Learning How To Drive a Stick-Shift Car

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?