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July 24, 2013 8:06 AM   Subscribe

How do I go about test driving a car that is perfect for my needs—in terms of price, personality, condition and fit into my life—except that I don't drive manual?

When I was in high school all my friends told me that the only way to make yourself learn stick was to buy a car that had it. I'm fine with learning, I just have no idea how to get past the test drive. My lady friend hasn't done it since high school either. I'm having the car transferred specifically for this purpose, and I'm fairly certain that if I can test drive it I'll buy it.

Is driving stick something I can get the rudiments of via youtube or a chat with my expert brother by phone, and then do well enough for a test drive—obviously getting better as I own the car?
posted by littlerobothead to Travel & Transportation (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have friends who are willing to teach you with their car? Learning to drive stick is something you really need to get the feel for--not something you can learn online. Alternately, can you get a pal to test drive the car for you?
posted by mollymayhem at 8:12 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can learn to ride a bicycle online, then you can learn to drive a stick shift online. In other words, the answer to your specific question is no.

If you're in a hurry, seconding the pal idea. If you can take your time, take some lessons or get a friend to teach you.
posted by beagle at 8:15 AM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Have you ever driven anything with a clutch? Motorcycle? The clutch is the tricky part for most people, and I doubt it's something you could learn from a video. It is, as mollymayhem says, something you have to feel. But if you've ever driven anything with any kind of clutch, you'd pick it up quickly in a car.
posted by bricoleur at 8:15 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is driving stick something I can get the rudiments of via youtube or a chat with my expert brother by phone, and then do well enough for a test drive—obviously getting better as I own the car?

An emphatic No. Find a friend with a manual-transmission car, or find a driving school in your area and tell them you need to learn to drive a stick. If you're an experienced driver, it won't take more than a few hours.
posted by Etrigan at 8:15 AM on July 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Agree with others, you need to get a feel for it physically.

You'll put some extra wear on the clutch while learning, so offer your friend a few bucks/drinks/dinner to sweeten the deal.
posted by scose at 8:18 AM on July 24, 2013

The other thing you've got to consider is that some people (like me) think that driving a manual sucks. My first two or three cars were manual, because they were cheaper, and I swore that I would never do it again. I'd be hesitant to gamble on whether or not I'd like it if I wasn't forced to.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:21 AM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Get a friend to drive it for you with you riding shotgun.

I taught my son to drive a stick. It takes time and effort and ideally an empty open parking lot. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:21 AM on July 24, 2013

Oh, and on preview: I always found driving a stick shift to be fun, and once I'd learned, automatic.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:22 AM on July 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

No, you can't learn to drive stick by watching a video. It takes practice and requires you to get the feeling for it. Also, learning to drive stick on very short notice and then trying to do it alone, on a test-drive, sounds like a totally stressful situation that might end up making you hate the car for the wrong reasons. Not to mention the fact that if I were the seller, I wouldn't want you driving my car without knowing how to drive manual.

I definitely think you should have a friend test-drive the car for you, with you riding shotgun.
posted by ohmy at 8:26 AM on July 24, 2013

Response by poster: @Dasein This isn't an individual seller. They're aware that I don't know how to drive manual. Part of the reason I'm asking is that the dealer actually suggested a number of options and I was sort of floating them here for opinions.
posted by littlerobothead at 8:26 AM on July 24, 2013

Best answer: When I bought my current car, it wasn't the first time I had driven stick but it was the first time I had driven stick on public roads or in anything smaller than a Ranger. About all I could guarantee was eventual forward motion. There's no way I could have detected issues with the drivetrain, and in fact I missed some issues with the brakes because the thumping noise didn't stand out in the chaos.

I'd recommend you get a friend who is comfortable already in stick to do the driving on your test drive. This may still be your lady friend, as I think it's the sort of skill that comes back quickly.

I did become functional in the car pretty quickly. Natural took a bit longer, though after a few years I've now gotten to the point where I have forgotten which car I was driving while making an accelerating turn and concluded "oh, my hand was moving, it must be the stick car".
posted by sparktinker at 8:30 AM on July 24, 2013

The thing about standard transmission is that some people love it and others hate it, but you don't have a frame of reference to know where you will end up. If you do a lot of city driving a stick can get annoying. Is this car remotely sporty? If so, the stick adds a dimension of fun to driving it. If it is stick just to keep the car cheap then it is probably more along the lines of a compromise than a feature.
posted by dgran at 8:31 AM on July 24, 2013

Best answer: You should find out how much a new clutch is going to cost you and expect that you will be needing this service in the near future should you buy the car. Clutches get burned out particularly by novice users, so don't sweat it, but do realistically plan this into your maintenance budget.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:32 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does the dealer have any related cars that are in automatic? Such as a different trim or body style, or even a different model that shares the chassis?

