Learning How To Drive a Stick-Shift Car

Tips for Going From "Can't" to "Can Too"


  • Learning to Drive Stick-Shift

    Learning to Drive Stick-Shift

    Give 'er plenty of space, folks; she's a newbie! | March 18, 2010

4 Photos

Saying you're an automotive journalist who doesn't drive a stick shift is like calling yourself a doctor if you don't have a medical school degree: Your credibility is seriously in doubt. No matter that your job involves consumer advice (like mine does) instead of testing cars. Or that the percentage of vehicles sold in the U.S. with manual transmissions has declined from 22.4 percent in 1985 to 6.5 percent in 2007 according to J.D. Power. If you're going to write about cars at all, you'd better know how to drive a stick. Otherwise, your opinion holds no weight.

At First, Fear and Loathing

Or at least that's how it seemed to me almost four years ago, as a Joni-come-lately to the automotive field. I had to learn the basics of operating a manual-transmission vehicle in order to work in Edmunds' editorial department, but my real driver's education came in fits and starts (pun intended) over the successive months. My biggest problem, naturally, was fear. Because — seriously! — learning to drive a stick means propelling more than a ton of metal that you can't yet control. And out-of-control is not how I like to feel behind the wheel.

My experience would go something like this: Whenever I would try to drive a manual-transmission vehicle, the car would stall and lurch, aggravating anyone who drove up behind me. I would eventually arrive at my destination sweating and stressed, feeling like an idiot and grateful to be alive.

The idea of doing this over and over again until I became proficient felt masochistic.

Sure, I'd ask the occasional Edmunds staffer to ride shotgun around the neighborhood and give me tips, but I just wasn't getting it. I knew that learning to drive a stick wouldn't be about following linearly from step 1 to step 2, but instead required absorbing the process as a gestalt, a whole system. Compared to driving an automatic transmission, it would involve more muscle memory, intuition, coordination and even listening skills. For me to have any confidence, it had to be second nature, so I wouldn't have to think (and stress out) every time I came to a stop light.

Finally, I decided to face my fears and brave the wild Los Angeles streets with a stick for an entire week — a relatively gutsy move for a 43-year-old mother of two. No falling back on my comfortable automatic transmission in the driveway. I asked our fleet manager to make it happen, and hoped that a week of commuting was enough to learn the ropes.

Lessons Both Physical and Spiritual

It was clear from the get-go that driving a stick is a challenge in coordination. Whereas driving an automatic requires your eyes, your right hand (at minimum) and right foot, driving a stick demands the active use of both hands and both feet, as well as your eyes and ears. And when it comes to the clutch under your left foot, it's not just a matter of "on" or "off;" there's a finesse involved that makes learning far more difficult than in an automatic.

I thought that reading about how a manual transmission works might be helpful, but to be honest, nothing in print can truly prepare you for the real thing. Paying attention to the drivetrain teaches you the most. Trust me, there's nothing like hearing the car scream bloody murder when you shift into the wrong gear to accelerate your learning curve — while shaving a few years off your life.

After my week of what seemed to be, literally, do-or-die moments, I emerged victorious. I wasn't ready for the autobahn just yet, but I was proficient enough to begin to enjoy it instead of dreading it like the plague.

Finally, I was beginning to comprehend that hallowed connection between drivers and their cars, one that enthusiasts say can only be achieved by having full control over the gears. With enough practice, a manual-transmission car begins to feel like a physical extension of oneself, a mechanical conduit between driver and road.

Yes, at the end of a week, I felt a sense of pride and empowerment, having transformed a source of embarrassment and frustration into one of, if not mastery, at least competency.

Tips for the Fearful

Now that I've proven that you're never too old to learn how to drive a stick, I hope others can benefit from my experience and are inspired to follow suit. Here are some tips for those who are ready to take the plunge.

First, choose the right car. It's easier to learn on a lighter-weight vehicle (economy car, for example), than a truck or performance car. The feel of the clutch, gearshifter and shift pattern vary dramatically from car to car, making some far more difficult to master than others. For example, Edmunds editors agreed our 2007 Honda Fit would be a good beginner's car, just as they agree that our 2007 Infiniti G35 is a significant challenge to operate. I recommend borrowing (or renting, if you can find one) a car such as the Fit or other Hondas, Toyotas, the Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Eclipse or Mitsubishi Lancer. Once you can handle an "easier" car's clutch, you can confidently progress to a more difficult one.

Second, get yourself a good coach — one who can spend some time with you on a semi-regular basis. Whether this is a friend or a formal driving instructor, it helps to have a patient and articulate person at your side who can describe what you're doing right or wrong. I don't recommend trying to learn from a significant other, because it's like working together in the family business: It seldom goes well and often strains the relationship.

Third, find a traffic-free area to practice. Pulling away from a stop and reversing are the hardest bits of the process, so it's worth your while to find a large, empty lot or road to practice those techniques. (Your coach can drive you there if needed.) Even better is an area where the sheep outnumber the vehicles: There's no fear of hitting another car, and the sheep can't give you the finger when you stall over and over in the middle of the road. Learning from scratch in a high-traffic area means you'll feel pressured by the mere presence of drivers behind you; this could make you panicky and lead to potentially costly mistakes. You'll wish you had a sign on the back of your car that reads, "Learning a stick. Keep your distance."

Lastly, be persistently brave. It'll take some self-discipline to keep putting yourself in the hot seat after the first few unpleasant experiences, which will undoubtedly occur. You will learn it eventually, no matter how hopeless it seems, if you (ahem) stick with it. It's a rite of passage. It's not supposed to be easy.

