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    Learning The Dark Arts Of Driving A Manual Transmission


    • Our Staff Writer Learns To Drive A Manual Transmission

    For the past few years as an automotive writer, I've been keeping something quiet from a lot people. Some, including some of the members of this site know this secret. It's something that I have been slightly embarrassed by for the position that I have and know that it has kept some doors shut.

    I can't fully work a manual transmission.

    (Please put down the pitchforks and torches. Thank you.)

    It's not like I have never attempted to learn how to use a manual transmission before. The first time I ever drove a manual transmission in my friend Adam's 1991 Isuzu Stylus sedan. We drove around in a parking lot with me learning how to disengage the clutch and listen to the engine as a way to tell when to upshift. A year or two later, my dad and I took my younger brother's 1998 Subaru Legacy Wagon to do the same. For the most part, I was feeling ok with driving a manual transmission vehicle, even when I stalled it every few moments.

    But that all changed when I decided to take the Legacy out for a quick spin at night and only made it to end of our street because. I stalled the vehicle when leaving a stop and it wouldn't start back up. This made me felt that I had broken it. So I had to make that long walk of shame back to the house and call for a tow truck. It was determined that I didn't break the vehicle. Instead the alternator was found to be cause as it wasn't generating enough power. But even with that, I had made the decision to swear off learning and driving a manual transmission vehicle.

    Now admitting something like this out in public only would invite criticism and sarcasm. Just telling this to my family only got me mocked and ridiculed.

    But what I didn't say was my thought about the whole experience. While I did feel like I made some end-roads and knew that more doors would open if I understood how to work a manual, I also knew with the proclamation that I made about never driving, let alone learning; I had given up too easily. This was only made more apparent when I had to turn down a vehicle because it had a manual transmission last year.

    But this year, I made a promise to myself. I would get over the proclamation that I had made and once for all learn to drive a manual. But how was I going to do it? I vowed never to learn on my brother's vehicle since I thought that would only bring me bad luck. I also didn't want to use one of the vehicles that I review since I was worried that I would cause some sort of damage. I found myself in a tough spot.

    But unbeknownst to me, lady luck had a surprise in store for me.

    Last month, I was getting ready to swap review vehicles. Taking the place of the vehicle I had drove for the past week was a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. I wanted to see how the diesel model stacked up to both the Chevrolet Cruze Turbodiesel and Jetta Hybrid I had driven last year. After signing the paperwork and trading keys, I found myself going through the paperwork of the Jetta TDI to familiarize myself of what I would be driving around for the week. But as I was reading through the window sticker, a chill ran down my spine. I thought that I was getting one that was equipped with the six-speed DSG gearbox. But the window sticker said it was equipped with a six-speed manual. I went outside to look at the vehicle and to my horror, it was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission.

    2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI 2

    Now I had three options with the Jetta TDI:

    • Leave it in the driveway for the week
    • Call the company and ask if they can pick it up since I cannot drive a stick
    • Take the plunge and learn once and for all to drive a manual

    The first option was out of the question since Volkswagen gave me the vehicle to drive for a week. In return, I supposed to write something about my experience. Writing about how the Jetta TDI just sat there for a week didn't seem like the most appealing story. Option two was also a non-starter since I knew that I would be met with grief and sarcasm. So that left option three. At first I was very hesitant to the idea since I was worried about damaging the vehicle, i.e. worst case scenario. But somehow I was able to have some common sense enter my thoughts and calm me down to a point.

    "You have learned how to release the clutch pedal and the 1-2 shift. You're well ahead of those who don't even know how even to how to work the transmission. Just keep practicing and expanding your range, and you'll be able to open doors," I found myself saying.

    So I made the decision to keep the Jetta TDI and learn for once and for all to drive a manual. When I made this announcement at dinner, it was surprise to everyone. Even I couldn't believe what came out of my mouth when I said that I plan to keep the vehicle and learn to drive a manual transmission.

    After dinner, my dad and I climbed into the Jetta and made our way to the high school parking lot, a place that was big enough for me to practice. Once we arrived to the parking lot, we began with the basics; getting the vehicle to move on its own by letting off the clutch pedal. This was a tricky proposition for me since I knew that I couldn't release the pedal to fast or else the vehicle would stall. So began a marathon of stalling and keeping the Jetta running by hitting the clutch pedal if I thought the car would stall.

