The “flippening” of cars happened, to a tiny bit of pomp, in late 2019—the first year electric cars outsold manual transmission-equipped cars. The first, but certainly not the last, right? Perhaps the manual transmission’s death isn’t imminent, but already here; just 1.1 percent of cars were sold with manuals in 2019. By Miracle Max’s standards in The Princess Bride, that’s definitely “mostly dead.” But there may be a bellows to fill the lungs of the manual transmission, even as the transition to electric cars continues—in the form of the electric car itself, provided there are enough congregants in the Church of the Third Pedal.
Why Would You Want a Manual EV?
Electric cars these days typically don’t have transmissions, but rather some arrangement of gearsets and differentials yielding a single-speed gear reduction that handles everything from crawling around a parking lot to highway speeds and beyond. There have been modern electric cars with multi-speed transmissions, including the original Tesla Roadster and the current Porsche Taycan, both two-speed automatics, and in both applications, the extra gear was chosen to improve powertrain performance over a wider range of speeds—in other words, for the same reason as in combustion-powered cars.
Of course, an electric motor’s instant and broad torque band requires fewer gears than a combustion-powered car to have the same flexibility, but if the gears improve performance by putting the electric motor in a better part of its torque/efficiency range, then two may not be enough. Don’t doubt too soon; folks back in the ’60s could hardly have imagined today’s 10-speed automatics—surely, three was enough and four was overkill!
If adding gears can improve performance in electric cars, and people who like performance cars like manual transmissions, why can’t we have electric cars with manual transmissions? Turns out you can, and it’s not even difficult, though it is a bit expensive. There are shops (and even manufacturers) that will convert classic cars into electric classic cars, and they typically leave the transmission in place, though using it post-conversion is often pointless; because the gear ratios are made for combustion engine torque characteristics, most aren’t well suited to use with an electric motor, meaning you’d just put it in third and leave it there all the time. Not quite what we’re looking for.
There have been a handful of hand-built modern electric cars with manual transmissions, too, including the 900-horsepower, 1,000-lb-ft Mustang Lithium Ford built in cooperation with Webasto for last year’s SEMA show. But, again, these are just normal combustion-engine cars that have been converted to electric drive without re-gearing the transmission.
What Would a Manual Transmission Electric Car Even Look Like?
So, which carmaker will be the first to build a manual-transmission-equipped EV? The prevailing wisdom is: none will. But I think there’s a chance some company will, and to explain that, we first ought to think about what a manual transmission electric car might entail.
If you’re looking for how to do something in the field of fun-to-drive cars, you could do a lot worse than look to Porsche for inspiration. The Taycan, as noted above, uses a two-speed transmission to help boost low-end acceleration while also improving higher-speed efficiency. If two speeds are enough for a 5,500-or-so-pound electric super-sedan like the Taycan Turbo S, they’re probably enough for just about any car—unless, of course, that car wanted to achieve a top speed higher than the Taycan Turbo S’s 162 mph.
Then you might want three. Or, in a smaller, lighter car, three speeds might let a small motor (or pair of motors) that would otherwise feel a bit sluggish rise into the realm of fun-to-drive by keeping it in its happiest place more of the time. But four, that’s probably overkill.
So our manual EV transmission is a three speed, but how would you shift it? It’s entirely possible (and likely very cost effective) to use existing clutch, pedal, and transmission mechanisms redesigned and re-specified for use in an EV. That would provide the most analog experience, but it’s also the most analog assembly. That makes it an unlikely choice for any carmaker not re-using old tooling as it transitions away from making combustion-powered cars toward electrics, effectively ruling out any current EV-only marques. An alternate route could see the gears controlled by wire, much as the throttle, brakes (and sometimes steering) already are in many combustion-powered and electric cars on the road today, or as in essentially every modern dual-clutch transmission.
“By wire” means you move a lever that tells a computer to change the gear, and a mechanism does it. It would be a digital-to-analog mechanism, but would it be an entirely digital experience? Or would it be experientially indistinguishable from a modern sequential racing transmission, straight-cut gears aside? It might very well be something like the latter if done right, and if your ears didn’t perk up at that thought, well, check your pulse.
So Which Carmaker Will Build the First Manual Transmission EV?
Back to the main topic here: Which carmaker is the most likely to build the first series production (presumably sporty) electric car with a manual transmission in it? It’s a jump ball, to be sure, and a manual EV will only ever happen if there are enough folks throwing their cash into the collection hat at the Church of the Third Pedal, but there are a few companies that are more likely than the rest to be the first to build an enthusiast’s manual-equipped electric car—at least in my estimation.
The new EV-only (aside from the Polestar 1) marque spun out of the Geely-Volvo automotive union already makes what I recently called the most fun-to-drive, reasonably affordable electric car now in production, the Polestar 2. That’s right on-mission for Polestar, which wants to become the “driver’s car” of EVs. While the Polestar 2 is a good start (and even has manually adjustable dampers, a great analog touch in an electric performance car), being the best right now doesn’t necessarily mean being great, leaving lots of headroom for improvement.
By putting the driver front and center in its vehicle development, and having the depth and experience of both Volvo and Geely in combustion-car development and design, Polestar seems to me like a leading candidate for the introduction of a purpose-built, manually shifted electric performance car. Add into the mix the marque’s obvious willingness to build lower-volume, higher-cost vehicles like the Polestar 1 when there’s a point to be made, and I almost feel like I’m not a lunatic raving alone in a darkened room.
Ever the driver’s choice for purity of feel and suitability for purpose, Porsche has accomplished what Polestar has only just set out to do: Build an entire brand around the premise of driving engagement and enjoyment. And as a legacy automaker, it has an abundance of ready-made manual transmissions to be adapted to any project.
That puts Porsche on an equal footing to Polestar in terms of likelihood until you remember the machinery behind Porsche, in the form of the VW Group. Developing new, low-volume, bespoke platforms is not something the VW Group does for production cars, so unless Porsche can convert an existing 911, Boxster, or Cayman into an EV, it seems unlikely it will ever produce an electric car with a manual transmission, let alone be the first to do so.
Ah, Ferrari. The delightfully idiosyncratic folks in Maranello continually surprise me with their inexplicable but passionate intertwining of tradition with futuristic technology. As justifiably proud as Ferrari is of its combustion engines, it has nonetheless made the transition to hybrid cars, from the LaFerrari to the current plug-in hybrid SF90. That means it may, eventually, make an entirely electric car—if it has to. And if it has to, the racing rosso Italians might just feel compelled to include at least a little mechanical magic in such a car. It’s the longest shot in a group of longshots, but I’ve learned not to put anything past Ferrari.