Novice stick shift driver renting a manual transmission car in Norway
April 11, 2019 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm an experienced driver learning how to drive stick shift. I'd like to rent a stick shift car when I visit Norway at the end of May for some hiking, although I won't have much opportunity to practice before I go. Is this doable?

I've been taught the basics, but haven't been able to consistently practice and stall a lot, take a long time to do hill starts, etc. I'll be hiking Preikestolen and Trolltunga, so I'll be driving in some hilly areas and taking car ferries. I'll be taking a few refresher classes before going, but won't have much time or opportunity to practice otherwise, since it's near impossible to find places that rent out manual transmission vehicles in the US (I'm in NYC, in case anyone has suggestions for this!).
posted by rhythm and booze to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, an hour or so of practice will see you getting the hang of a stick shift. It's really not that hard, as long as you don't panic when there's someone behind you when you're trying to get going. Even then, just wave them around you. You're not going to break the car if you over-rev for a second or two or stall out. Getting into first is the hardest. I practiced going into reverse to start with, as that's a bit easier to learn how to clutch / gas. You don't need a whole parking lot or anything, just a few feet more than the car so you can get the feel of it. Everything after first is cake. Don't forget to downshift and you'll be fine.

For hilly areas, don't neglect using the emergency brake as a supplement as you're getting the car in gear. That's only really necessary on *steep* hills, though, so don't be intimidated.

You can do this!
posted by ananci at 7:15 PM on April 11, 2019

My experience driving in Scandinavia was from Copenhagen to Gothenburg and back so not Norway but imagine similar in many respects. The roads were well maintained and the drivers were just amazing compared to drivers on the US east coast. Your profile says that you are in NYC and IMO if you're used to that you should be just fine, this may be the most relaxing drive you've had in a while.
posted by dudemanlives at 7:53 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The central skill for stick is what I've taught all my kids first: nudging.

Get somewhere flat and open, like an empty parking lot. Put the handbrake on and move the stick to neutral.

Start the car. Press the clutch pedal all the way to the floor with your left foot. Give a little voom with your right foot; if the car has a tacho, take it to about 1500rpm or if not, make the engine note rise about an octave from idle.

Ease the stick into first gear, then let off the handbrake. Because you're on the flat, the car won't move.

Now ease the clutch pedal out ever so slowly until the car just begins to move, then immediately slam it fast to the floor again. The idea is to make the car move about a foot - certainly less than a metre - and then stop on its own.

Keep doing that until you're reliably able to nudge the car to exactly where you predict that it will go. This exercise is all about training your clutch pedal foot to feel what it's telling the clutch to do. If you find that you're stalling or the car is trying to leap into motion, you're easing off the clutch too quickly. Slow, slow, slow and patient is the go.

Now do the same exercise again, but using reverse instead of first, and nudge the car repeatedly until you've got it back to where you started.

Congratulations! You have just acquired the exact skills you need in order to achieve a reverse parallel park in a stick-shift that's as smooth and controlled as your existing reverse parallel park in an auto.

Back into first, and put the handbrake on. Now do exactly the same feet-moves as you would have done to achieve a nudge with it off. This time, instead of the car moving you will just feel it sit forward a tiny bit onto its front wheels and you will hear the engine note drop some. Do that four or five times until you're comfortable with it and can do it without stalling.

This exercise is about training your clutch pedal foot to find the "take-up point" - the position where the clutch just starts to engage and connect the engine to the gearbox.

Once you're comfortable with that part, work on getting your clutch foot to move more quickly between flat-to-the-floor and the take-up point. That slow, slow, careful easing you've been doing up until now is what you need to do once you reach the take-up point; the only reason for going super-slow right off the floor before now was to make sure you don't stall before your foot understands where the take-up point actually is.

Next, leave the handbrake on, take your clutch foot to the take-up point, then release the handbrake. The car will begin to move forward. If you're doing it right, it will have about as much eagerness to move as an auto does when you ease off the foot brake and let it creep forward at idle.

And once it's moving, you can give a little more voom with your accelerator foot as you continue to ease your foot off the clutch pedal - slowly, slowly with both feet! until the clutch pedal is all the way up, at which point you put your foot on the floor instead of on the pedal and drive gently around in first gear.

This might all sound a bit elementary and kiddie and WTF why am I bothering with this I've been driving for years and they already taught me this on Stick 101 Day 1 so fuck off, but it really is The Thing to practice.

Actually working out which gear you need to be in at any given time is the easy part of learning stick, because the car's behaviour will constantly remind you. The tricky part, and the Big New Thing for an accomplished auto driver, is teaching your left foot what a clutch feels like, where the take-up point is on the particular clutch you're using that day, and how to do a smooth transition between clutch-disengaged just below the take-up point and clutch-fully-engaged just above it.

By the way, if you're one of those auto drivers who is accustomed to using your right foot on the accelerator and your left on the brake, you will need to unlearn that before you even sit in a stick shift. Left foot is clutch foot only.