I learned stick in Rangers, as I mentioned, and at the time most of my automatic driving experience was in the Bronco II, Explorer, and Aerostar. This made it easier for me because I already had a feel for the vehicle, even if not with the new user interface. If you want a rough idea of what driving your new car would be like, a related car might give you at least some information.
posted by sparktinker at 8:36 AM on July 24, 2013

Get a couple of driving lessons in a manual car, until you're confident that you can drive around safely without stalling and you can do a hill start.

Then when doing a test drive, take a friend who normally drives a manual car, and get them to drive it vigorously and tell you what it feels like. Then you can drive it for a bit to get a feel for things like the seat positioning and the steering and things that don't rely on you being completely comfortable with the gear changes just yet.
posted by emilyw at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2013

Buy a different car. Get an automatic. I can drive stick just fine and I own three cars, all of which are automatics, because I hate driving a stick shift most days (i.e., any time there's traffic).

Even if you learn to drive a stick shift, there's no guarantee you don't hate it too.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2013

I did this, by test driving the most similar car the dealership had in auto, and then riding in the passenger seat while a friend drove the manual version. Then I had my dad drive the car home from the lot, because I still had no clue. The next 3 days were spent jack-rabbiting like an idiot, but now there is going to have to be a darn good reason for me to ever go back to auto. (I'm very sad the car I want next doesn't even have manual in the trim level I want...). It was a risk, but in the end it worked out for me.

I wouldn't recommend trying to learn stick on a test drive though; you'll be paying too much attention to not stalling the car vs the actual car and the drive. Driving a stick requires practice, not theory.
posted by cgg at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can learn on your first try, but I don't think it will do anything in terms of giving you what you want/expect from a test drive. I was forced to learn to drive one under fire; my then girlfriend had a Ford pickup (There's a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford...) that was manual and when we were camping, she cut herself but good. This was before cell phones were widely available so I had to drive her to the nearest town to get treatment. Once you get it in first gear, getting it in the higher gears was easy. The real problem was the uphill stop sign.

If I were you, I would follow the above advice and either take lessons or have a friend who is experienced test drive it for you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:38 AM on July 24, 2013

Test-driving a manual car without knowing how to drive manual is just silly. You're not going to discover anything about the car while you struggle with getting it in motion. The test drive will teach you nothing, other than you suck at driving manual.
posted by ryanrs at 8:39 AM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about finding a friend who knows cars and drives stick and having them actually do the test-drive, while you ride along? You'll be hearing and feeling how the car drives, they can report their perceptions, and you can direct them to explore and test various aspects of the car's performance.

Once/if you buy the car, maybe that same friend could take you out (first in a parking lot, then on a hill) and teach you to drive stick.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:44 AM on July 24, 2013

Response by poster: We had a friend come to the rescue. He's always driven stick, and he's happy to help out. For the curious, I've always *wanted* to learn to drive stick—in fact, I'm a car nut and it's weird that I never have—but this car put me over the top. In addition to being a car nut, I'm a MINI nut (this is a Cooper) and I'm told that they're fun to drive and possibly really intended to be manual drive cars. Thanks all for your suggestions!
posted by littlerobothead at 8:45 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Test-driving a manual car without knowing how to drive manual is just silly. You're not going to discover anything about the car while you struggle with getting it in motion. The test drive will teach you nothing, other than you suck at driving manual.

