Driven: Toyota's manual gearbox for electric cars

Lexus UX manual gearbox dashboard
Lexus UX manual gearbox dashboard

Lexus UX 300e is modified with Toyota GR86 pedals and gearshifter, plus rev counter

Toyota intends to offer its manual transmission for electric cars as an option on its next-generation of EVs to ensure they’re not a “commodity”, and remain as fun and involving to drive as internal-combustion-engined cars.

The system, which has been in development for three years, will be a factory option for buyers of models created on the new modular architecture being developed for launch in 2026. It is almost entirely software operated, with hardware tweaks limited to a clutch pedal and gearshift borrowed from a Toyota GR86, plus a rev counter and some new switchgear to select the mode. Paddle shifts are possible, too.

Engineers say the system has been created as part of a move to make electric cars “fun to drive” and in response to chairman Akio Toyoda’s brief to ensure electric cars are not simply a “commodity”.

Driving the manual BEV

Lexus UX300e manual BEV front tracking
Lexus UX300e manual BEV front tracking

Toyota's manual transmission for electric cars is both remarkable and unremarkable at the same time. Countless cars have been made with involving manual transmissions over the years, yet this is truly a manual like no other, given it’s fitted to an electric car.

It warps your brain to some extent and you are successfully tricked into thinking it is not an EV. You start the car as normal and choose ‘D’ from the automatic selector. Then there’s a secondary ‘Engine start’ button, which fires up an engine sound - and a familiar one at that: a Volkswagen Golf GTI.

You engage first gear as you would with any manual car. The shift is short and precise and the clutch has heft to it. You can stall it as you can a manual car and also slip the clutch.

Lexus UX300e manual BEV – rev counter detail
Lexus UX300e manual BEV – rev counter detail

Acceleration is strong and you’re far more involved in the process than you would be in a normal Lexus UX 300e on which this ‘transmission’ is fitted. You soon forget you’re in a UX at all, a fairly unremarkable car, such is the extra involvement the system gives its driver.

All the usual manual features are there: engine braking, coasting and, most amusingly, no torque when you suddenly try and accelerate in top gear, which then brings with it the synthetic sound of parts of the cabin trim rattling. It sounds like a gimmick but it’s actually all rather believable.

There is work to do: the shifts don’t quite seamlessly balance the torque as you change up, yet still the result is a far more tactile and involving electric powertrain that begs to be sampled in a hot hatch or coupé straight away. A lack of driver involvement is a real concern in electric cars but this system, and similar ones being created by Hyundai’s N division, give hope that EVs can be involving and engaging to drive for enthusiasts.

Driving the On Demand BEV

Lexus RZ on-demand BEV front quarter tracking
Lexus RZ on-demand BEV front quarter tracking

Toyota is also developing ‘On Demand’ software for BEVs that changes the performance of the car to mimic certain other models. Installed on a Lexus RZ, a prototype version allows the performance of the car to cycle between a Toyota Passo supermini, a Toyota Tundra truck and a Lexus LFA supercar.

This prototype technology is at a far earlier stage of development than the manual BEV, requiring an engineer with a laptop sat next to you to change between the different ‘cars’ you can experience.

You start off with a Lexus RZ, which is all normal enough. Then suddenly power is sapped as the Toyota Passo is fired up; it feels like driving with the handbrake on and the cabin is filled with the sound of a small engine working a bit too hard. It’s rather impressive.

Not as impressive as the Tundra truck that comes next, which mixes a turbocharged V6 with a hybrid system. There’s urgency and growl as you accelerate and then silence as you lift off as the hybrid mode kicks in.

We finish with the LFA, which I was expecting to be bombastic but the artificial air to the system really struggles to be shaken here. The car feels like a very quick EV with a soundtrack from Gran Turismo playing through the speakers. It’s a laugh, but a novelty - an RZ is never going to feel like an LFA no matter how clever the trickery.

Toyota plans to offer more than 1000 different cars you can replicate in its next-generation EVs through its new Arene software platform. Based on this drive, it’s a far bigger gimmick than the manual BEV, yet the maturity of the manual BEV system shows that Toyota engineers know how to get there.