It is worth spending a solid hour just sitting in an abandoned car park practising nothing but nudging. Because if you can learn to do that smoothly and predictably, the rest of learning stick will come super-easily. If you don't bother, learning stick will involve far, far more stalling and frustration and panic than it ever needs to.

By the way, the part of the dance where you start the car moving by letting off the handbrake? That works perfectly well when the car is pointing up hills, too, and it saves all that horrible panic where the machine starts rolling backwards on you. The only difference for an actual hill start is that on the hill you will need to use a little more accelerator.

I've taught three kids and two adults to drive stick, and in all cases I've taught them nudging, then nudging in reverse, then nudging up a hill, before teaching them anything else; the rest has always then been quite straightforward.
posted by flabdablet at 9:00 PM on April 11, 2019 [87 favorites]

Also btw: as an experienced stick shift driver, a bit of nudging practice is still the first thing I do when I get behind the wheel of a car I haven't driven before or haven't driven for a long time. Every stick shift car's clutch pedal is slightly different, as is the interplay between weight and engine power and responsiveness, and a few minutes of focused deliberate concentration on teaching this particular car's clutch and accelerator to my feet before attempting to drive it properly always pays off.
posted by flabdablet at 9:32 PM on April 11, 2019 [10 favorites]

The alternative is to rent a car with automatic transmission. It will be much less stressful and you will have a more relaxed vacation. Trying to handle an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar country with unfamiliar road signs doesn't sound like fun.

There are plenty of automatic transmission rentals available in Norway. Easier than finding a manual rental in the U.S. The automatic will cost you a few more US dollars a day.
posted by JackFlash at 9:40 PM on April 11, 2019 [18 favorites]

Trying to self-teach stick jetlagged in an airport parking lot, before hitting unfamiliar roads in a foreign country doesn't sound like a good time. Like JackFlash says, just get an automatic.
posted by Ian Scuffling at 12:12 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

European stick-shift driver here. Having driven all over Europe, in my experience Norwegian drivers are very calm and polite. If you ever get stuck and there are other cars behind you, just wave them around (or turn on your right-side blinker), so you can do your thing without any rush. Of course, you can always rent an automatic.

And a tip we got from a local: always drive on asphalt roads and don't go over the curb - the ground is so wet everywhere, your car will immediately get stuck in the mud, even if it doesn't look like it would.
posted by gakiko at 12:13 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Its not clear to me. Have you driven stick cars in the past, but not regularly or driving stick has been explained to you and you've tried it once or twice in a parking lot?

If its the former rent the car you want and just ride the clutch till you get the hang of it. If its the latter I'm def +1 on getting an automatic.
posted by JPD at 6:04 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi there norwegian ferry worker sorry i smashed your knee between my cars bumper and that other cars bumper i was just practicing my nudging
posted by everythings_interrelated at 7:20 AM on April 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you do end up driving a manual, make sure you know how to reverse before you leave the rental lot. I was on trip where the car required you to push a button on the shifter to put it in reverse. Our driver was not familiar with that and we had to get help at a gas station.
posted by soelo at 8:26 AM on April 12, 2019

Dear God, do not do this. The premium for automatic transmissions has decreased dramatically in recent years, so you're not going to save a lot of money, if you shop around. Check Kayak, Hotwire, etc. Stick shift on hills is so not fun if you are inexperienced. And there's always the possibility that the car you get will have a bum clutch that they will blame on you, the foreigner, and how are you going to fight that $1500 bill? I have regularly driven stick for two decades, but still remember the stress of learning and stalling. Even I am seriously considering geting an automatic for my next European rental.
posted by wnissen at 9:23 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unfamiliar country, unfamiliar roads, you're there to enjoy hiking, why add the frustration of struggling with a manual transmission? Rent an automatic and enjoy your trip; save practicing stick shift for when you get back.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:34 AM on April 12, 2019

Response by poster: Just to answer some questions - I've driven stick on some very empty roads before, but that was a while ago. The point of this isn't to save money -- it's to practice and have fun(?) driving manual. I will have been in Scandanavia for over a week by the point that I'd be driving, so I won't be jetlagged.

Thanks for all the advice (especially that primer on nudging, flabdalet!).
posted by rhythm and booze at 9:47 AM on April 12, 2019

The last two Ford stick shift cars I have owned (2014 Fusion and 2016 Mustang) have Hill Start Assist. This uses the antilock brake system to keep the brakes on for a couple seconds after taking your foot off the brake. It allows you to start on a hill without rolling backwards or having to mess with the parking brake. I imagine lots of other cars have this feature - check with the rental agency.
posted by leaper at 9:52 AM on April 12, 2019

Ms. flabdablet's Subaru Forester has a hill start assist feature. If you press the brake pedal with your right foot, then press the clutch pedal to the floor with your left, then take your right foot off the brake pedal in order to transfer it to the accelerator, then the brakes actually stay applied until just before the clutch pedal reaches the take-up point.

It works pretty well as long as you're confident about getting your clutch foot from fully floored to the take-up point fairly briskly, but if you're not very practised and you just ease the clutch pedal up really slowly, the brake does in fact release enough for the car to just start rolling backwards before the clutch can pick it up and stop it.

