Condisering buying a manual car
February 2, 2005 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in buying a car with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, while I've driven with a manual a couple of times in the past, I'm still very inexperienced. What's the best way to practice prior to getting the new car or without ruining the gears on my new car (or causing traffic problems)? And is it even worthwhile to get a manual these days if I don't already know how to drive one? Keep in mind this car would be used for daily commutes through moderate to heavy traffic.

And does it matter what the car is that I would purchase? (I'm thinking of the Suburu WRX STi or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.)
posted by EatenByAGrue to Travel & Transportation (52 answers total)
First, answer this. Why do you want a manual transmission?
posted by mischief at 1:17 PM on February 2, 2005

Keep in mind that in traffic, you are going to be working that clutch a whole lot. If most of my driving were done in these conditions, I'd probably get an automatic.
posted by trbrts at 1:17 PM on February 2, 2005

It sounds like you are looking for a performance car (rally racing maybe?). If so, a manual is probably best.

But for a commute with any sort of congestion, you will probably go nuts. I did a 45 minute commute for six months in a manual transmission and once counted 500 clutch depressions in a one-way trip. It got real tiring.

However, I am a firm believer that everyone should know how to drive manual. I learned late in life by having it be my only work transportation. You learn quick that way.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 1:22 PM on February 2, 2005

I did what you are doing a number of years ago. The dealers were pretty good about the test drives and I basically learned while testing three or four different cars, the last of which I bought. Most transmissions are pretty rugged and can withstand your learning curve. You will probably grind the gears a few times and stall out quite a few more. Stalling is embarrassing but not harmful to the transmission. The only thing that might be a little difficult is learning how to start from a stop while pointing uphill. At first use the parking brake but eventually you will be able to feather the clutch to take off smoothly. I don't know if I will ever go back to an automatic as a manual is much more fun to drive and if driven sensibly saves some gas. In traffic I like a manual as it is easier to keep the perfect following distance, just close enough to prevent lane changers from cutting in front of you but just far enough to prevent rear ending the car in front of you. I can think of some places where I would rather have an automatic, like San Francisco with lots of hills and lots of traffic, but mostly the manual beats the automatic for me. By the way, both of those cars you are considering are fantastic.
posted by caddis at 1:25 PM on February 2, 2005

First, it'll take you about two or three days of regular driving to become competent with a manual shift. Stoplights on hills will probably be your most challenging obstacle.

Second, many if not most new cars have relatively forgiving manual transmissions. If you start out with caution (and with one eye on the RPMs), you're not likely to cause any serious damage to the car. The vehicle is designed to withstand the occasional grinding of gears, sputter starts and stalls.

With that said, I'd recommend starting out in a place with as little traffic as possible on streets that are as flat as possible -- and maybe even bringing along a friend who knows how to drive a stick shift -- until you gain some confidence. If you're feeling really unsure of your abilities, you might want to find a good, deserted country highway to practice on, or in a city, maybe a large, empty parking lot. Just remember to be patient and don't panic if you stall at an intersection.

And don't forget: Manual driving is FUN! Even in city traffic. People with automatics are just sitting there steering their cars. You get to actually drive yours.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 1:32 PM on February 2, 2005

mischief, I'm interested in purchasing a performance car and most of them (including the two I list) only come in a manual. Plus, I figure learning to drive a manual is in general a good thing and a useful skill to have. Also, I think a manual would be good for saving fuel and also so I will be forced to pay more attention to my driving.

As to why I want a performance car--mostly machismo, but I also like the idea of having that extra capability if it's necessary for defensive driving purposes.

What do you guys think about taking an advanced driving class? The main reason I hesitate on taking a class is I think my main need is practice, not instruction.

On preview: caddis, starting uphill is definitely the main worry I have. And I've heard driving a manual can be more fun from lots of people, so that's another reason to get a car with one.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 1:35 PM on February 2, 2005

In my opinion the best way to learn a clutch is to drive a temperamental motorcycle. I remember going from the farm tractors to a motorcycle and it took me roughly fifty stalls to get anything working right. This was at a very early age, but still, it's a lesson that can be hard.

