Apr
19
Learn to Drive Stick

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The manual transmission is dead. I refuse to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary. The fact is, autonomous technology—even semi-autonomous technology—is completely incompatible with the manual transmission, and that is where the industry is headed.

Automatic Revolution: Comparing CVT, Dual-Clutch, and Automated-Manual Transmissions

Also, and this is key, people don’t want to drive stick. Even before car makers began preparing for hands-free driving, car buyers were shunning stick shift. It’s worth noting that no new Ferrari or Lamborghini model is offered with a manual transmission.

Manual versus CVT

Fuel economy is no longer an incentive to learn to drive stick.

By one estimate, roughly 50 percent of new models available a decade ago could be fitted with a manual transmission, today that number is down to about 20 percent. Knowing that, why would I advocate for anyone to learn to drive stick? We’ll get to that in a moment.

Two of the best reasons for learning to handle a manual transmission, better acceleration and improved fuel economy, are sadly no longer valid. Turns out that new-technology double-clutch transmissions (DCT) and continuously variable transmissions (CVT) generally provided better fuel economy and straight-line performance than do manual shifters.

Even at Volkswagen, once a haven brand for manual-transmission-loving auto enthusiasts, the take rate on stick-shift-equipped cars is down to about six percent. Per Mark Gilles, Senior Manager of Product and Technology Communications at VW, manual transmissions are now only offered on Golf and Jetta variants, and then only on certain trim levels. Per Mark, “The market is shifting to crossovers, and no one is looking for a crossover with a manual transmission.” It’s worth noting that the first generation of the popular VW Tiguan compact crossover was available in the U.S. with a manual transmission, but the option was dropped when the model was redesigned for 2018.

So, why bother to learn to drive stick? Read on…

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Driving Stick May Save Your Life

Forgive the hyperbole, but it is still possible that the only vehicle available to you in an emergency situation is one equipped with a manual transmission. This was a common argument when I was learning to drive. Of course, when I was learning to drive manual-transmission cars comprised roughly a quarter of all the vehicles my friends and I had access to, so the argument had some more weight then.

Still, what if you did catch a ride with a stick-driving coworker who suddenly became ill, or drunk, or just felt light headed? Think of how smug you’d feel being able to take the wheel and save the day.

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Column Shift Pattern

Before gear selectors began migrating to the floor, manual-transmission operation came via a steering-column-mounted shifter.

Driving Stick Will Make You a Better Driver

Driving stick is the ultimate automotive anti-distracted-driving feature. Knowing that you may need to shift in response to changing traffic conditions, you find yourself planning ahead, watching other cars closely, and ultimately immersing yourself in the flow of traffic in ways that you never would have in an automatic-transmission-equipped vehicle. When you drive stick there’s no time to text—and little desire to do so—as working the clutch and shifter keep your mind (and hands) on the commute.

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Driving Stick is Educational/Spiritual

Driving today is a rather dull process. New cars and crossovers require so little operator attention that we’ve come to stop thinking about them. Were it not for the occasional trip to the gas station or charge port, we might never consider the 20,000 or so separate parts that make up our daily drivers.

Driving stick changes that. Once they’ve learned to drive stick, most drivers never look at the tachometer. Instead, they shift by sound and feel, learning by instinct when to clutch in, drop down a gear, and when to coast to a stop.

There is a rewarding rhythm to driving stick, a sort of mechanical poetry, and the cadence of that verse is known only to self-shifters. While driving a 2019 6-speed Corolla is nowhere near as engaging as driving, say, a 50-year-old manual-transmission Jeep, the mechanical intimacy enjoyed while listening for the Toyota’s engine’s revs to climb is unknown to most drivers.

The fact is, cars are machines, and appreciating how those machines work is a lot easier when you do the shifting.

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Driving Stick is Fun

Yes, long commutes and urban congestion have sucked much of the joy out of driving stick—and driving in general—but all of the commuter nastiness fades away when the roads clear. Granted, not everyone finds the joy in self shifting, but many drivers do, and for them the fun outweighs the in-traffic hassles.

I am fortunate in that I have owned several vehicles with slick 5-speed manuals and rev-happy engines, including a 1985 VW Scirocco, 1995 Acura integra and Jetta GLX, and a 1999 Nissan Maxima. The character of each of these great rides would have been significantly dampened were they equipped with automatic transmissions.

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Hindustan Ambassador

India’s most-popular car for more than 50 years, the Hindustan Ambassador was never offered with an automatic transmission.

Driving Stick is Cool (Part 1)

Driving stick is cool, and it is, I believe, essential to being a legitimate car guy. It is easy to argue that with manual transmissions disappearing, learning to drive stick is pointless, but it’s not.

I am 54 years old and have lamented openly that I have never rebuilt a carburetor. Why does this trouble me? Because repairing carbs was still common in the Eighties when I was coming of age as a car guy and driver, and very much a part of the general atmosphere of being a gearhead. But the rebuild lapsed with me. My dad has rebuilt carbs, the guys at the service station I worked at rebuilt cars, but I never needed to, and never bothered to learn.

Driving stick is like that. It is an attachment to automotive history that is both fundamental and fraternal. In the next decade or two this link with the past will break, as new drivers are unlikely to even be taught about the existence of manual transmissions.

But for drivers now, as long as cars with stick can still be purchased, it’s very cool to drive a car the same way Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche, and Ferruccio Lamborghini did.

Most car guys today can’t claim familiarity with the spark advance, manual choke, or the floor-mounted headlight-dimmer switch, but we can learn to use a manual transmission, and that’s a tie back to the earliest days of motoring.

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5-speed badge

When 3- and 4-speed manual transmission were common, a 5-speed shifter was a badge-worthy point of pride.

Driving Stick is Cool (Part 2)

As far as life skills go, driving stick probably ranks somewhere below reading and swimming, but well above doing your own taxes and whistling.

We taught my daughter to drive stick—a thing she initially deeply resented—and she came to be regarded as especially cool by her peers as a result. She was ultimately disappointed when we purchased a used car for her to use that was not stick-equipped. (The car we wanted was not available with manual transmission AND AWD, so a decision had to be made.)

Right about now, people who can drive stick probably only slightly outnumber notary publics, a group of people who are also regarded with a certain level of muted respect.

* * *

Car guy or not, learning to drive stick can be a rewarding process. Generally speaking, mastering any skill that is more or less a mystery to the masses is good way to earn cool points, but driving stick is more than that. It might prove to be a useful talent to have some day, but it is also an experience that may prove difficult to enjoy in the fairly near future.

The real question is, do you have a patient friend with a stick-shift-equipped car and a few hours to kill?

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Learn to Drive Stick

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