I agree with this. Have a good friend who knows how to drive manual and test drive it with them. I am a person who bought a car that was a stick shift before I knew how to drive stick shift. However I was 16 and my parents test drove it for me. Turns out I LOVE to drive stick and have tried to buy stick shift cars whenever possible since then. Unless you live in a place with a lot of stop-and-go-traffic or a lot of crazy hills, a stick shift car should be fine and extra fine if it's a performance car. That said, if it's a nice enough car that a dealer is going and getting it for you, it is nice enough that you don't want to be flailing around with the transmission. Do you have another friend with a stick shift car that you could learn on in the meantime? It doesn't take long to learn but it does take more than, say 15 minutes.
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 AM on July 24, 2013

Nthing that you won't be a good judge at all of how well the car would work (for you) if you've never driven a stick before. I grew up in manual cars, learned to drive manual cars, have driven lots of manual cars over the years. Like automatics, they're different from each other; some sticks will feel much better to drive, and others you'll hate - all for pretty subjective reasons - but with no experience you won't be able to tell what's "good" about it and what's "bad," especially on a test drive. For instance, for me, one of the things I want to know when I drive a stick is where the sweet spot is for hill starts (this is an important thing to know in San Francisco especially). Having driven a lot of manual cars, I can suss this out pretty quickly. You won't be able to at all.
posted by rtha at 8:46 AM on July 24, 2013

Is driving stick something I can get the rudiments of via youtube or a chat with my expert brother by phone

Nope. It's a physical skill, like riding a bicycle or hitting a baseball; you can learn the theory of it in ten seconds but you won't be able to do it until you've actually practiced.

(Here's the whole theory: push the clutch in before changing gears. Let the clutch out slowly after changing gears, while adjusting the gas to a speed that will let the gears engage smoothly. Change gears to a higher number if the engine is revving too fast; or to a lower number if it's working too hard. That's all there is to it. But learning when to change gears or what level of pressure on the gas pedal will be the "right" amount to let the gears engage is pretty much a matter of practice until you get it right.)

Don't buy this car until after you've learned to drive stick and know whether you prefer it to auto. You may love driving stick, or you may find it annoying and unnecessary; it's really a matter of taste... it'd be a shame to find that out too late.

Have your friend teach you to drive stick in his car before you buy your own.
posted by ook at 8:49 AM on July 24, 2013

I basically did the same thing! I had a few lessons in a parking lot beforehand in a friend's car to get the feel for it.

I test drove an automatic on the dealer lot so I could concentrate on everything else about the test drive. After purchasing, driving the stick shift off the dealer lot was a great, if challenging experience.

Let me tell you that you will learn how to drive stick very quickly once put into a situation when you're forced to do it.
posted by dobi at 8:54 AM on July 24, 2013

I've taught plenty of people to drive with an MT and every one of them has picked it up quickly. The idea that you need to budget for a clutch replacement that's coming soon is one that's hard to take seriously.

You'll get the basics quite quickly and you can refine the technique in empty parking lots.
posted by ambient2 at 9:37 AM on July 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

The idea that you need to budget for a clutch replacement that's coming soon is one that's hard to take seriously.

Just wanted to second this in case it's an anxiety for you. My parents taught me and my three siblings to drive in stick shift cars which we all used heavily (and this is back in primitive times--modern transmissions are all silky smooth by comparison to the cars we were driving); even with four novices bunny-hopping about the place and wreaking various kinds of havoc on those cars we never burned out the clutch. Modern day transmissions are unbelievably forgiving. It really won't take you too long to get the hang of it, and you're unlikely to do much more than knock a few months off the expected life of your clutch.

That said, a word on the stick v. automatic decision; it all depends what kind of driving you do. If a health chunk of your driving is stop-and-go traffic jam stuff, you'll be heartily sick of the stick shift in no time. If there's a lot of twisty hill roads where you're free to pretend that you're in the Monte Carlo rally then driving stick's a blast; the tipping point is somewhere between those two extremes.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on July 24, 2013

Call a car rental place and get a manual car to rent. Have them deliver it to you at the dirt mall, or a local high school (closed for the summer + summer teacher training=big open parking lots). Drive in circles until you figure out low gear, them hit the roads until you're comfortable.

I learned to drive stick in one morning, after I had to follow a roommate to the mechanic in his brother's car. Both cars were manual; we were the only available drivers. It's not as hard as people say.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:08 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take a motorcycle safety course. They'll teach you to ride a motorcycle, which involves driving a manual transmission. Obviously it's different physical movement but you'll get the idea of how to work a clutch and when and how to shift.

Plus you get to ride motorcycles.
posted by chairface at 10:09 AM on July 24, 2013

There is no reason to worry especially about the clutch, other than the wear that is already on it (and I've heard that mini clutches are undersized). When you're learning, you mostly let it out too fast, causing it to stall, which is annoying, and in the wrong circumstances even can be dangerous, but does not burn the clutch much. OTOH, you will find that giving it a LOT of gas while letting the clutch out slowly will work, but that WILL burn the clutch. Some people develop the habit of doing this, and these are the people who burn through clutches. You have to learn to give it just enough gas at exactly the friction point to get the car moving with minimal slippage.

