Is it worth learn­ing to drive a man­ual gear­box?

Kapi-Mana News - - MOTORING -

If you’re never go­ing to own a man­ual car, why learn to drive one? There are good rea­sons, ar­gues

Did you hear the one about the car­jacker who failed be­cause he couldn’t drive a man­ual gear­box?

It’s not a joke: it ac­tu­ally hap­pened in Syd­ney on June 19, when a woman sit­ting at traf­fic lights in the city’s in­ner-west was al­legedly ac­costed by a man who or­dered her to get out. He got into the driver’s seat, but promptly fled the scene when he couldn’t op­er­ate the car’s man­ual gear­box.

With­out want­ing to min­imise a se­ri­ous crime, this in­ci­dent does high­light how our driv­ing pref­er­ences and choices have changed. These days, you pretty much as­sume that a car has an au­to­matic gear­box. The man­ual ones are very much a mi­nor­ity and in many cases quite a sur­prise. See above.

Makes you won­der whether any­body should bother learn­ing to drive a man­ual at all. Af­ter all, it is quite tricky.

The move to­wards au­to­matic, or more cor­rectly "au­to­mated" (we’ll get to that in a minute) trans­mis­sions is a global thing.

But we’re par­tic­u­larly au­toaf­flicted in New Zealand. It re­ally started in the late-1980s when Ja­panese used cars started to flood into the coun­try. Be­fore that, an au­to­matic gear­box was con­sid­ered an ex­tra, some­thing you splashed out on. But ex-Ja­pan cars had a much higher level of spec­i­fi­ca­tion than Kiwi cus­tomers were used to, and vir­tu­ally ev­ery main­stream model had an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion.

As with air con­di­tion­ing and elec­tric win­dows, some­thing pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered a lux­ury is now re­ally the norm.

It’s also true that the ma­jor­ity of new-car brands have au­to­matic trans­mis­sions as their de­fault spec­i­fi­ca­tion. The ex­cep­tions are price-lead­ing mod­els (which hardly any­body buys), some rentals (be­cause there’s de­mand from Euro­pean tourists) and en­thu­si­ast/sports mod­els (although many of these now have two-pedal trans­mis­sions).

Thing is, many modern au­to­mat­ics are just as ef­fi­cient as their man­ual equiv­a­lents: they ac­cel­er­ate as fast, have just as many gears (re­mem­ber three­speed au­to­mat­ics?) and use no more fuel. In some cases, they are ac­tu­ally faster and more thrifty.

Many "au­to­mat­ics" are ac­tu­ally man­u­als with au­to­mated clutches, so they have the per­for­mance/ef­fi­ciency ad­van­tages of a man­ual but with­out that tricky third pedal. The tech­nol­ogy has been de­vel­oped so thor­oughly you hardly no­tice the dif­fer­ence be­tween au­to­mated and au­to­matic: Volk­swa­gen’s DSG (see also Audi and Skoda) and Hyundai’s DCT are cases in point.

The ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion, of course, is that un­less you’re an ab­so­lute petrol­head, there’s re­ally no point learn­ing to drive a man­ual gear­box. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Driv­ing is a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity, so surely you want to do it as well as pos­si­ble? Learn­ing to drive in a man­ual helps you un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of driv­ing in a way that an au­to­matic never can.

Learn to op­er­ate a clutch pedal smoothly and you’ll rapidly get a feel for how the mass of a car be­haves un­der power. Hav­ing to se­lect your own gears gives you true un­der­stand­ing of ap­pro­pri­ate ve­hi­cle speeds for par­tic­u­lar stretches of road and cor­ners.

You’ll un­der­stand traf­fic flow bet­ter and make your morn­ing com­mute much less stress­ful be­cause you’ll start look­ing a long way down the road, an­tic­i­pat­ing what gear and speed will work for the next few hun­dred me­tres.

As an aside, the cur­rent myth about au­to­mat­ics be­ing prefer­able for heavy traf­fic is just that: a myth. Craft your man­ual driv­ing with care and the ex­tra con­trol you have through di­rect-drive, gear-se­lec­tion and en­gine brak­ing makes a man­ual car a plea­sure to drive in heavy traf­fic. Frankly, if you’re get­ting tired rid­ing the clutch all the time ... you could do with some work on your throt­tle con­trol and/or fol­low­ing dis­tances.

In a man­ual, you’ll learn how to min­imise po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous weight trans­fer (when you sud­denly lift-off or brake and the car goes all light at the rear) by fo­cus­ing more on match­ing en­gine and road speed.

These are all great skills for any­body en­joy­ing the priv­i­lege of driv­ing. If you learn to drive in an au­to­matic, it’s pos­si­ble you’ll only learn one tech­nique: ac­cel­er­ate, brake, ac­cel­er­ate, brake, ac­cel­er­ate, brake. It’s easy to be sloppy and lazy in an auto; it can’t re­ally hap­pen in a man­ual.

Yes, of course you can drive an au­to­matic car skil­fully, but learn­ing to do so re­quires some time with three ped­als.

So please, if you don’t al­ready know how, take the op­por­tu­nity to learn to drive a man­ual car. You’ll be a safer, more skilled and more en­gaged mo­torist for it. Even when you go back to your two-pedal cruiser.

Au­to­matic gear­boxes are now the de­fault choice for cars of all ages and sizes. So why bother with man­ual?

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