Man­ual labour can im­prove driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - AUTOS - ALAN SI­DOROV

AFEW weeks ago, a young cou­ple signed up for one of our win­ter driv­ing clin­ics. They also wanted to im­prove gear-shift­ing skills. They had just bought a BMW 3 se­ries, two years old, with all-wheel drive and a six-speed man­ual gear­box. That car, and con­fig­u­ra­tion, is one of my favourites, but I don’t think it’s avail­able any longer in this coun­try. In fact, it’s in­creas­ingly hard to find a stick shift on any­thing be­yond an out­right sports car or an en­try-level ve­hi­cle.

That’s too bad be­cause, un­der the right cir­cum­stances, manag­ing your own gears can be re­ward­ing in terms of driv­ing plea­sure as well as mone­tary sav­ings.

I’ve driven semi-au­to­mat­ics from Porsche, Peu­geot, VW and oth­ers, plus a host of other ad­vanced trans­mis­sions. They’re all fine, but be­ing able to smoothly se­lect and hold a gear has cer­tain ad­van­tages, es­pe­cially in slip­pery con­di­tions. Be­yond that, even driv­ing in the moun­tains I can usu­ally match or im­prove on of­fi­cial fuel-con­sump­tion fig­ures with a man­ual.

Read­ers of the Free Press au­to­mo­tive sec­tion tend to be more knowl­edge­able than most, so for some of you this is old news. How­ever, since the per­cent­age of man­ual-trans­mis­sion ve­hi­cles sold in North Amer­ica has de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly over the past cou­ple of decades, there are bound to be some who have never had to deal with a clutch pedal.

The prin­ci­ples of driv­ing with a man­ual gear­box in­clude us­ing only as many revs as nec­es­sary to get the ve­hi­cle rolling. This won’t work in a Grand Prix car, but it’s fine for just about any­thing pro- duced for street use. In fact, we teach peo­ple to re­lease the clutch with no throt­tle at all when the road sur­face is icy.

An­other ba­sic part of good shift­ing is fol­low­ing the ac­tual pat­tern marked on the knob, ver­sus shov­ing the lever around in di­ag­o­nals. Fol­low­ing the pat­tern will re­duce wear on bush­ings and link­age.

A clas­sic faux pas is what one of my fe­male col­leagues calls “male in­se­cu­rity syn­drome”— hang­ing on to the shift lever even when no gearchang­ing is tak­ing place. Keep the left hand at nine o’clock on the wheel and, when shift­ing is done, bring the right hand back to three o’clock.

Now for smooth­ness. The di­rect link be­tween mo­tor and driv­e­train means throt­tle move­ment needs to be more pre­cise to avoid un­nec­es­sary lurches. On top of that, when ac­cel­er­at­ing harder, which causes load trans­fer to the rear, skilled driv­ers learn to start eas­ing off the throt­tle just be­fore de­press­ing the clutch for an up­shift. This keeps the ve­hi­cle nicely bal­anced, in­stead of bounc­ing around like a de­mented Pogo stick.

An­other skill worth ac­quir­ing is the abil­ity to ex­e­cute a proper heel-and-toe down­shift. This is an es­sen­tial rac­ing skill and use­ful on the street as well. The driver gets a good solid po­si­tion on the brake pedal, best done by mov­ing the right knee to­wards the left. Then, as the clutch is de­pressed for a down­shift, the left knee rocks slightly to­wards the ve­hi­cle cen­tre. The side of the foot then “blips” the throt­tle, mak­ing for a lurch-free down­shift that also avoids any ex­tra wear on the clutch.

This should first be prac­tised well away from other traf­fic and may not be com­fort­able in all ve­hi­cles, due to the dis­tance be­tween brake and throt­tle pedal.

I can un­der­stand why some­one liv­ing in a hilly town might be tempted to opt for some ver­sion of an au­to­matic gear­box. That has more to do with other driv­ers’ man­ners than any­thing else, in­clud­ing the ten­dency to close up on rear bumpers at stop signs and lights. But, again, a bit of prac­tice with the stick shift in a safe area might be re­quired.

I’ve found no real ev­i­dence that driv­ers who shift for them­selves are safer. How­ever, they’re cer­tainly more in­volved in driv­ing and, chances are, more likely to be men­tally ahead of their ve­hi­cle. That can pay off both in smoother progress and fewer vis­its to the pump. Alan Si­dorov is an ex­pe­ri­enced au­to­mo­bile racer, prod­uct tester and free­lance writer. You can reach

him at

The di­rect link be­tween mo­tor and driv­e­train means throt­tle move­ment needs to be more pre­cise to avoid

un­nec­es­sary lurches.

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