Do be warned, some people seem to get the clutch, and some never do, like me. I'd been in those things since the age of eight in various forms but I still would always hate stop and go traffic and parallel parking in reverse on hills. This is after putting roughly 150,000 miles in clutched vehicles. I switched to a automatic and couldn't be happier. The only time I'm happy that I'm in a clutch is when I need specialized power applications in off road environments.

All that as a warning, Practice with off road vehicles as you can. If not, spend a lot of time in parking lots on Sunday. practice creeping the vehicle, slipping the clutch, rapid accelerations, rapid deaccelerations. You might pick it up quickly, or it might be a battle. Remember that in a clutch the vehicle works for you, sometimes it seems to struggle against you, but you have to kick it down and get it going.

The best analogy I use when teaching a clutch to individuals is that there are teeth spinning around, you are trying to insert another wheel with its own teeth into that wheel. You drop it in two fast you'll grind up things, two slow you won't have motion. While things are little more complicated, this helps a lot.

If you are still interested in a clutch, I always preferred hydraulic clutches. Some of my friends enjoyed the pressure, but I never did. I am, however, a traditional clutch slipper but somehow seem to do it without a lot of weardown.

Bottom line: get a clutch if you're sporty, technical, or appreciate something different. It could be cheaper in the long run but a automatic might be easier.
posted by sled at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2005

"Worthwhile" in what sense? The difference in fuel economy between automatic and manual transmissions nowadays is negligible. The increase in control/power is also moot if you spend most of your driving time in stop & go traffic. Having said that, though, I'll only drive stick. Anything else is just steering, in my book.

If you feel your skills are rusty, I'd recommend asking a friend who owns a manual transmission car to accompany you on a refresher-course, preferably on lesser travelled suburban streets, getting used to starting from a full stop and all that. Putting yourself at the bottom of the hill and learning how to finesse the gear changes as you go up is also a valuble skill. Spend an afternoon practicing downshifting and keeping your foot off the clutch when you aren't making a gear change. Best way not to get the bad habits is to not start out with them.

Oh and have fun!
posted by contessa at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2005

First, answer this. Why do you want a manual transmission?

Because driving a manual transmission makes driving far more enjoyable, and arguably (ok, very arguably) makes you a better driver. Also, learning how to drive a stick is a skill you'll always have, like riding a bicycle or swimming, and one which you never know when you'll need.

i love driving a stick-shift. If you've never done it and want to learn, i encourage you. it's unlikely you will destroy a clutch learning -- you should be able to pick it up in a few hours of driving; find a good friend with a manual trans who's willing to teach you. Most people I know (including me) who drive a stick love evangelizing for it, so they'll probably enjoy teaching you to drive one. (Maybe buy him a sixpack of beer to drink before you go driving so he doesn't worry about the grating sounds of his clutch). You may take some life off of it, but you probably won't break it.
posted by fishfucker at 1:40 PM on February 2, 2005

I think it will be difficult anymore to find a driving school that will teach you how to drive a stick. You don't really need that anyway. As for an advanced driving school, like Skip Barber, what fun, but I would wait until you get comfortable with a stick before going so you can get the most out of the experience. Fast cars are loads of fun, and those two cars are about the fastest you can get short of an exotic.
posted by caddis at 1:45 PM on February 2, 2005

Unfortunately, none of my friends currently own a manual, or I'd definitely go that route.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 1:45 PM on February 2, 2005

I love driving stick also, ff. I just wanted to gauge the questioner's reasoning.
posted by mischief at 1:45 PM on February 2, 2005

There is one other reason you really should learn to drive a manual. Almost every other country in the world drives only standards, with very few automatics, even in the rental agencies. If you ever go travelling overseas and rent a car, you will most likely get a manual.

You won't hurt it with a few hour of practice. Just don't put it into reverse instead of 5th gear or something. that could be interesting.
posted by defcom1 at 1:54 PM on February 2, 2005

It is immensely worthwhile to be able to drive stick. It's a skill that comes in handy when you're abroad or when you want to borrow someone else's car/truck that's stick, it's *hugely* more fun even in traffic. Also, automatics are gigantically complicated beasts that sometimes go make gooey kablooeys and will set you back $2-3K when they do; manuals have a lot less that can go wrong, except that you'll need to replace the clutch eventually.

