The Manual Transmission: Get ’em before they’re not…

2014 XV Crosstrek

If only seems as if Subaru has erected a barrier in the pursuit of a 5-speed Crosstrek

In the November issue of Automobile magazine, an editorial celebration of Ferrari’s 60 years in America devotes one of five Ferrari articles to a privately-owned 599 with manual transmission. In that the last Ferrari with a manual transmission rolled off the assembly line in 2011, finding an example wasn’t a walk in the park…it was a drive in the dark. Written by Lawrence Ulrich, the article reflects extensive research, several interviews and an expense account in pursuit of the owner – Mr. Brian Walley – and his clutch-equipped Ferrari.

My own pursuit, of a Subaru XV Crosstrek with a manual trans, is admittedly more pedestrian, and will lack the editorial heft (and expense account) provided by Mr. Ulrich. But in my view – as this will be my personal transportation for roughly a decade – it was/is a pursuit no less important, and one I invite you to make with me.

2014 Subaru Crosstrek Stick CB

Subaru’s 5-speed manual…at rest

Our consideration of a Subaru with manual trans began over three years ago, when looking for a car to garage at a second home. Given that it would be the one car at this location a compact crossover seemed a good bet, offering a modicum of utility mixed with affordability and efficiency. And while the market didn’t offer the varied (or increasingly credible) choices it does today, the CR-V, RAV4 and Forester were all on the radar, along with a Focus hatch and VW’s GTI. The Forester seemed especially compelling, offering as it does standard all-wheel drive, great visibility and just a little bit of funk. It was also available with a manual transmission.

Regrettably, when push came to shove I – like so many before me – looked at how the Forester would be used and punted, leaving the stick shift on the dealer lot and going instead with a conventional automatic (this before Subaru went to the CVT, which might have moved the stick shift purchase further forward). And while I didn’t regret the automatic, and the car is still serving the family as a vehicle for my adult son and his child, the Forester has never delivered the big smile it would have with the 5-speed stick.

And so, with the imminent purchase of another car for a second zip code, Subaru was again on my radar, as was a manual (dammit!) transmission. This time it was Subaru’s XV Crosstrek, offering a tad less utility than today’s upgraded Forester, but with what I perceive to be a sharper handling dynamic – and, not to be discounted, a little more funk. It was only then I tried to find one with a stick.

My search led me to one of two dealers in the Northern Virginia area. While puzzled by my request for a manual (who isn’t?), and having none in inventory, the dealer’s floor manager dutifully had his Internet rep search other dealers for possible options; the Internet guy came up with two. One was Desert Khaki, which happened to be my first color choice; and one was silver, which was my second choice. It seemed as if the stars were in alignment, but by the time the manager’s hand could move from shaking mine to the mouse the Khaki was sold and trading for the silver had become problematic.

Ferrari with three pedals

A Ferrari with three – count ’em, three – pedals

Given that my first zip code is near Dallas, a phone call to Sewell Subaru – near Dallas’ Love Field – put me in touch with the office of Ray Lozano, a friend selling pre-owned Infinitis for Sewell, along with the occasional Subaru. And given that Ray does very well selling pre-owned Infinitis, it was his assistant that took the call. Drew Brydon was also surprised by my request, but a quick search showed that one – and only one – had arrived on their lot that very week. In dark metallic gray, it was neither my first or second choice, but within the context of achieving the manual dream, color had become less important.

In a matter of days my preferred options – dealer-installed short shift kit, hitch and tint – were added, and we were ready to go. ‘Go’ meant a drive from Dallas to D.C., a distance of 1300 miles which, with stops for gas, food and sleep, consumed some 22 hours over two days. Equipped with the manual trans and short shift kit, the Crosstrek is everything I had hoped it would be; or is everything within the context of its148 (and not 248) horsepower I had hoped it would be. The car’s horizontally opposed four is visceral in a way the Honda CR-V isn’t, the ride/handling compromise seems just about perfect, and the connectivity afforded by the stick is exactly the connection you hope for in a mechanism you actually want to drive.

As Lawrence Ulrich points out in Automobile, despite the lack of a manual in Ferrari’s catalog, a buyer can still find them in a Corvette, 911, M3 or Subaru’s own BRZ. I’d suggest the European model, where the manual trans – despite Europe’s own issues with urban congestion – is a given, and the automatic remains the odd ‘man’ out. Of course, I’d also ask manufacturers still offering manuals (Subaru offers them in its Crosstrek, Forester and BRZ) to supply them in trims other than basic; we’d have enjoyed a Crosstrek with leather seats, and might have considered a sunroof; neither option was available from Subaru if selecting a stick-equipped Crosstrek.

Based on my own experience, along with the research, travel and expense account of Mr. Ulrich, if considering a manual trans you should pull the trigger sooner rather than later. In those instances where the manual is not quite connected (Fiat’s 500 comes to mind) the driving experience doesn’t rate as high. But if, as I’ve seen in my Subaru, the clutch and shift interface is exactly what it should be, there are few automotive experiences – especially at under $25K – that deliver the same degree of involvement or pleasure. And even if not in the market for a new car – and its manual transmission – immediately, it never hurts to pester a dealer now. Start with the Internet guy…