When it comes to pure fun, nothing beats rowing own your transmission as quickly as possible through the rev range. And while we adore sports cars, they can quickly result in serious civic penalties if the utmost discretion is not used behind the wheel. We are simply not that mature.
For that reason, our motorized funbox segment of choice is the compact. Hatchback, coupe, sedan . . . it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a stick shift. Some, like the Honda Civic Type R shown above, will top out over 160 mph, but most won’t, and that’s okay by us. The plain Civic sedan is just as much fun to drive hard through the twisties, setting up corners and hunting apexes, trail braking and then rolling on the throttle. The hot hatch is much faster, to be sure, but on public roads it hardly matters.
After years of hearing about the imminent disappearance of the manual gearbox, manufacturers have begun offering their bare bones models so equipped, and often at a surprisingly low price.
Let’s take a closer look at cream of the three-pedaled compacts crop.
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Starting MSRP: $19,450
Since we brought it up, let’s start with the Honda Civic. In basic sedan and coupe form, LX and Sport models use a 158-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with six-speed manual. Hatchbacks (shown above) get a stick in Sport form only, but it’s paired with a 180-horsepower 1.5-liter turbo, which is our engine of choice.
Need more cowbell? The Civic Si coupe and sedan boost horsepower to 205, at least when paired with a manual gearbox.
We find the Civic engaging to drive in almost any configuration. MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar up front and a multi-link rear end keep the wheels planted with no depreciation in ride quality.
Hands-free calling is standard in all Civics, as is basic music streaming and voice control.
Honda Civic Type R
Starting MSRP: $35,700
And also since we brought it up, this bewinged beastie is the Honda Civic Type R, the member of the Civic family most likely to land its driver in prison. There is a whopping 306 horsepower available from its 2.0-liter turbo four, sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual with adjustable automatic rev matching.
The suspension is adjustable and uses adaptive dampers to switch between comfort, sport, and track modes. And yes, track days are fully possible and encouraged: the Type R holds records at the Nurburgring, Silverstone, Magny-Cours, Spa, and many others.
All this and the Type R still offers plenty of room for passengers and almost SUV levels of cargo area. It even returns 25 mpg in the combined cycle (we’re pretty sure the combined cycle doesn’t include the Pirelli World Challenge series, though).
Starting MSRP: $18,095
The Mazda3 comes in both sedan and five-door hatchback forms, and in base Sport trim both are powered by a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter engine with 155 horsepower when paired with the six-speed manual.
While that may not sound like much (especially coming right after the CIvic Type R), the 3 is a genuine joy to drive. It feels sporting, balanced, and totally connected to the driver. The chassis, suspension, and drivetrain all work together as a single unit, instilling confidence and making empty roads a destination.
Unlike many other brands, Mazda offers a manual across the entire 3 trim range. Stepping up to the Touring and Grand Touring models ups the horsepower to 184 thanks to a 2.5-liter powerplant under the hood. The extra grunt is welcome but not necessary to driver enjoyment, while the availability of Bose 9-speaker sound and heated leather seats is pretty posh.
Voice-controlled hands-free calling and texting are standard on all models, as are Bluetooth and USB ports for syncing, steering wheel mounted controls for easy audio adjustments, and popular streaming station integration.
All Mazda3s now come with Smart City Braking which uses a laser to detect the car in front. Active between 2 and 18 mph, the system prepares the brakes to deliver maximum stopping power if a collision risk is detected. If no driver action is taken, the system reduces engine output and applies the brakes, reducing the impact or avoiding the accident altogether.
Starting MSRP: $21,845
Over multiple generations, the Volkswagen Golf has carried the torch of a driver’s car. The latest model offers spirited driving dynamics, crisp and precise steering, excellent engineering, handsome looks, and most importantly, comes with a manual transmission.
Under the hood in S and SE trims is a 1.4-liter turbo sporting 147 horsepower and an impressive 184 lb-ft of torque from just 1,400 rpm. The previous 1.8 has been retired for 2019.
Stepping up to the GTI unleashes 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft from a 2.0-liter turbo four. The hot hatch rides 0.6 inches lower than standard models and uses beefier anti-roll bars for sportier handling.
