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.
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