The best way to practice is to grab someone who can drive stick -- even if they don't have one now -- and then go to a big, empty parking lot. Not a suburban street, not a street of any kind at all unless your area is devoid of big empty parking lots.

Just do it. Practice letting the clutch out, accelerating gently, accelerating like a motherfucker, get the feel for how the engine-braking works, all that jazz. You'll stall constantly for an hour or two, and then be safe for streets. Then you'll stall at least once per trip for a couple weeks, but no biggy, just restart the engine and go.

If you don't know anyone with a stick, you can probably rent one. If you're really concerned, buy a really POS old beater, or ask a junkyard owner how much to drive a stick-shift car around the lot for an hour; they probably have some runners in there.

I'm sure the tranny on either of those cars will be butch enough to stand up to your learning.

Just don't put it into reverse instead of 5th gear or something. that could be interesting.

I know you're joking, but I'd be astonished if those cars didn't have the usual interlocks to keep you from doing that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:05 PM on February 2, 2005

I wouldn't worry too much about the transmission or clutch of the car while you're learning. Case in point: our family had a 1972 VW bug that was used to teach my oldest brother how to drive stick in 1978, my middle brother to drive stick in 1980, and me to drive stick in 1982. We sold the car with an intact transmission and clutch (but with rusted out floorboards, running boards, and rocker panels) in 1983.
posted by plinth at 2:07 PM on February 2, 2005

I just learned to drive stick a couple of months ago so I could borrow my sister's truck. I'm reasonably competent now, but I'd rather be driving an automatic any day. Especially in the city. Maybe you'll enjoy driving a manual transmission, but if I were you, I wouldn't buy a car until I was sure.
posted by teg at 2:08 PM on February 2, 2005

I was in your exact position last year when I purchased my WRX. I tried to find schools that offered classes, but no luck. So I just read up on how to drive a stick, then took a few used cars out to get some hands on experience. But I pretty much learned how to drive stick on my new WRX.
Drove off the car lot and straight to an empty parking lot where I practiced until I felt good enough to drive home. Then I practiced more. The stick is well worth it, especially in a car with a turbo.

You'll bruise your ego more by stalling so often then damaging the transmission.
posted by mister e at 2:09 PM on February 2, 2005

I bought a standard-shift car (new) and had to learn how to drive with a manual transmission. The car was very forgiving and, 98,000km later, still is. I live in hilly Vancouver, and indeed the stop signs at the top of hills (or getting out of a paid underground parking lot) was the pits in the first week. After that, not so much.

You have to /think/ kinetically a lot more when you first start to drive standard - you have to know where your hand and both feet are, and /sense/ the car as you drive it. It's a short learning curve, however. You will love driving on highways with a stick. Perhaps less so in a daily commute.

Re performance driving classes - YES ! Go for it! When I first bought my car, I took a class in Puget Sound, on the Bremerton Raceway (decommissioned airstrip near the navy base, now used for driving classes and races). It was a fantastic day, I learned a lot, and bonded with my car in the process. Performance driving teaches you about the limits of your own car, and helps you assess its strenghts and address its weaknesses. A very good investment - and one hell of a fun day too
posted by seawallrunner at 2:15 PM on February 2, 2005

This is an interesting question to me as well. (See my question about cars for a first-time driver.) My driving school is teaching me on an automatic but my friend that I'm going to be practicing with (and everyone else I know here in Seattle - a hilly city with lots of traffic) has a stick shift. Everyone is telling me I should get a manual but I guess I have to try both and really see what works best for me. (BTW, the Mini comes in both.)
posted by matildaben at 2:18 PM on February 2, 2005

The best way to practice is to grab someone who can drive stick -- even if they don't have one now -- and then go to a big, empty parking lot. Not a suburban street, not a street of any kind at all unless your area is devoid of big empty parking lots.

I bought a manual before I knew how to drive stick, and this is pretty much what I did. I also had a friend who knew how to drive stick do the test drive with/for me.

