 86 is so popular, that it is now offering a manual transmission version of the Supra. The GTI is in a unique position to capitalize on this trend, but VW dropped the (shift) ball.
The VW GTI does have some downsides. The cars I listed above are all front-engine, RWD, a traditional configuration that is making a comeback. But at the same time, the Golf has a proper rear seat, is fuel efficient, and enjoys a reputation for reliability. And until recently it was offered with a stick. It has checked all the boxes for generations of enthusiasts.
The 2025 VW Golf will be a redesign of the car’s eighth generation, which came to the U.S. in 2021. It’s currently advertised with 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft from its turbocharged 2.0-liter I4. Every 2025 Golf GTI also features VW’s IQ.Drive which includes adaptive cruise control and emergency assist braking, which VW has yet to build into a manual transmission car. So I guess that’s a silver lining.
All-in-all, VW may be kicking itself right now. During the 2023 model year, the number of U.S. Golf GTI buyers who opted for the manual transmission climbed to 50%.
If you absolutely need a brand new Golf GTI with a manual, 2024 will be your last chance to buy one. As a farewell to the stick, VW is offering every three-pedal GTI with the “380” package which includes special rims, adaptive dampers, and some special visual cues. One of those, of course, is a shifter shaped like a dimpled golf ball. Very clever, VW.
Read more about the manual transmission renaissance, or see one of the final 2024 Golf GTI manuals reviewed in the video below: