Do You Know How to Drive a Manual Transmission?

Do You Know How to Drive a Manual Transmission?I learned how to drive a manual transmission before I learned to drive a car. It was a natural back then, as a much higher percentage of cars sold in America were equipped with manuals. I started out with the lawn tractor and a few motorbikes before tackling the family car. Over the decades, out of a dozen or so vehicles, I’ve only owned two with automatic transmissions. I’ll keep driving manuals until I need to get my hips and knee joints replaced. And I’ll go right back to ’em after I heal up.

The first automatic was an old Pontiac, and it was my first car. It was equipped with a two-speed Powerglide transmission. You read it right. Two speeds: high and low. Old paint would take first gear all the way up to 80 miles an hour if you were on it good. (At least that’s how I remember it.) With the advent of seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions today, it seems amazing that we got by with just first and second.

I sold the automatic Pontiac to buy the same exact car — same year, same model — with a four-speed manual complete with a Hurst shifter. I got more hoots out of that car than any kid should for $350. In all the manual cars I’ve owned, it was the only one that needed to have the clutch replaced. I freely admit to burning rubber from time-to-time, but burning up clutches is no fun.

The second automatic was a Dodge pickup truck that I bought brand new, about 10 years later. I wanted a manual transmission, but the dealer didn’t have any on the lot and he refused to order one for me. “Why would you want a manual transmission?” he asked. Why, indeed — this guy just didn’t get it. I should’ve walked right out of that dealership, but I was young (and foolish) and ended up with the slushbox. From the time I drove off the lot, I was never happy with the truck, but I learned an important lesson. If you’re the one stuck with making the payments, get what you really want or you’ll regret it.

So, since that time, I’ve always bought manuals.

Manual transmissions connect you with the soul of the car. You’re not just the pilot; you’re part of the machine. Automatics disconnect you from decision-making. Manuals give you full control. Yes, manuals are a lot more work in city driving, in heavy traffic, and on hills. Man up.

Casey Neistat shot my favorite “learn to drive stick” video of all time.

Never tell a first-timer to release the clutch and apply the gas simultaneously. That’s bad teaching; it’s too complicated. Simply apply a small amount of acceleration, then slowly let up the clutch. Just like that, you’ll take off. So easy a 13-year-old can do it.

And that’s just it. The best place to learn how to drive a vehicle with a stick shift is a big, empty parking lot. Face it. You’re going to make mistakes. You didn’t fall out of the womb with the ability to hoon like Ken Block.

Modern automatic transmissions are quite good, but they’re not quite the same as a stick shift. Even with faster shifting mechanisms and slap-stick or paddle shifters that allow you to override the pre-programmed controls, almost all automatics lack the visceral connection of a manual.

The wicked fast dual-clutch automatics found in some BMWs, VWs, and the Mitsubishi Evo and Ralliart are notable exceptions. Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs), on the other hand, are widely railed against by purists as being completely soulless. I’ve grown accustomed to driving them, but hey, rail away if you want.

I don’t have any hard statistics to point towards, but it seems like the manual transmission is inching back in both relevance and purchase consideration. As an example, the percentage of manuals to automatics in the tiny Fiat 500 has been higher than expected. While this is common sense with a car of its ilk (small and sporty), it’s been widely reported that Chrysler hadn’t planned on the manual’s popularity.

Rest assured, it’s not just sports cars. You can buy a good number of SUVs with manual transmissions these days, but you have to know where to look. Driving an SUV or Crossover doesn’t mean that you have to give up the clutch pedal. As with the Unicorn Dodge Pickup I bought years ago, your local dealer may still be hesitant to stock models with manuals. The Internet is your friend. If your local dealer doesn’t want to get it for you, the next guy will.

Europeans might make fun of Americas for referring to the manual transmission as a stick shift, but that’s life. They can thank us for all the blue jeans, as long as they don’t expect to buy a pair made in America.

Interested in learning more about SUVs and crossovers with manual transmissions? Here’s a list!

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  • Anthony Guidetti

    I’m 16, and even I prefer the feeling of stick shift. Once you master manual, you become a critic of automatic cars, and none of them shift right.

    • Bharat Kumar Gupta

      yes, manual car teaches u better control

  • Dimitris Manon Papageorgiou

    i doubt us europeans make fun of you americans for referring to the manual transmission as a stick shift but i will tell you this, at least here in Greece automatic transmission is in one of 100000 cars. Actually i have only seen 3 in my life, one woman with an Opel Astra and two American cars straight from the US that have never been sold here, i think it was a Lincoln and a Dodge. PS: if American car industries had 1400cc and 1600cc engines on their models they would have a market here, that is why Lincoln, Pontiac, Plymouth, Cadillac never had a dealer here selling them, Chevrolet came to Greece’s market through Daewoo and Dodge through Chrysler, that’s a shame. Oh and by the way, it’s not that we don’t like large engines, it’s that we have really expensive taxes for 1800cc and more, imagine a month’s salory each year as tax for a 2000cc car. Would you buy one if it cost you 800 euros each year when you are getting paid 700 euros each month?