The other effect of having this mechanism in the car is to put the take-up point way higher in the clutch pedal's travel than it would typically be on a car without hill start assist, the bottom half of the clutch pedal's travel being devoted to brake retention. When I first got in that car I didn't know about the HSA and I was convinced that the clutch was just worn to shit. Not so, said the mechanic, and explained how to use it.

On balance I'd rather it wasn't there. It doesn't work anywhere near as reliably as a handbrake start, which is a really easy manoeuvre to commit to muscle memory with quarter of an hour's practice on flat ground and absolutely doesn't need to be as stressful as many seem to find it.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

it's to practice and have fun(?) driving manual

And it is fun. Or can be, with the right attitude. Which, to my way of thinking, is to treat every drive as a chance to improve your skills and smooth out your ride.

Once you've got the car up to highway speed on a road with nobody else around, a useful exercise is to change from fifth to fourth to fifth to fourth to fifth to fourth to fifth to fourth to fifth, pretty much as fast as you can do it smoothly, until you get bored or the driving conditions demand more of your attention.

Pay attention to the engine note and/or tacho as you do this, and then work on using and timing your accelerator foot in such a way that right as you slot the stick into the new gear, the engine is already spinning at the rate that the clutch would otherwise have had to force it to. So on the upshift from fourth to fifth you'd ease off the accelerator a little to drop the revs; on the downshift from fifth to fourth you'd blip it a tiny bit to raise them.

Fifth and fourth gears are ideal for this rowing-the-gearstick exercise because the high gears make the road speed control the engine revs more than the other way around, so that even before you get your rev matching sorted out you won't be jerking the car much.

You should find that once you get reasonably good at rev matching and timing, the car will slip into your desired gear much more easily because you're making the synchro rings inside the gearbox do less work. As you get more of a feel for it you will increasingly find that fingers and wrist, rather than fist and elbow, are all you need to use to shift the stick.

This will all come easier if you don't try to slam the stick straight from one gear to the next. Instead break the motion into two steps, first from the gear you're in to the neutral position, then suggest gently that it slots into the target gear just as your clutch foot arrives at take-up, using as little force on the stick as you need to get it to slip in. First get it right, then get it smooth, then get it quick.

Get really good and you'll be able to go from second to third to second to third to second to third without your passengers feeling it.

A clean shift executed well is very pleasing, like a smooth little dance move; each one a reward in its own right, not any kind of chore. You'll find yourself shaking your head in bemusement at all those committed auto drivers who Just Don't Get It and remain convinced that their fancy transmissions are actually saving them from some ill-defined variety of unpleasant drudgery.
posted by flabdablet at 11:15 AM on April 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hmmm, fun you say... I'd suggest you try to find other ways to have fun then. The roads will be wet, winding and not very wide. You'll often be driving in rain or fog. You'll be hopping on and off ferries. You'll have to follow unfamiliar signs. I've done this with a car I'd been driving daily for 6 years before my Norwegian roadtrip. Are you ready to do this with a car you don't fully control?

If you want to have your "European stick shift experience" anyway, maybe you could rent a manual for a day or two before the hiking part of your trip? If you end up liking it, I don't think it would be a problem to change your reservation for an automatic to a manual.
posted by gakiko at 12:46 PM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yep, nudging is the way to go. On level ground, put it in first, release the brake, and let out the clutch slowly until you feel the car start to grab. That’s the take up point, and that’s when you can give it gas. Once you know the take up point, you’re golden.

Never release the clutch quickly, nice and slow and easy when you release it.

Oh...and generally, first gear is just to get you going from a dead stop. You generally don’t downshift from another gear into first—as long as you’re still moving, if you’re close to stopping, use second to get going again.

And if you’re on a hill, and facing downwards, and stopped, just put the clutch in and release the brake, and you’ll start to roll, then you can put it in 2nd and go, no need to use first at all.

Hmm...what else...oh, it’s generally helpful to know the principles behind how a manual transmission works. This is a splendid video from Chevrolet that explains it well.
posted by vitout at 3:57 PM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Flabdablet's nudging tutorial is spot on. As to whether you should do this or rent an automatic, it depends entirely on how well you learn new skills.

Driving a manual in Norway is fun. Just be aware that speed limits are strictly enforced and that there is zero tolerance for DUI, which starts at a BAC of 0.02%.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:48 PM on April 13, 2019

Ah, thanks for your follow-up. My personal response is that I really enjoy driving a stick shift, now, with practice, but the first ten years weren't fun. Specifically I like driving my Mazda 3's stick, which flips between gears like, well, a finely oild machine, plus it has hill assist and (crucially) a manual hand-lever parking brake. I prefer it to manuals from Renault, Ford (C-Max), and I think Citroen. They had a weird button thing for the parking brake, which made it very difficult to use the brake as a clutch on hills. Plus the shifters were utilitarian, rather than fun. The BMW was fun to drive, and sometimes depending on the company you can reserve a specific car like that. If it were me, I'd want 10+ hours of practice on a stick before driving one somewhere else.
posted by wnissen at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2019

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