As a goal to hit before I let myself use it in my commute, I found a big hill with a stop sign in the middle, and told myself that once I could come to a full stop at the sign, and then keep going without stalling or rolling backwards, I could drive on the commute.
posted by claxton6 at 2:19 PM on February 2, 2005

The Subaru I learned to drive stick on had an anti-rollback feature where you didn't roll back when starting on hills. I don't know if they still do this, or why no other company picked up on it, but it was pretty cool. If they still make them like that, it might be a factor in your decision of which car to buy.
posted by LionIndex at 2:20 PM on February 2, 2005

Bottom line, stick's not for everybody, but if you're the sort of person who's interested in Evo's and STi's you owe it to yourself to learn it. You get a completely different level of connection with the mechanics of the car, which is what driving a performance car is all about. In fact, shifting is a skill you'll be able to work on developing long after you're able to drive the car around town smoothly... wait till you're double-clutching and heel-and-toeing your downshifts, your feet on three pedals at once, STi's boxer engine rumbling as it spins up smoothly to match RPMs with the lower gear... mini orgasm coming into to every highway off-ramp just going to work.

It's not so hard to learn to drive stick. Couple things. You might want to have someone help you drive the car home, the first time. After that, just get to a parking lot and figure it out. Personally, I had fun learning when I finally kicked all my would-be tutors out of the car. Them trying to tell me what to do only made it nerve-wracking. The other big breakthrough trick that I've seen is, when you're first learning to get the car moving, to take it out to an empty *flat* parking lot somewhere and let it sit in neutral. Then, clutch in, put it in first, and *without using the gas pedal* slowly start to release the clutch. You'll probably stall a couple times, but eventually you'll notice there's a point just before you stall where the car actually "hooks" and starts rolling forward just a little. You can actually hold the clutch there and the car will inch forward without stalling. Do this a bunch until you get a general familiarity with where that spot is. It will make it much easier when you start to try it with the gas pedal. Also, like someone else said, avoid hills for the first few days. If you can find a sloped parking lot that can be a good spot to practice.

Also, AWD cars are a bit more difficult to shift smoothly just by nature of the drivetrain. If after two months with the car you're still not perfectly smooth, don't sweat it. You'll get it.

FWIW, even in cities and slow commutes, the stick has never bothered me.
posted by tirade at 2:28 PM on February 2, 2005

I think the technique they use to teach you to ride a motorcycle in the MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) classes is a good one. The first thing they teach you is to get a feel for the "friction point" of the clutch, which is the point where the transmission connects the engine power to the wheels. Go out to a parking lot and get the engine warmed up. Then, let out the clutch very slowly without using the gas at all. Try to get the car to move only a foot or two, then push the clutch back in and stop. Keep doing that over and over, all the way down the parking lot and back, until it is totally comfortable.

That will make it start to become ingrained that you need to use the clutch to control your speed, especially at low speeds. The easiest mistake to make at the beginning, IMHO, is to panic when you need to stop and just try to slam on the brakes while forgetting about the clutch, which this will help prevent.

Then try to cross the parking lot at a very low speed, say 5 mph, using the clutch to speed up and slow down. Once you can do all that you'll have a pretty good feel for the clutch and shifting gears, etc., will be pretty easy.
posted by mcguirk at 2:36 PM on February 2, 2005

Don't sweat it, anyone can drive a stick shift. They're tons of fun, so go get one. :) In a week you'll be pretty comfortable, and in a month you should be very smooth.

/another stick-shift-only bigot
posted by knave at 2:42 PM on February 2, 2005

Keep in mind that in traffic, you are going to be working that clutch a whole lot. If most of my driving were done in these conditions, I'd probably get an automatic.

The increase in control/power is also moot if you spend most of your driving time in stop & go traffic.

Just to show a different opinion I disagree completely with both of these statements. Having a stick in traffic allows me far greater control than having an automatic. See an opening? I might get there with an automatic, with a stick, I'm there.

I drive in heavy traffic every day and I never get tired of pushing the clutch. I've driven a stick for so long it's like clicking a mouse button, second nature.

And if you're getting a performance vehicle, it's a no brainer. I must admit however, I'm biased. When I was single I was determined to only marry a girl who would rather drive a stick, so I'm probably not the best person to ask.