    But then something hit me. I began to not pay attention to the rev counter and started to listen to the engine note as my signal of when to get back on or keep removing my foot off the clutch. Once I figured this out, I started to let my foot my off at the right point that the vehicle wouldn't stall and it moved under its own power. We did this a few times before moving onto the next item; the transition from clutch to gas. This was a tricky thing for me before as I was either too slow or fast on the transition. Also the foot work was going to be a problem as I would have to coordinate my left and right legs to get going. Again, it took a few times and some stalling before my feet were working somewhat together and moving along at a somewhat reasonable rate.

    Once I had the practiced the basics and felt somewhat comfortable, we headed back home. I felt nervous as I piloted the Jetta TDI, worried that I would stall the vehicle and possibly cause an accident. But I didn't. As I pulled into the driveway and parked the Jetta, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I had drove the Jetta TDI and not damaged the vehicle, or anyone else around me. I considered it a great success.

    As the week went on, I would take some time to drive around in the Jetta TDI. Not only to practice, but to also make me feel not as nervous when driving with a manual transmission. Despite stalling the vehicle once in a while, I was beginning to feel more comfortable. I was also coming to a realization. In a way. the manual transmission is the last control a person has over the car. The feeling of doing something to move the car; being a part of the machinery. Before, a person felt more in control with a vehicle due to mechanical steering, the accelerator pulling a cable, and a number of other items. But with the advent of technology and the desire to improve efficiency, the driver was slowly removed out of the picture. In a way, the manual transmission is the last bastion for a driver.

    When the Volkswagen Jetta TDI was picked up, I was both happy and elated. Happy that I was finally able to feel a little bit more comfortable with driving a manual transmission. Elated that the Jetta TDI and I had survived with no damage. I thought to myself as the Jetta drove away, I wonder what vehicle I could ask for next with a manual transmission.

    Disclaimer: Volkswagen Provided the Jetta TDI, Insurance, and One Tank of Diesel

    William Maley is a staff writer for Cheers & Gears. He can be reached at william.maley@cheersandgears.com or you can follow him on twitter at @realmudmonster.

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    Awesome to read how you overcame your fear of the Manual and now can drive anything. Way to Go Bill! :D

     

    While using a manual exclusively for teaching people to drive a manual will shorten the life a bit of the clutch, over all they are beefy enough transmissions to handle it and still give an outstanding experience. Manuals are fun to drive. Be interesting to see how much longer they stick around since Auto's are stronger and get better gas mileage now in most cases.

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    I've driven a 3-spd, 3-spd on the column, a 4-spd and a 5-spd, but it's been over 15 years since I've been 'sticking it'. Without putting my skill to the test, I'd say I very well may have 'lost it'. I prefer an automatic, anyway. But if I'm going to drive my truck this fall, I'm going to need to require the skill cold, esp with a non-synchro 4-spd.

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    I've driven a 3-spd, 3-spd on the column, a 4-spd and a 5-spd, but it's been over 15 years since I've been 'sticking it'. Without putting my skill to the test, I'd say I very well may have 'lost it'. I prefer an automatic, anyway. But if I'm going to drive my truck this fall, I'm going to need to require the skill cold, esp with a non-synchro 4-spd.

     

    You'll pick it back up again after no more than 3 stalls.  The only manuals I ever have difficulty with are Honda 4-cylinders... I'm just not used to the lack of torque.

    Also... the Jetta TDI was probably a good car to learn on because of the huge amounts of low end torque and therefor less propensity to stall...  I also feel that the GM 6-speed manual paired with the 1.4T in the Sonic and Cruze are excellent units as well.

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    Kudos buddy. Now a wild world of fun awaits for you.

     

    I learned to drive stick shift, rather drive, on a diesel also. Diesels are easy to learn on, as they have such a huge torque. You can start by just removing your foot of the clutch pedal before even synchronizing to push the gas pedal. The vehicle will run on idle. That is how I drive the Z06 in traffic. If the traffic ahead stops, all I do is depress the clutch pedal or push it in neutral and cruise. Sticks are no more pain in BTBT (Bumper to Bumber Traffic) than people claim.

     

    Manual transmission is not about being fast, or being more fuel miserly, or being more pleasing, it is about control. Once you have control all the three come in your hands. That is why I love manual transmissions. Too bad young drivers are not even giving it a willing shot like you did.