Volkswagen Golf R
Starting MSRP: $40,395
The Golf R is what happens when manufacturers listen to enthusiasts. Under the hood is a 288-horsepower version of the 2.0-liter turbo, with 280 lb-ft of torque spinning all four wheels. Large inlets up front feed air to the engine, while side skirts and a diffuser manage flow over the vehicle.
The Golf R rides on 19-inch alloy wheels and sits 0.8 inches lower than the standard model. The suspension is tuned with a modified lower control arm and model-specific rear linkage bearings to improve handling.
Even better, the R can be had in any of 40 colors. Yes, 40, some of which are heritage colors specifically designed to delight enthusiasts.
And even better than that, it comes with a six-speed manual.
Starting MSRP: $18,595
The Impreza has a deep rally heritage, and pairing a five-speed manual to the all-wheel drive and characteristically grumbly boxer engine brings out the Finn in all of us.
The 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated engine puts out 152 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. The manual transmission kicks it ol’ skool and sends the scoot to a locking center differential with a viscous coupling rather than a using an electronically-controlled variable transfer clutch. Nominal torque is 50/50 with the manual setup, with more torque going to the the wheels with the best traction.
The Impreza comes as a sedan or five-door hatchback (shown), with the standard transmission being offered in the 2.0i and 2.0i Sport models.
Don’t think buyers have to give up modern amenities to get a traditional gearbox, though. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, with Bluetooth connectivity, hands-free calling, streaming audio apps, and a rear vision camera displayed through a 6.5-inch high-def touchscreen infotainment system.
Subaru’s driver assist package is also available on all models for 2019, and adds pre-collision braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. Called EyeSight, it retails for $845.
Starting MSRP: $16,490
Kia’s fun and funky Soul can be had with a six-speed manual transmission in base form. Power comes from a 130-horsepower naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter four driving the front wheels. Economy is a respectable 27 mpg in the combined cycle.
On the inside, the Soul gets a standard five-inch touch screen, rear camera display and voice recognition on the base model for 2019.
The “Soul +” model shown above is the recipient of larger alloy wheels, fog lights, shiny grille inserts, and other exterior cues to mark its status as top of the line.
The base model, which is neither the “Soul !” nor the “Soul +” (how long will itbe before we get emojis as car names?), is a bit more spartan, with 16-inch alloy wheels, no fancy LED headlights, no red paint, and no silver diffuser at the rear.
If buyers select the base model with an automatic transmission, a base convenience package can be had for $1,200 that adds a larger infotainment system, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.
Alas, stick supporters get none of those things. However, the manual-appointed base Soul is $1,700 less that the automatic version, so that’s a “+.”
Starting MSRP: $18,545
The Jetta is all-new for 2019 and debuts with an agreeably low $18,545 starting price, even lower than last year. The new sedan is bigger in all directions than the outgoing model, with a longer wheelbase and wider stance.
The new size is sportily clad in a coupe-like roofline and has shorter overhangs front and rear. And though a sedan, 60/40 split-folding rear seats add welcome cargo room to the trunk.
A manual transmission is standard equipment in the base model, paired to the 1.4-liter turbo with 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, the same as is seen in the 2019 Golf.
Goodly standard equipment helps the base Jetta feel refined. There’s a 6.5-inch infotainment system with smartphone integration that allows phone and text features, as well as access to apps and streaming music services.
A driver assistance package is available for $450 that adds forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and rear cross traffic alert. LED lighting is standard for excellent visibility.
Toyota Corolla Hatchback
Starting MSRP: $19,900
Toyota’s all-new 2019 Corolla Hatchback has a new powertrain and rides on a new lower, longer, and wider wheelbase than its predecessor, the Corolla iM. It’s a stiffer platform that allows the suspension to perform better, a boon to sporting drivers who want to row through the standard six-speed manual gearbox.
The new engine under the hood is a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter putting down 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. The six-speed has a rev matching feature that smooths shifts both up and down, instilling driver confidence. The powertrain works well with the chassis; it feels balanced and considered.
Toyota’s standard safety suite has been upgraded for 2019 to version 2.0. New lane tracing tracks the center of the lane and provides hands-on steering assist. Road sign assist recognizes signs and alerts the driver. A pre-collision system with pedestrian detection in included, as is lane departure alert with steering assist.
On the inside, 8-inch touchscreen connectivity is standard, with Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility. Hands-free phone capability and voice recognition are, of course, included.