If you enjoy driving, not just getting from A to B, get a stick.

(and don't listen to anyone who hasn't driven a stick for at least a year)
posted by justgary at 3:17 PM on February 2, 2005

If you're buying a used car, this may not help, but if you're buying a new car, the salesperson may offer to teach you! When I bought a new Saturn, the salesman told me he'd taught 19 people to drive a car with a manual transmission, and that he'd be happy to teach me as well. I went back to the dealership on a Saturday morning, and he drove us to a parking lot and spent about an hour teaching me to drive stick. Then before I took delivery of the car a few days later, he took me out in the actual vehicle I was buying to make sure I felt comfortable before I left.

So if you're buying a new car, you might be able to negotiate a couple of lessons. Make the salesperson work for that commission!

I still stalled out once on the way home, but that has to happen a few times before you're fully confident.
posted by hsoltz at 3:25 PM on February 2, 2005

Thanks for all the advice. Keep it coming if you have anything else to say. A follow-up question: does anyone think manumatics (tiptronic/steptronic/etc) provide most of the benefits of manuals without most of the costs? And which manumatic systems are best?
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:35 PM on February 2, 2005

The first thing they teach you is to get a feel for the "friction point" of the clutch, which is the point where the transmission connects the engine power to the wheels.

Every car's clutch has a slightly different friction point, too, but it's easy to get a feel for it. I learned when a roommate drove me to an empty parking lot with a steep hill, stopped the car halfway up and handed me the keys. 20 minutes later, I knew how to drive a manual car. Stoplights at hills were scary for another week or two. That's it.
posted by mediareport at 3:37 PM on February 2, 2005

A follow-up question: does anyone think manumatics (tiptronic/steptronic/etc) provide most of the benefits of manuals without most of the costs? And which manumatic systems are best?

Stay away. First, most of these systems are actually more like shiftable automatics rather than clutchless manuals. So you lose horsepower just like you would with an automatic - hey, I'm not sure anyone mentioned that yet - automatics are slower! The mechanics of an automatic transmission eats some of the power produced by the engine, meaning less of it gets to the wheels. Most of the manumatics in sub $100k cars are really automatics that let you tell the computer what gear to select, and they vary in how much they try to nanny you. I believe some of them will even upshift for you before redline without you telling them to. I'd say they actually provide few of the benefits with all of the costs and then some. Speaking of costs, I'm not sure if anyone else mentioned that you often save money by going with the manual - you often have to pay extra for an auto, and often even more (like $1k+ more) for a manumatic. Boo.
posted by tirade at 3:53 PM on February 2, 2005

does anyone think manumatics (tiptronic/steptronic/etc) provide most of the benefits of manuals without most of the costs?

No. If it doesn't have a clutch it's still a slushbox. High performance cars like the M3 have a computer-controlled manual transmission, so the "automatic" is really just a manual where you aren't doing the work. But I'd still take a clutch over that setup.
posted by knave at 3:54 PM on February 2, 2005

my experience was the same as mediareport & others. went to an empty-ish hill, provided lots of amusement for various friends who braved the passenger seat, eventually got the hang of it and wouldn't go back to automatic. and if i can learn stick in san francisco, you can learn anywhere.
posted by judith at 3:58 PM on February 2, 2005

Thanks for all the advice. Keep it coming if you have anything else to say. A follow-up question: does anyone think manumatics (tiptronic/steptronic/etc) provide most of the benefits of manuals without most of the costs? And which manumatic systems are best?

No. They're just frustrating. The ones I've driven feel just like manually switching the gears in an auto.
posted by esch at 3:59 PM on February 2, 2005

Good luck to you - but you won't really need it. You need practice: if 99% of teenage learners here in the UK can learn how to drive a manual (automatics are very rare here), I'm confident so can you. Hill starts are just a matter of knowing the car, confidence and practice: I say this as someone who learned in my mid-20's to drive (and I thought I'd never pass my test!)

It seems the rarity of the manual gearbox car is the problem: how do you practice on something you have no access to? It looks like you are gonna buy a stick shift: try to take a day or two off work, spend the maximum amount of time on the road with your new car, and enjoy yourself.

