The demise of the manual gearbox is as inevitable as it is sad. The rise of the dual-clutch transmission (and the dramatic improvements made to torque converters) has made the decision to go auto a no-brainer for many. Aside from a negligible difference in weight, the modern two-pedal alternative delivers better efficiency, quicker performance and requires less effort. Win-win. As turbochargers have become more widespread, too, shift strategies can be optimised to avoid lag in a way that’s never quite possible with a manual. And all the while the humble six-speed (or potentially seven) has stayed broadly as it was; decent rev-matching tech is probably the biggest advancement made over the last 20 years, during which time the automatic has entirely reinvented itself.
Consequently, it has become more popular - meaning buyers simply don’t go for manuals like they used to. More often than not these days, they don't have a choice. We’re at the point now where it’s currently not possible to order a Golf GTI with a stick in the UK (don't expect it to return, either), and BMW reckons 90 per cent of new M2 sales will have the automatic gearbox. Even those that persist (kudos, Porsche) - typically expect the flappy paddle option to be favoured by the majority, at least in the UK. Probably most consider it a side issue against a backdrop of wider concerns, and with improved economy and lower emissions a moving target, they will continue to wave cheery-bye to the clutch pedal en masse. Which makes for the worst kind of self-fulfilling snowball.
But it's not time for black armbands just yet. Thanks chiefly to the enthusiast-led market, some carmakers have soldiered on. And not just begrudgingly either: there is still a corner of the market that prides itself in continually refining the manual to the point where operating it becomes a source of considerable happiness. And it's not just the three we assembled in West Sussex: honourable mentions go to the Mazda MX-5 which has always had one of the sweetest manual shifts around, and that’s as true in 2023 as it was in 1993; the best gearbox of the three for the Lotus Emira is its six-speed, too; and as others fall by the wayside, so Hyundai persists with a very good DIY transmission in its very good hot hatches - both i20 N and i30 N come heartily recommended. As do the various iterations of the Porsche 718 and 911.
For today, however, we're focusing on the GR86, Civic Type R and M2. Not quite the good, the bad and the ugly, but not a conventional triple test either - more a day-long appreciation of what their respective transmissions bring to the table. And there’s really no better place to start than the GR86. You don't need to move an inch to know where Toyota cut the cloth with its returning rear-drive sports car. As ever, the small details have been sweated. So acute is the positioning that your left hand and foot ought to locate the lever and clutch instantly; the former isn't far from the wheel (topped with a small, unpretentious, unassuming gearknob that feels a million bucks) and the latter offers just enough springy resistance to chime with the low weight, low slung nature of the car.
Like mostly everything else about the GR86, the gearbox takes what was already pretty good in the GT86 and makes it tangibly better. There’s no longer that reluctance when cold, the shift sharp and seamless from the get-go. You’d swear the throw was a little shorter and the weight just that bit more satisfying, too. The joy of the GR is that it’s always felt like an 86 to 110 per cent effort, and that extends to the gearbox. It’s very familiar, but also meaningfully improved. And things were far from bad before.
Of course, an even better manual in an even better Toyota sports car results in a truly wonderful driving experience. The ratios are short and to the point - second is done by 60, the change-up buzzer for third is blaring at 80 - which, combined with the extra fizz of the newly enlarged flat-four, makes straight-line acceleration a pleasure like it never used to be. And you’ll never, ever tire of stomping on a properly firm brake pedal, blipping a downshift, and feeling an agile, front-engined, rear-drive sports car frisk its way through a corner. In case we haven't said it enough, the GR86 is an absolute delight - the only pity is we can’t have more of them (did we mention that?). Destined to be a lesser-spotted icon, then - but an icon all the same.
So it says a lot about what Honda has achieved with the FL5 Civic Type R that it might be an even more enjoyable from a manual gearbox perspective. Cars with the big red ‘H’ on the front do have some form in this regard, sure, but its current solution is genuinely sublime. Everything that was good in the Toyota seems another level here, from the cool-to-the-touch gearknob to a throw seemingly as short as a sequential’s. Yet there’s mechanical joy here, too, each gear thunking home to its indent and shift lights chiming in fairly early to make even short shifting exciting.
It feels like such a strong transmission, too, as Honda manuals so often do. This press demo now has 14,000 (presumably quite fairly rugged) miles under its 19-inch wheels, and this Civic feels better than those at launch did, nicely bedded in and with an unerring precision to the shift. This really is one you’ll do for the sake of it, up and down and through every single ratio, just for how good it feels. Perhaps the only slight irritation is a rev-match that takes too much effort to turn off; granted, it’s one of the better systems out there, but with such a perfectly honed manual gearbox it’d be rude not to get your own technique and coordination in order. It’ll happily oblige matching road speed to engine speed into first if you really must because clutch, gears and throttle response are all working in such glorious sync. Even without the uber-crisp throttle response of the Toyota.
Notably, the Civic Type R has never been offered in the UK with anything other than a six-speed manual. For this generation more than any other it’s easy to imagine the case for a DCT being made somewhere along the line because this FL5 is more capable and faster (not to mention more expensive) than ever before. Paddles would mean getting on those monster brakes even later, switching gears right at the limiter - where this 2.0-litre turbo definitely feels its best, as a Honda should - and more easily manipulating it with left-foot braking. However, at no point during our time with the car is the thought of switching out the manual even countenanced, so perfectly does it complement otherworldly traction, fine steering and unflappable damping. It’s a hot hatch brimming with the highest calibre components, and a seamlessly integrated six-speed manual remains the cherry on top.
‘Seamlessly integrated’ is not how anyone would describe the manual gearbox of the M2. That unmistakeably spindly BMW lever sprouts out of the dash like a weed on a Wentworth green, unexpected and unwelcome in pristine surroundings. As enthusiasts, it’s hard not to smirk knowingly at such a thing protruding in a 2023 BMW M car, though it’s easy to imagine a more casual buyer being put off by how it jars with a tech masterpiece of a cabin (assuming you like screens). If, indeed, the dealer even has a manual M2.
Driving it won’t initially help the cause, either, with pedals offset to the right, and the powertrain chuntering if precisely the right mix of clutch and revs isn’t employed. Not to mention the sort of rubbery, knuckly feel from the lever that doesn't seem that many generations removed from your Dad’s old 3 Series. Experience if back-to-back with a GR86 and it appears deeply anachronistic (and not all that enjoyable), a modern marvel of an M car seemingly hobbled with a 20th-century gearbox. And not a particularly great one, either.
Stick with it, though, because that mismatch is the making of the M2. Especially with the regular seats, meaning your left hamstring doesn’t hit a bump on the carbon mound every time. As this G87 generation has inevitably matured with so much borrowed from the M3 and M4, so the six-speed reintroduces just a bit of that old-school character that has been notable for its absence elsewhere. Sure, the clutch remains long and the bite vague, but having to think about the process - i.e. to choose every gear, every time, not just when you fancy a go on the paddles - adds another entire dimension to the experience. One where you're going slower, but with a bigger grin on your face.
Mostly because it means you get to tangle with that mighty straight-six. Finding third from first (or just pulling away in it by mistake) and feeling the twin-turbo 3.0-litre haul its way through every rev from idle to redline feels appropriately enlivening, power building all the way to 7,200rpm. A stick and a clutch encourage a bit of misbehaviour in an M car, too, whether that’s pulling away with a few too many revs and a bit of lock, or punching through gears as fast as you dare like a proper old touring car driver. Both are good ways to brighten up your day.
More than the other two, the BMW benefits from rev match technology, making those wonky pedals and somewhat mushy shift feel less of a hindrance. Even the proudest of heel-and-toe heroes might be tempted to concede that handing over a task to technology which seems more faff than joy is no bad thing. Especially as it duly nails a rasping downshift every time, which means you can focus on the M2’s good bits. And not trying to coordinate pedals with shift actually makes the gear change seem slicker than first thought.
Elsewhere, those good bits include body and wheel control to make the old M cars blush (despite the additional timber), huge but not undefeatable traction - and, yes, that rampant, indefatigable performance. Predictably, an automatic probably does suit what BMW was trying to achieve with this M2 more than a manual - where the opposite is true for the Honda and Toyota - but in a world of perfect performance flagships, a flawed six-speed M car is a heroic creation virtually by default. It's 2023 and there’s a 460hp, rear-drive BMW with a clutch pedal available to anybody with the wherewithal to buy it. As it did with the M3 and M4, BMW could just as easily (and probably justifiably) said no manual M2 this time around, because not that many found homes before. And we know what the future holds. In many ways, it's the car that encapsulates both sides of the two/three pedal debate. Sometimes simultaneously.
Not that we're heading toward a clear winner. All three are too different for the PH podium to be wheeled out. That being said, if we're pinning medals on things for showing the manual gearbox in its best light (as the light fades) all three nail the brief. Sure, you wouldn't seek out the M2's bony solution if it were manacled to a four-pot - but attached to a fire-breathing straight-six and a boisterous chassis, the car celebrates so much of what we’ve loved about M cars for so long. Having three pedals to get to grips with instead of two ensures the sanctity of that link to the good old days in a way the eight-speed never could.
Although if it's lingering affection for the 'good old days' that brought you here, then the GR86 should be your takeaway. To say that Toyota sat down and brainstormed all that was good about classic sports cars - revvy engine, lovely manual gearbox, engaging chassis - then added Isofix, CarPlay and heated seats, seems trite now that it couldn't simultaneously figure out how many it should build to satisfy demand once it had perfected the formula. But it did, and it has, and the GR86 is living proof (in case you needed it) that quite often the very best cars are the least complicated ones. Right down to transmission choice.
Nevertheless, it's surely fitting to end with the Civic. Because if any niche is going to persist with manuals, it's comparatively low-volume sports cars. The hot hatch, on the other hand, as a class, seems to be heading for auto-only status quicker than you can say 'lithium-ion'. So it's heartening to acknowledge that Honda - a firm which seems desperate to align with sensible shoes everywhere else in its range - has stuck to its guns and demonstrated what can be achieved with continual honing and development. From the first turbo Type R to this one, Honda hasn’t distracted itself with automatic gearboxes, four-wheel drive or three optional wheel sizes; it’s been engineering the very best 2.0-litre, front-drive, six-speed hatchback it possibly could. The result, we're happy to report for posterity, isn’t far from manual gearbox nirvana.
SPECIFICATION | 2022 TOYOTA GR86
Engine: 2,387cc, flat-four
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 234@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@3,700rpm
0-62mph: 6.3 seconds
Top speed: 140mph
SPECIFICATION | 2023 HONDA CIVIC TYPE R GT (FL5)
Engine: 1,996cc, four-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 329@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@2,200-4,000rpm
Top speed: 170mph
SPECIFICATION | 2023 BMW M2 (G87)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo, straight-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 460@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,650-5,870rpm
Top speed: 155mph (177mph with optional M Driver’s Pack)
Weight: 1,700kg (DIN)
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