FWIW, I taught my teen-age daughter to drive a stick on my Passat, and eventually passed it down to her, after 175000 miles. She's had it two more years. All on the original clutch.
posted by mr vino at 10:45 AM on July 24, 2013

Some driving schools teach manual and have the cars to use. I would pay for their instructor and car instead of possibly ruining a friendship or friends clutch while initially learning.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:58 AM on July 24, 2013

I learned to drive manual when I took drivers' ed (cough cough) 20 years ago. Some driving schools offer this, some don't, but I bet there's one in your town or city. I took 4 of my 7 driving hours on a manual and learned enough to be able to drive a manual when needed. It didn't become really natural for me until I drove a relative's spare, standard transmission, car for an entire summer in college.

So, if you want this MINI (and I understand the inclination), get your friend to test drive it. Go take some lessons at a driving school. Then start driving -- but avoid situations where you might need super-fast reflexes, etc. (like crazy highway traffic, particularly on hills), at least for the first few months. Drive a lot around neighborhoods, and on back roads, and get the feel for the clutch. Within a few months, the shifter will be an extension of your arm.
posted by devinemissk at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2013

It's a Mini...

I have a six-speed Mini Cooper S. You'll have a blast and the car is much more fun to drive than its automatic transmission counterpart. Enjoy!
posted by carmicha at 12:49 PM on July 24, 2013

One tip no one has mentioned, courtesy of the Car Talk guys: when learning to drive a stick, start by engaging the clutch only, without using the accelerator pedal. Push in the clutch, put the car in first, and slowly let up on the clutch until it starts to engage. Learn what it feels like, and try to get the car moving without stalling. If it sounds like it's about to stall, push the clutch in, then try again. Once you've mastered that, you can try using the gas pedal when you engage the clutch, but doing them separately gives you a much better sense of what it feels like when the clutch engages.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2013

Another tip, if you buy the car and find the clutch is too aggressively springy to operate easily, you can have it adjusted.
posted by yohko at 12:45 PM on July 25, 2013

I had my folks give me a crash-course in driving a stick before I picked up my New Beetle from the dealership back in '02.

I took it back to the dealer shortly after I bought it (because I'd gotten into a not-my-fault accident) and apparently I was known as "the customer who stalled it twenty times trying to get out of the parking lot".
posted by Lucinda at 3:32 PM on July 25, 2013

Here in the UK, you're actually not allowed to drive cars with manual transmission if you passed your test in an automatic. I have a couple of years driving with a manual gearbox and I still don't feel like an expert. You definitely wouldn't get anything out of a test drive, but on the other hand it's not really harder to learn than anything else about driving. It eventually becomes one more thing to add to your list of things to monitor on the road.

This is more, things I wish I'd known before taking up driving a stick. Maybe some of this will help you make your decision.

In my experience, it's something you have to get a physical sense for, and it takes a bit of time. Experienced drivers aren't very good at translating what they're doing into instructions, often, so don't be put off if what they say doesn't work. Watch their feet if you're in the passenger seat.

Oddly enough, given what everyone has said, stop-start traffic is a good way to practice. You just need a thick skin! But with the traffic moving so slowly, it's relatively safe to be a bit slow off the mark or stall sometimes.

I think it is a bit like riding a bike, in that you have to have a kind of physical sense of when you've got enough momentum to lift the clutch and get rolling. I found reading up about the mechanism of clutches helpful in visualising what was happening, and translating that into control of the car, but I'm quite a visual/physical person.

In summary, if you like the car, a bit of practice in your own learning style will see you right with the stick.
posted by danteGideon at 2:39 AM on July 26, 2013

I found reading up about the mechanism of clutches helpful in visualising what was happening, and translating that into control of the car

Oh my yes!

I never quite grasped exactly what I was doing until I got a chance to play around with a cutaway transmission. The secret to smooth shifting is to get a reasonable match between the speed of the clutch and the speed of the gear you are shifting into. Some older cars are balky enough that you won't be able to downshift unless you do this. It's much easier to understand with at least some pictures.
posted by yohko at 12:26 PM on July 26, 2013

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