Let us know how it went!
posted by dash_slot- at 4:09 PM on February 2, 2005

I like having something to do with my left foot.

If you do have that little bit of experince you mentioned I think you are good to go. You will not ruin the car. Have fun!

I learned to drive a stick on my borther-in-law's 280Z. With no previous experience, I drove home (2+ hours) with it after about 15 minutes of learning -- really very little. I was in the driver's seat after all and the car was moving. (They wanted to borrow my VW Camper -- not a bad trade -- the Z has a little more get-up-and-go.)

The real fun begins when you rent a stick with opposite hand drive -- on skinny roads where you don't know your way and... whoa! Here's your first traffic circle!

posted by Dick Paris at 4:23 PM on February 2, 2005

I have been trying to find a driving school to teach my partner how to drive stick. I find it very difficult to teach people, but I know it's not that hard to learn. All the schools here have a two lesson minimum, and they seldom have manual cars.

You really just need to get the feel of your clutch down and you're home free. Once you begin to get the hang of it, keep driving. My mom taught me the basics of driving a clutch, and then had me drive home through rush hour traffic in Chicago. It was start and stop for an hour, and I seldom got out of first. By the time we got home, I was completely comfortable.

Personally, I love manuals and refuse to buy an automatic. There are quite a few advantages. It's harder to sell manuals, so you can use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations. Fewer bad drivers ask to borrow your car. Here in Toronto a few car-jackers have been forced to flee on foot when faced with a clutch. Manual transmissions are cheaper to repair.

You should be able to tell during the test drive if you will enjoy it. It really is something anyone can learn.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:26 PM on February 2, 2005

p.s. I hear manumatics are quite difficult to manipulate. You need to downship much more than you would in a real car.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:35 PM on February 2, 2005

I have the Infiniti G35 coupe with the manumatic, it is not the same as having a clutch. (I have some regrets since I this is my first automatic)

When I am pounding down a curvy road, I really miss the manual, but sitting in traffic for hours can sway me back.

Best to have a cheap automatic equipped commute car and a fun manual for the weekend.. (Just not very practical)
posted by mbell at 5:06 PM on February 2, 2005

Keep in mind that Mitsu has been in big financial trouble these past few years. Their continued viability is, afaik, still uncertain.

I've driven stick for the past (omg) twenty years. I swore I'd never own an automatic. I've never felt comfortable in an automatic. I hate automatics. I love driving stick, I love the shifting and instant overdrive and engine braking and all that great jazz.

Then last weekend my wife bought an automatic.

I quite like it. If I were a commuter, I've no doubt that now I've had a taste, I'd go for it. A much more mellowing sort of drive. And because it's a wagonish base-model Subaru Forester, it just doesn't matter in the least that it's automatic: it was never going to be a "fun-fun" car to drive.

That said, there's no way in hell a WRX should ever have an automatic. It would make a complete mockery of the car. But, too, there's no way in hell a WRX should be a commuter car. It yearns for the open highway, not bloody stop-and-go crowded traffic. Ick.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2005

One point I might add. If your serious, a Suburu WRX STi or the Evo both have relatively small engines (about 2.5L) to meet World Rally racing spec and as a result use lots of turbo charging to get those 300+ horsepower. Lots of turbo means it they hit peak torque at narrow and high RPM range, not to mention in your face turbo lag.

Long story short, they're tricky to drive standards as standards go.
But once it master them, wicked fun.
posted by Leonard at 6:18 PM on February 2, 2005

They may be tricky to drive in terms of getting the ultimate performance, but not tricky to drive in general. I drove a turbo for many years and the key to performance was shifting at high rpms to keep the turbo spinning. However, the engine is small and at low rpms acts just like an economy car with forgiveness everywhere, except when you want to get up and go from a standing start - this is a challenge with a turbo. The other big advantage of a turbo - when you granny it rather than rod it the gas mileage is fantastic.
posted by caddis at 6:41 PM on February 2, 2005

A follow-up question: does anyone think manumatics (tiptronic/steptronic/etc) provide most of the benefits of manuals without most of the costs?

If they're anything like what was in my old honda, you get the worst of both worlds.