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    I've driven a 3-spd, 3-spd on the column, a 4-spd and a 5-spd, but it's been over 15 years since I've been 'sticking it'. Without putting my skill to the test, I'd say I very well may have 'lost it'. I prefer an automatic, anyway. But if I'm going to drive my truck this fall, I'm going to need to require the skill cold, esp with a non-synchro 4-spd.

     

    You'll pick it back up again after no more than 3 stalls.  The only manuals I ever have difficulty with are Honda 4-cylinders... I'm just not used to the lack of torque.

    Also... the Jetta TDI was probably a good car to learn on because of the huge amounts of low end torque and therefor less propensity to stall...  I also feel that the GM 6-speed manual paired with the 1.4T in the Sonic and Cruze are excellent units as well.

     

     

    LOL. This is true about Hondas. I still stall my TSX once a while. But by God, the Honda stick actions are the best in business. Nothing comes close. After driving the new Accord Sport, I feel the action is better than what Porsche currently makes.

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    Z I am surprised as I find Honda Stick totally lacking in any excitement or driving pleasure. They are just bland nothing there. This could also be due to me always driving manual trucks.

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    I've driven a 3-spd, 3-spd on the column, a 4-spd and a 5-spd, but it's been over 15 years since I've been 'sticking it'. Without putting my skill to the test, I'd say I very well may have 'lost it'. I prefer an automatic, anyway. But if I'm going to drive my truck this fall, I'm going to need to require the skill cold, esp with a non-synchro 4-spd.

     

    You'll pick it back up again after no more than 3 stalls.  The only manuals I ever have difficulty with are Honda 4-cylinders... I'm just not used to the lack of torque.

    Also... the Jetta TDI was probably a good car to learn on because of the huge amounts of low end torque and therefor less propensity to stall...  I also feel that the GM 6-speed manual paired with the 1.4T in the Sonic and Cruze are excellent units as well.

     

     

    LOL. This is true about Hondas. I still stall my TSX once a while. But by God, the Honda stick actions are the best in business. Nothing comes close. After driving the new Accord Sport, I feel the action is better than what Porsche currently makes.

     

     

    I really want to drive the Accord Sport with the 6MT. I was talking with someone who had one for a week and said he really enjoyed it.

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    Hondas do tend to have good sticks.  the last Fit had a good shifter.

     

    In my recent experience on a rather limited batch or segment of the automobile population, believe it or not, the Chevy Cruze 1.4 six speed manual is absolutely among the best and most pleasurable.  Short shifter, falls to hand, short throws, smooth but definite and an easy clutch.

     

    The Passat had definite snick snick slots.  Not buttery smooth, and makes some noise, but for the practice of shifting, is a good setup.

     

    The Fusion ecoboost manual is good.  Also the ST Focus and Fiesta are very good row your own cars, but maybe more appropriate once you get some practice.

     

    A cobalt?  NOT SO MUCH .......pile of garbage.  Who wants my car?

     

    Manuals would sooooo come back if they could put a simple function on the car.  The ability to flick a switch and go to fully automated and automatic.  Would take care of all those times when stuck in traffic.  Or the day off you just don't want to shift.

     

    Dual clutch is not the same.

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    I have a very good friend who is perhaps the best mechanic that I know...he cannot teach himself to drive stick. As for me, its all I own, I haven't even owned an automatic for ten years or so.

    Congrats on learning to drive stick.

    Oh, an yes, Honda builds a smoother shifting manual than Porsche.

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    Cool that you stuck with the manual and tamed it.

    First, I want to comment that your fear of breaking the vehicle is pretty unfounded.  Sure, stalling the car and revving up the engine will be very awkward, but won't break the car unless is was on the verge of breaking, anyway.  Worst thing a learner does is use a little extra clutch material.  If you burn out the clutch, you either needed a clutch or the teacher was as clueless as the student.

    Second, tachs are not needed for shifting, and IMHO should not be used for shifting, as it takes your eyes from the road.  Best case is that a tach provides some slightly interesting info about the engine... but you shouldn't look at it any more than the gas gauge.  The car I learned stick on and drove as a novice for a year did not come equipped with a tach.  The only "clue" to when to shift were some little marks on the speedo.  I didn't even tell the couple folks I taught stick to about the tach, but to just listen to the engine.