  • Bharat Kumar Gupta

    i ve been driving manual for like 6 years, like a BAWS, in India 85 % cars are manual bec of the fact they are more fuel efficient than AT cars, i ve tried AT and after years of driving MT its not to my liking and it feels clearly underpowered no matter how many bhp’s u have, plus like chris i m also big on fuel efficiency thing and i trust MT car more bec of less maintenance, i feel confident in controlling that kind of car too with brake, gears and acceleration, its fun to own a MT trust me people, MT car is a real car! 😀

  • dwick_OR

    The 8 vehicles (6 cars + 2 SUV/trucks) I’ve bought over the last 30 years have all had manual transmissions. Back in 2008 when I was looking to replace my trusty 1994 Isuzu Rodeo with another truck-type SUV w/ a manual transmission, the options were few… even finding a late-model used one was difficult. I ended up settling for a V6 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab pick-up – mainly because I could find units equipped with manual transmission and moonroof at a reasonable price of ~$24K. While I could wish for a little better than 20 MPG, four years later I can say I still enjoy driving the Frontier every day and look forward to keeping it another 10 years or so.

  • Christopher Norris ‘Hall’

    I am in the UK and am learning to drive in a manual car, I have only driven an auto for a very short distance off road when I was moving a car that was been sold for scrap (volvo) and for the experience you get when driving I do pref manual (from what I have seen and as I say I have only driven an auto for a very short distance, off road) however I can see the more relaxed driving in an auto as you do not have to think about gears and clutch. In the UK if you learn in an auto then you can only drive an auto unless you take another test, But if you learn in a manual then you can drive both once you have past your test (I think, I need to check)so even if I was planning on driving an auto for most of my life then I would still learn in a manual in the UK. I plan on driving manuals, at least for my first car.

  • spikePL

    I live in Poland and have always been driving cars with manual as automatics existed only in Mercedes cars here. Considering price of the Mercedes back then I was forced to drive manuals for the past 15 years. 2 years ago I gave it a chance and bought BMW 530d – diesel with automatic transmission which is really fantastic on that model. It is the greatest car I’ve ever owned. I will probably never gone back to manual. Regarding fuel economy. Why Americans still buy cars with > 3.0 liter petrol engines? It completely makes no sense for European. In USA there are speed limits suitable for 1.4 or 1.6 engines
    but not for more that 2.0 or even 3.0 that burn so much precious and expensive fuel. My car can go almost 250 km/h and I can effectively use that speed on German highways which are nearby. Fuel economy is great cause it is diesel – smoothness and engine culture can be embarrassing for many petrol engines. It is quiet also.

  • Alex

    I learned to drive on a ’53 Ford Custom with 3-speeds on the column. My father bought that car to use to go to work. I liked that old 2-tone blue Ford. My first car was a ’56 Chrysler New Yorker with a push button two-speed automatic. You could be going along the road at about 60 MPH and push 1 and that thing would lay a patch of rubber and take off like a shot because of its hemi engine and 4 barrel carb. I’ve had a lot of automatics but have always preferred the standard shift. I have always felt you have more control over the car with standard shift. You tend to get lazy with the automatic and lose concentration when driving. If I can afford a new car it will be another standard shift.

  • Steve Castro

    I plan on buying a manual 3 series by in the Fall, but I have the problem of not knowing anyone with a manual car to practice on, and I want to test drive the car the car I buy myself to begin with. I know BMW rents out cars now, so I’m going to look into the possibility that they might have ones with a manual gear box and have my dad rent one for me to show me. I don’t really care about the benefits of a manual over automatic. I mostly want it for the feel/experience.

  • Steve Castro

    I plan on buying a manual 3 series by in the Fall, but I have the problem of not knowing anyone with a manual car to practice on, and I want to test drive the car the car I buy myself to begin with. I know BMW rents out cars now, so I’m going to look into the possibility that they might have ones with a manual gear box and have my dad rent one for me to show me. I don’t really care about the benefits of a manual over automatic. I mostly want it for the feel/experience.

  • Matt

    I like driving manual over automatic, but I’m never the guy who goes into explaining it as “it makes me one with the car” =) I just like’m. The only thing I hate is when people refuse to learn how to drive one because they are too lazy. My friend said just the other day, “I want driving to be as easy as possible”…. what a joke

    • Cordell

      Like Matt I love driving a stick shift car. Typically when I think of a stick shift I picture the Clark Kent Smallville series red truck.. An old almost rusty truck driving through a run down farm. Not are these vehicles like that these days, its easy after a little time!

  • Tim Lippard

    Do you people not think it’s wrong to post stupid irrelevant titles to your articles on your Twitter feeds? Kinda misleading, isn’t it? Like lying, except worse.

    • Chris Pirillo

      What are you talking about?