Get a manual. Actually drive your car.
posted by pompomtom at 6:51 PM on February 2, 2005

Jumping in late here, but figure I might as well add my own two cents...

I learned to drive stick the day I picked up the first car I bought at a dealership. I actualy called up a friend living in Seattle at the time to talk me through the basic operation of the clutch, then I practiced the order while sitting in a train heading off to the car dealership.

The car salesman was obviously more interested in a sale then in my personal safety, because they let me drive the car off the lot after a thoroughly miserable test-drive where I stalled about four times. Stalling is a lot better than grinding gears, though. The drive back into Boston at the height of rush hour was a humbling education, and that weekend I did nothing but practice slow driving around empty parking lots.

I've found one sure-fire way to teach someone how to drive stick. First, push the clutch in all the way and engage a gear. Keep you feet on the clutch and brake (obviously the brake!). Now, very, very slowly, lift the clutch foot up. Very slowly. At some magic point, you will feel the car's idle get very bumpy--this is the gear partially engaging and wearing out your clutch. Better your clutch then your gears.

Anyway, that point of roughness is the sweet spot. When you hit that spot you want take your brake foot and switch over to the gas. The further off the clutch you go, the more you press on the gas. A cross-section of your feet would have one going up while the other goes down. But you have to find that sweet spot or you'll be over- or under-gassing and looking quite the fool.

Anyway, good luck and keep your wits about you and you'll be fine. Drive in the break-down lane if you have to until you get the hang of it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:25 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

On one hand, you save $1000 roughly on the cost of an automatic transmission car, by buying a manual shift car. But when you replace the clutch (which you'll be doing if you drive in the kind of traffic you're talking about) you'll just spend that money anyway. So you'll need to ask why you're getting a manual shift car. It won't be justified by economics.

I will say that knowing how to drive shift is very, very handy if you rent a car overseas and need to save money. You'll spend a lot more per day on an automatic rental in the UK, in particular.

The best way to learn is to rent a manual shift car and drive it for a week in the suburbs or rural areas, where there's less traffic. Get a compact car so that you can learn parallel parking without sweating about hitting the car behind you.
posted by AlexReynolds at 7:53 PM on February 2, 2005

The difference in price between stick and automatic is just supply and demand. For some sporty cars, the automatic is actually cheaper, because nobody in their right minds wants one there.

But, assume you save $1K. Yeah, you're going to lose that in ~8--12 years when you have to redo the clutch (or am I weird in having a Z that didn't need a new clutch until ~130K miles, and now having a Prelude with ~130K miles on its original clutch?). But I dunno, it seems like manuals just don't full-on *break* nearly as often as automatics do, and when an automatic goes blooey, that's gonna set you back $2K or more, easy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:24 PM on February 2, 2005

Actually, when purchasing a performance vehicle the perverse logic seems to prevail and manual transmissions frequently cost the same or sometimes even more than an automatic. A few (perhaps many) years ago the Corvette was sold with only an automatic as the engine had so much torque it destroyed the manual transmission they had planned to use. It took a year or so to get a good beefy manual tranny designed and then I think you had to pay extra for it. I am a little unsure about the finances but the mechanics are legendary - how can you launch a powerful new Vette with only an auto option?
posted by caddis at 8:33 PM on February 2, 2005

Sorry if I repeat anything, I've skimmed the second half of this thread.

Further to places to learn to drive a manual (someone mentioned parking lots), I find that housing estates/subdivisions that are under construction are perfect on weekends: no people (no-one's moved in; builders don't work on weekends); perfect, brand-new roads; and good visibility (no established gardens or trees; most of the houses are frames).

The best method I find -- and I've used this to teach a bunch of people to get used to manual transmissions -- is to make out a loop on the estate, preferably one with a hill/sharp corner, and just drive round and round and round the loop. Just driving round a block will do. Make it a figure-of-eight or something for extra difficulty.

It's like when you play a driving computer game: the first couple of times you're crap and bump into things, and after numerous repetitions you're Michael Schumacher.