    Lastly, I find it easier to teach stick in a 25 year old 305 V8 than a new 4 cylinder with a light flywheel... torque and inertia really help out the novice shifter pick up the technique.  I suspect the TDI was a big help, and that the previous cars you tried to learn on where just too finicky.  Its not impossible to learn on finicky, but it steepens the learning curve.  The car I learned on had no power, a worn clutch and screwed up tranny that loved to pop out of 2nd and 3rd.  The second car I drove came with no instructions, diagram or specs... so I drove the "three" speed for a day before I "discovered" a second 1st and 2nd waaaayyyy over by where my leg likes to be and figured out it was a five speed I had been starting out in third gear... It was much quicker as a five speed.  LOL!

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    Great write-up, and congrats on your new skills.  For small, high revving engines, a stick is ideal for control and to keep the revs up.  I learned to drive stick on my first Integra that my dad drove home from the dealership.  The first night, he gave me a lesson at my high school parking lot, and then I was on my own.  Stalled it many times, and there were times I wish I got the automatic, but I'm certainly glad I have the skills now and have later owned another three vehicles with sticks.  That being said, I now prefer automatics because it's one less thing I have to deal with when driving (can't wait for autonomous vehicles!), especially in stop and go traffic.  I've driven a few BMWs with the DSG and found the transmission to be entirely unsatisfying.  It's better to go full automatic or full manual.

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    Hondas do tend to have good sticks.  the last Fit had a good shifter.

     

    In my recent experience on a rather limited batch or segment of the automobile population, believe it or not, the Chevy Cruze 1.4 six speed manual is absolutely among the best and most pleasurable.  Short shifter, falls to hand, short throws, smooth but definite and an easy clutch.

     

    The Passat had definite snick snick slots.  Not buttery smooth, and makes some noise, but for the practice of shifting, is a good setup.

     

     

    Yes, Cruze ECO indeed has a good shift action and so do Mazdas. I cannot say that about the ATS 2.0T or the Buick Regal GS.

     

    Passat has that typical Germanic notchiness with that whine when you push it in second and third gear. It is as if the transmission thinks I am good, but will not obey you completely.

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    Z-06, the ATS manual bits have all been reworked and by recent articles apparently are pretty good now.

    Your description of German notchiness is pretty close to what the current Passat has. I'd probably have a Passat by today if my Taurus X hadn't decided to bankrupt me lately and still threaten a complete tranny dump sometime soon.

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    Don't convert. R12 can be had cheap. It will never be as cold if you convert.

    Relatively cheap.  $35 ~ $60 a can, I've heard.  I was estimated that R12 would be almost impossible to get by now, as the stockpiles would be gone... but they aren't... in fact, we have a lot of R12 around.

    That said, you can't legally buy R12 or recharge R12 anymore in most places.  And ANY system that needs a charge needs a leak test first and likely needs a compressor (seems like these are always where the leaks are)... this will all be pretty expensive once its done... but I agree, the AC will work best.

    Or you can do the conversion yourself and get 80% of the cold at 25% the price.  The '91 Firebird was converted and actually worked VERY well until the orifice valve clogged due to The Black Death (R12 oil contamination in a R134a conversion).  Just be sure to properly flush the system and run a vacuum on it for a while.

     

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    I had my '81 done for $100 and that included the leak test.  It didn't need anything but the charge (but hey, you'd need a recharge too after 30 years)

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    Then either someone opened the system before you got the '81, they put leak stop in the system and it stopped the leak or they missed the leak.  Empty or low refrigerant means a leak... even if its a very small one.  You probably got off easy, and that's probably not going to happen too often, especially considering that all R12 cars are over 20 years old now.

    Also, IIRC, R12 is a bigger molecule than R134a, so a small leak would leak even less with R12 than R134a.

    $100 sounds like 2.5 lbs of R12 at $30/lb plus some labor... which tells me your system was nearly empty if not completely empty.

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    Then either someone opened the system before you got the '81, they put leak stop in the system and it stopped the leak or they missed the leak.  Empty or low refrigerant means a leak... even if its a very small one.  You probably got off easy, and that's probably not going to happen too often, especially considering that all R12 cars are over 20 years old now.

    Also, IIRC, R12 is a bigger molecule than R134a, so a small leak would leak even less with R12 than R134a.

    $100 sounds like 2.5 lbs of R12 at $30/lb plus some labor... which tells me your system was nearly empty if not completely empty.

     

     

    Didn't GM develop a drop-in replacement for R12 that didn't require a full conversion?  It was supposed to be fantastic stuff.... I need to look into that.

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