The good news is, once you learn to drive a stick, you'll always remember how, like riding a bike. And there are financial benefits to manual-transmission vehicles, too: They cost less to buy and generally save money on gas. Even if you never intend to own one, there are advantages to knowing how to drive one, because many foreign rental car agencies carry only manual-transmission vehicles. And if there's ever an urgent situation that requires you to drive a stick, you won't be stuck. Beyond that, though, manual transmissions make the driving experience more interesting and more fun. Considering how much time we spend in our cars, couldn't we all use a little more of that?

Comments

  • pbergn pbergn Posts:

    Trully enjoyed reading your article. Very well written, witty and reassuring... :-) I would have been ready to take the plunge inspired by your ordeals but for the minor insignificant detail of actually finding a car with a stick shift to practice on. (I live in Seattle area, and all the rental companies have only automatic, and all my friends and relatives own only auto trannie cars... Quite a bummer, don't you think?)

  • I would agree with everything you said. My first time behind the wheel of a stick shift vehicle was in a Nissan Versa. Had a very good instructor from the Allied driving school, drove stick shift for 6 hours. At first I was scared, just like what you mentioned in the article, the car stalled multiple times and I did get frustrated. But then at the end of the 6 hours, I was driving on the expressway in the area of where I live. I drove my mom's Lexus RX 330 for a year and a half, but when it came to getting myself a car, I went with a used manual transmission mustang, even though it's somewhat of a performance vehicle, not an economy car. To be honest, in the past, I didn't even want to drive a manual transmission, but then after driving this mustang for only about a month and a half, I would prefer driving a manual transmission car over an automatic transmission any time. And what you stated at the very end, that a manual transmission makes the driving experience more interesting and more fun, I completely agree with you, so I would recommend others to try driving manual transmission as well.

  • danroxanne danroxanne Posts:

    Nice pep talk. Was looking for more how to

  • danroxanne danroxanne Posts:

    Nice pep talk. Was looking for more how to

  • anthon1977 anthon1977 Posts:

    I enjoyed this article. Driving a stick shift transmission is almost a lost art. I married late and now have two adult children. Not that long ago when they wanted to get their first CA drivers license, I insisted that they take the CA driving test on a stick shift only. Although at least one of them was not happy with this requirement, it has paid off for them and given them much more flexibility. Since there are others on this site who learned on an automatic and would like to learn to drive a stick as the author of this article successfully did, here are two things I found over the years that may make the learning and teaching job easier. #1: Take the car to a level quiet street or level empty parking lot area. Level is important. With the student driver in control of the car, have them fully depress the clutch pedal, help / tell them to put the car in first gear, tell them to not touch the accelerator pedal and gently let the clutch out until the car is rolling because of the engine idle speed and steer the car straight. Then stop the car. Of course it may hop and buck or stall the first few times, but not as bad as if the accelerator is involved. Do the clutch and steer only process again and again until the student driver begins to get the feel of where the clutch engages and encourage them to 'tease' the clutch pedal until the car is sufficiently rolling on the engine idle alone. After the start from a stop becomes smoother, you can have them begin to shift to higher gears on an idle or begin to introduce light pressure on the accelerator in the start-from-a-stop scenario or both. This is your call as to when you think your student is ready. Repetition will pay off just focusing and learning the basics of the clutch operation and the student driver's confidence will grow as they begin to "feel" the clutch and coordinate with the engine RPMs they are hearing. BTW: I am a stickler on totally releasing the clutch and not resting your foot on it while driving until you are going to depress for disengagement again. This will save clutch release bearings (throw out bearings) and burning the clutch / flywheel contact surfaces. #2: After a period of time when the student is having sufficiently smooth starts from a stop, learning to up shift, down shift and come to a stop again you can introduce the second opportunity to overcome dread with a stick shift car: the roll back on a hill. Once the student has good clutch and accelerator coordination, then purposely put them facing up on a slight grade. Show them the use of the parking brake to minimize riding the clutch at a stop and to overcome the fear of rolling into the car behind you. This will take some time as you increase the degree of angle that the student is parked on and they begin to not panic when the car stalls or it begins to roll back. This may need to be done over several sessions to relieve / space out the stress on both the teacher and the student. Eventually they will be able to conquer an uphill start on a steep street, driveway, etc. I have found that overcoming these two scenarios builds confidence and makes the student want to drive. Since I live in the Los Angeles area near the foothills, I have a way of dealing with other drivers who are starting to come up too close to the rear of my truck when I am stopped on a grade for a traffic signal, etc. As I see them approach in the rear view mirror, I ever so slightly roll back before they get to me so that they know I am driving a stick shift and I could roll back damaging the front of their car. A few times I have had to do it twice to get their attention. In the almost 51 years of driving in Southern California, I have never had anyone come closer than they should after having done that. May you help someone know the joy of driving a stick shift car well: it almost looks effortless and the shifts feel smooth like an automatic. Your student will be very grateful.

  • soakee_ soakee_ Posts:

    I have been driving manual transmissions for some 38 years, and the first thing I was taught and what lesson stands out most is when I asked my father how to start going up a hill. His answer: "you gotta be quick". He never showed me how to do it with the parking brake, and with quick footwork, there was (is) no need to learn. I have never rolled back into another car, and have never stalled on a hill. I will be teaching my daughter the same method.

  • gunnin4u gunnin4u Posts:

    There's another apparent advantage. If you buy a car with a stick, it's just that much harder for someone to steal, since driving stick is a skill kids don't have.

  • snuffy46 snuffy46 Posts:

    Side note: If you travel internationally you may find either that cars with an automatic are not available or, if they are available, they cost considerably more. Once watched a forlorn couple's plans dashed in Moorea, Tahiti when neither could drive a stick. We took them to dinner and they took tours on their own but would have preferred to explore on their own. Even rudimentary skills will get you through...

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