Same principle applies (though perhaps without the bumping into things/Schumacher stuff): the first couple of times you'll be grinding and all over the shop, but then after a couple of laps you'll know when to shift down to take that corner at the bottom of the hill, and that you'll need to take the corner just before the top with slightly higher revs, etc. You can focus on refining your approach. Then, once you're proficient on that loop, you change direction and do it the other way round, or take another route around the estate. Rinse, repeat.

The good thing here is the repetition, as opposed to just idly driving around traffic. (So don't make the loop too long.)

The reason I prefer manuals, FWIW, is the increased control I have over the car. I use the gearbox to slow the car (as well as the brakes) by changing down through the gears. I feel uncomfortable that I can't do that in an automatic.
posted by bright cold day at 9:43 PM on February 2, 2005

All the advice here about learning to drive a manual, and the joys it can bring, are spot on. My first new-new car (V8 convertible ;-) with essentially no experience I ordered as a manual, and drove it off the dealer lot stalling five times in only three stops. I found some quiet side streets and drove it for a few hours, and by the end of the night, I had it pretty well down. Another week, and some intentional standing-start-from-a-uphill-stop-sign practice, and I was more than comfortable enough for my commute.

But, I'll add a bit to what both Leonard and caddis said:

The WRX/STi (which I own) and probably the Evo (which I've never sat in) call for a different driving style than either a low-power econo car, or a high-displacement/huge-low-end-torque pony car. Neither one will be terribly forgiving of your newbie mistakes.

Standing stop tip: At first, the WRX will be a gutless wonder. Seriously, the little Honda grocery-getter will seem like it's pulling out of the stoplight faster. If this doesn't happen to you, it's either because you're an amazing natural with a manual, or you're burning the hell out of your clutch. More likely the latter. The small displacement (no low-end torque) will conspiring with the AWD drivetrain (takes extra power to spin), sooo... below 2K RPM's, if you're not burning the clutch, you *will* stall it. More than a few times. Don't worry, be happy, and learn where your clutch engagement point really is, and how to modulate the throttle properly for a smooth takeoff. The more you do this, the smoother, and more natural it will be. Be kind to the car. It will still be fast when you learn how to be.

Of course, at speed, above 2.5-3K RPM, it will push you back into your seat. Turbocharged joy. And power as a defensive driving technique? Come on. Who are you kidding? Anything over about 150 hp for a small passenger car is just flat out macho excessive. Not that there's anything wrong with that. ;-) Buy it, learn with it, and row those gears for all they're worth.
posted by zeypher at 9:45 PM on February 2, 2005

Of course, at speed, above 2.5-3K RPM, it will push you back into your seat. Turbocharged joy.

It is what I love most about my Saab. It's a fun little car. After I replaced my little Honda riceburner, I no longer had to downshift to get up hills, but now I want to downshift, to blow past slowpokes! Enjoy your turbo.

Use it wisely; a new turbocharger is expensive.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:02 PM on February 2, 2005

I use the gearbox to slow the car (as well as the brakes) by changing down through the gears. I feel uncomfortable that I can't do that in an automatic.

Well, you can if you really want to. Just shift from D/overdrive to D to 2 to 1. It feels pretty damn silly though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:52 PM on February 2, 2005

Turbocharged joy.

Bah. Superchargers man. That foot-on-the-pedal, instantaneous boost you get by just slamming down the gas--rpm's be damned--is totally where it's at.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:14 AM on February 3, 2005

Chiming wayyy too late here, but one thing I found after picing up a '90 CRX with a stick - I used to get in accidents about twice a year, and haven't had a one in the last three years. Having to worry about the gears and stuff keeps me much more alert.
posted by notsnot at 10:40 AM on February 3, 2005

Waaaay to late as well, but anyway.

If any of my driving was in snowy/icey conditions, automatic gears would be the second choice.
And since I live in Sweden, it is.

The number one thing you do to take control of your car when it starts sliding is to push the clutch to the bottom, and thereby terminate the engine's control over the car. You can't stear a car on a non-predictable surface with an automatic gear box, sorry.

Btw, in Sweden, in order to have a "real" license to drive you have to take you test driving manual. A small "A" on your driving license means you are only qualified to drive an automatic. Which basically means you're handicapped.
posted by mr.marx at 3:15 PM on February 3, 2005

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