Outdated automotive technology often sticks around longer than many of us might suspect. The carburetor, for example, didn’t get completely shoved aside by electronic fuel injection on US-market new cars until the early 1990s. The same goes for transmissions; it was only last year that the venerable four-speed automatic—a technology that debuted with the 1940 Oldsmobiles—had its last hurrah, while the three-speed automatic stayed with us until 2002 and the two-speed managed to stay on sale until either 1973 or 1983.
The story with manual transmissions follows much the same plot. The hallowed “three-on-the-tree” column-shifted three-speed manual stayed with us until 1979 in cars and through 1987 in light trucks. Floor-shifted three-speed manuals managed to hang on until the 1981 model year cars here, and the four-on-the-floor manual remained available in new cars all the way through 1996.
Five-speed manuals began showing up in some pricey European machinery during the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn’t until the middle 1970s that American car shoppers began seeing plenty of new proletariat-grade vehicles with five-on-the-floor manuals (sadly, five-on-the-tree manuals were always extremely rare).
During the 1970s and well into the 1980s, a five-speed manual was sufficiently prestigious that many manufacturers added prominent badging to let other drivers know that you didn’t cheap out by getting a mere four forward speeds in your new car. Eventually, giant TURBO badges got the upper hand in the emblem-prestige wars.
We all know manual transmissions are on the way out in a hurry, and that the six-speed has reigned supreme in the three-pedal world for many years (the real gone cats go for the seven-speed manual, of course). The five-speed is still hanging on by its fingernails in 2021, though, and four manufacturers can sell you a new one in the United States right now.
This is just brand-new, mass-production, DOT-legal, United States-market, model-year-2021 new cars and light trucks we’re talking about here. Gray-market stuff, oddball powertrain swaps, onesy-twosy specialty builds, track cars, golf carts, that 11-wheeled thing your scary neighbor with tinfoil taped over his windows is building in his shed— none of those things count here. According to the EPA, there are just four new five-speeds remaining:
Built by Daewoo at the Changwon Assembly plant in South Korea, the most affordable trim level of the 2021 Chevrolet Spark— the LS Manual— comes with but one transmission choice: a five-speed manual. In proper manual-transmission tradition, this car is a lot cheaper with three pedals than with two: an MSRP of $14,595, versus $15,695 for the cheapest possible CVT-equipped Spark. Will the ’22 Spark keep the 5-speed? Chevy’s website seems to say yes.
The three-banger-powered Mirage got a bit of a facelift for 2021, and the entry-level ES version comes with a five-speed manual and a price tag starting at just $14,295. If you want the CVT in your new Mirage, you’ll need at least $16,220; this makes the three-pedal car a far superior deal. Some will tell you to avoid the Mirage, but I remain convinced that it’s a good way to get into a perfectly functional transportation appliance with a powerful warranty… and you need the five-speed to get the best price.
If you want a five-speed manual and it must be in a sedan, Nissan has what you seek: the 2021 Versa S! With zero extras, its MSRP starts at $14,980— a bit more than the Spark and Mirage, sure, but with nearly double the horsepower of the Mitsubishi and almost 50% more power than the
Daewoo Chevy. If you want the CVT-equipped Versa S, you’ll need to shell out at least $16,500 for the privilege. It’s like it’s 1984 again and the new Sentra costs $6,949 with a slushbox against its $5,199 five-speed sibling (that’s about $18,528 and $13,862 in inflation-adjusted 2021 bones, or clams).
American Subaru drivers have preferred manual transmissions slightly more than buyers of most other brands (or at least loathed them a bit less), and so we shouldn’t be shocked that The Company Formerly Known As Fuji Heavy Industries still lets its American buyers purchase one model with a traditional five-on-the-floor: the Impreza. Both the base-grade Impreza sedan and hatchback come standard with a five-speed manual; the MSRPs start at $18,795 and $19,295, respectively. You can’t get into a new ’21 Impreza with two pedals at prices like those— the CVT-ized Impreza Premium sedan starts at $22,195.
So, the cheapest possible 2021 car you can get with a five-speed manual here is the Mitsubishi Mirage (which may end up being the final new gasoline-powered car sold in America with under 100 horsepower as well; on that subject, the last sub-50-hp car Americans could buy new hit the showrooms for the 1993 model year). The biggest and most luxurious five-speed manual car available new in the United States is the Subaru Impreza… and it may turn out to be the last one. We’ll find out soon enough!
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