Stick going out of style? You should still know how to drive one

A reader once called me elitist because I said I preferred to drive cars with standard transmissions. I hadn’t said my preference made me smarter or kinder or more charming; I’d simply said it was more fun to drive a stick, and that having the skill was a useful one.

The car I own is an automatic, just like 90% of the rest of the vehicles on the road. But like my sisters, I learned both methods as a teenager because my father said there was no way one of his girls would get stuck with some drunk idiot on a date and not be able to get home. At least I’m marginally more charming than my father was.

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Whether the cars I’ve owned were standards or not, I’ve always been grateful that I learned young. You never know when you’re going to meet up with a clutch – on a motorcycle, a tractor or a sports car – and I’ve told my sons the same thing: there’s nothing more embarrassing than admitting you can’t drive something because it’s got a manual transmission. Well, maybe there is, but not much.

Every time I’ve had a standard as my car that week, I’ve taught my sons to drive them. They’re not always thrilled, and they grumble, until that magic moment when it all clicks. My youngest son Ari, 19, was still lining up a summer job when I received a manual a few weeks back. Perfect timing. I hauled him out to practice; it had been a couple of months since the last time. Over his sighing objections, I reminded him he could end up with a landscaping company or a car dealership, and he’d better be prepared for anything.

You never know when you'll be called upon to drive a stick shift.

You never know when you’ll be called upon to drive a stick shift.

Some of the old arguments in favour of standards are disappearing. Fuel economy can be better depending on driving styles, but current automatic engines have come a long way. If you can order a car with a manual transmission you might save some money, but they’re often the stripped down version in other ways. Anything you save at the time of purchase has to be factored into your more limited market when you go to sell it, if you do.

If you have a regular daily commute in the any of Canada’s major congestion centres, you’ll probably stress your knee out in record time. While clutches are nowhere as stiff as they once were, it’s still more work and I understand why people trying to get around Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto would opt out of three pedals.

I think every driver, especially young ones, should learn on a standard for a more compelling reason: it’s quite literally more engaging. You have to understand more about your car. You have to appreciate your input is actually determining how the engine is responding, and you have to pay attention long past dropping it into D and taking off, essentially the movement of a point-and-shoot automatic.

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It’s a lot harder to text and drive in a standard; it’s harder to eat and drink and talk on a phone. It doesn’t take long to realize the farther you’re looking ahead, the easier it will be to pick a gear that allows the smoothest trajectory. Distractions coupled with short-sighted vision behind the wheel are major factors in collisions, especially among less experienced drivers.

It’s not going to happen, and I understand that. If I had the money to put where my mouth is, I’d have a stick as our daily driver. But with three young drivers using it, I had to go with more immediate needs. Next time, I tell them, as I try to get them proficient.

Teaching someone requires patience. I like that the Internet now lets you show someone exactly what a clutch is doing with graphics; I find understanding the mystery is a big part of the learning curve. A few years ago, I watched BMW’s head instructor teach a teen to drive a manual, and he showed him how to work through the gears, never engaging the throttle. The engine accelerated to the next gear, and the kid could concentrate on the action of the clutch without worrying about the gas pedal. It’s more than a cool party trick – it’s a stripped down good first step to getting familiar with something new.

If knowing the overwhelming majority of cars are automatics on our roads allows you to opt out of considering the skill, think about this: in most European countries, the ratio is reversed. Try to rent a car with an automatic transmission, and you’ll find it not only difficult, but sometimes impossible. If you do, you’ll have to reserve far in advance, pay a hefty premium, and there are no guarantees it will be waiting, even then. Your European vacation could be more disastrous than the Griswolds’.

My son ended up working at a car dealership this summer. He came home his first day, grinning at me. Tasked with gassing up demos, it seems the second car he’d gotten in was a stick.

Sometimes Mom knows best.

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About Lorraine Sommerfeld