Is it worth learning to drive a manual gearbox?
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?