The Clutch Makes a Comeback in Israel

Israelis' love affair with automatic transmissions cools in the face of cheaper manuals.

Israeli drivers, unlike their European counterparts, love automatic transmissions.

Once considered a luxury option, it gained the lion's share of car sales when the price became reasonable thanks largely to the country's jammed roads and almost completely displaced manual gearboxes. Models sold in Europe without automatic drive never even made it to Israel.

But something changed in the past few years. Israelis actually proved willing to compromise and settle for manual drive cars if the price was right – and at 20% less than an equivalent automatic, a consumer trend took hold.

Mini cars costing NIS 60,000, the same price as a 3-year-old family sedan, became a hit with a 10% market share in 2011. Importers are now trying to duplicate the idea with other segments. The market for super-minis, for example, now offers a broad range of low-priced manual makes and similarly interesting offers can now be found in the family-sized category, and even among sports utility (SUV) and crossover utility (CUV) vehicles.

The arrival of cheap manual cars was greeted with anxiety over their acceptance as second-hand vehicles and over whether or not a market for these will develop. But over the past two years, cheap manual mini and super-mini models proved themselves, generating vigorous demand in the used car market too.

Drivers want to save on gas and repair expenses, and manual cars address both desires. Here are some of the new and interesting models that Israeli drivers can now buy if they're ready to get used to a clutch once again.

New mini for NIS 55,000

The wide choice of minis includes the Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1 from France, Japan's Toyota Aygo, Volkswagen Group twins Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo, and the Korean siblings Hyundai i10 and Kia Picanto.

The most expensive in this class is the Aygo, at NIS 69,000. The Suzuki Alto, the longest running model of the category, officially sells for NIS 60,000 but can be had for just NIS 55,000 – even with a sunroof, compared to NIS 73,000 for the automatic version. The car comes with sparse accessories and the engine vibrates when braking, but it's a bargain nonetheless.

The Hyundai i10 is listed at NIS 62,000 but can also be bought at a heavy discount. Our two favorites, the Picanto and Mii, are offered for NIS 64,000 and NIS 62,000 respectively. As new models with strong demand, discounts for these are harder to find.

Minis are convenient for city driving, but for longer distances or when room is needed for passengers a slightly larger car in the super-mini category would probably be more comfortable. Several standard-shift models are available for between NIS 70,000 and NIS 80,000.

The two most highly recommended cars in this class are the Hyundai i20 and the Suzuki Swift. The basic i20, equipped with a 1.25 liter engine delivering 85 horsepower, provides agile performance and comfort at NIS 76,000. The Swift, priced at NIS 79,000, delivers 92 hp from an engine of about the same size and displays impressive acceleration along with a smoother and more comfortable ride.

Slightly larger cars are also available in the same price range as the super-mini.

The Seat Ibiza Flow, a station wagon, is an extended version of a super-mini with a respectable 430 liters in cargo space that can be enlarged by folding the rear seats and a 1.4 liter engine generating 86 hp. The car's main drawbacks are its relatively tight rear seats, best suited for children, and low-quality plastic in the passenger compartment. But for the price it's a bargain as a small family car or tiny delivery vehicle.

Family-sized car for NIS 105,000

The Kia Rio is designated as a super-mini despite being much larger than the Ibiza, with a wheelbase 10 centimeters longer for an overall 257 cm. This provides much roomier space for passengers in the rear and the sedan version boasts a relatively ample 389-liter trunk.

The Rio's passenger compartment is fairly unadorned and rather gloomy but accessories like steering-wheel mounted controls provide some consolation. The 109 hp engine turns out to be remarkably peppy and the car almost matches the performance of a full-size family vehicle. At NIS 90,000, which is NIS 25,000 less than the Hyundai i25 automatic, the Rio is an appealing choice for a young family. Its automatic transmission format sells for NIS 109,000.

There are also savings to be found on manual drive vehicles in the family category like the Hyundai i30 with its 265 cm. wheelbase – a heavy contender in this locally-popular market segment. The automatic version, sold mostly to car fleets, is priced at NIS 127,000 but private buyers might be interested in its much cheaper standard shift version going for just NIS 105,000 – although the engine isn't as strong.

As a station wagon the i30 offers a huge 528-liter cargo area which is expandable to 1,528 liters with the rear seats down. A 1.4 liter engine generates 100 hp. The car also features an interesting Start & Stop system which automatically shuts the engine off when stopping for short periods like for traffic lights. The engine is restarted by pressing on the clutch. On a recent test drive the car delivered an excellent 12.8 kilometers per liter in fuel consumption. Its main disadvantage is a relatively weak engine, noticeable when trying to accelerate with a full load.

NIS 36,000 savings on compact CUV

A big question mark looms over whether manual shifting will also take hold in the popular and relatively new SUV/CUV market segment. Compact SUVs and CUVs have become status symbols and no longer involve any compromise in driving comfort or gas consumption.

Big savings can be found here, too, for those who don't mind being seen driving a stick shift. Nissan Qashqai, for example, one of the best-selling models in the category, comes in a manual version with a 1.6 liter, 117 hp engine and limited accessories for NIS 127,000 compared with NIS 163,000 as an automatic.

Its main weakness, though, is its feeble engine that makes the heavy vehicle relatively sluggish. The Mitsubishi Outlander also comes with a standard shift version along with a 2.0 liter, 150 hp engine, but at a much pricier NIS 145,000 – compared to NIS 165,000 for the automatic.

Another interesting option is the manual Skoda Yeti. The Yeti is boxlike and less fashionable than its competitors, as well as having smaller dimensions but still quite roomy inside. It costs NIS 118,000 with a manual transmission, or sometimes as low as NIS 110,000 on sale, as opposed to NIS 140,000 with automatic transmission. The manual version comes with a modern 1.2-liter turbo engine.

Despite discounts on manual drive vehicles in this category ranging from 15% to 20%, compact SUVs and CUVs are considered indulgences so it isn't yet clear whether used-car customers will easily give up the convenience of having an automatic gearbox.

AP
Bloomberg