Fun Stuff

Learning to Shift Gears: Saving the Manuals Requires the Next Generation’s Help

Manual transmissions are a rare entity in 2022. Once referred to as “standard,” these days, they’re anything but. In a classic chicken-or-egg scenario, fewer manufacturers are offering models available with a third pedal because people aren’t buying them, but with a shrinking number of options to choose from, there isn’t any direction the trend can go in but down. Soon, the number of people capable of operating a vehicle with a manual transmission will be the same as those who can adeptly use a loom or abacus. That doesn’t make learning how to drive a manual car any less important of a skill. Just because you may not live near the ocean, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how to swim.

Granted, acceleration provided by the torque of electric vehicles (EVs) is exhilarating and dual-clutch transmissions (DCTs) are getting so good that they can shift faster and more precisely than a human driver ever could, there’s still something wholly gratifying about rowing your own.

From a very young age, I took it upon myself to bestow important life experiences upon my oldest niece, Rachel. Play dates with “Uncle Dusty” involved learning how to fish, swimming lessons, skiing lessons, and teaching her how to (successfully) ride a bike. As she got older, her adventurous spirit even exceeded mine, as demonstrated by her dancing on the glass floor of the CN Tower while I cautiously kept a safe distance.

You may recall the story of me picking her up from school in a bright purple (Viola) Lamborghini Aventador SVJ on her 16th birthday to go write her G1 licensing test – which she passed. Before you ask: No, I did not let her drive a 770-hp supercar worth $800,000.

Less than a month later, we were in full lockdown to “flatten the curve,” so she’s been learning remotely ever since. Having spent half of her high school career in lockdown, she’s been learning remotely from home, unable to play sports or see friends and extended family members – including myself. There have been moments of stress and frustration, of course, but ultimately, she’s handled the adversity with patience, grace, and poise that will serve her well in life.

While driving the Lamborghini was out of the question, testing a new 2022 Volkswagen GTI that happened to be equipped with a slick-shifting six-speed manual gave me an idea. As restrictions were loosening and we’d both had our booster shots, I decided to ask if she’d be interested in a driving lesson. “Yes!” she immediately replied via text. Teenagers don’t answer phones. Parked in front of her high school once again (my old alma mater) in a sea of salt-covered black, white, and silver SUVs, it is safe to say that the Pomelo Yellow Metallic GTI stood out. Responding to her message to say that she was waiting inside the front lobby, I simply texted, “Step outside, you’ll see me.” Sure enough, she hopped into the passenger seat, and we were on our way to an empty parking lot to practice driving stick.

New for 2022, the eighth-generation GTI is more of an evolution than a complete overhaul. Styling is more modern, and it gets a selection of new tech and lighting. It’s still a sprightly little hot hatch, now offering 241 hp to play with. Its powerplant is dynamic and excitable at higher rpm but is steady and smooth at lower revs. Its clutch is precise and predictable, while its gear shifter, although somewhat vague at times, is light and forgiving. In short – an excellent vehicle to learn on.

First, I demonstrated how a manual gear shift and clutch pedal work in unison, describing their functions in high-level terms. I then briefly touched on gear ratios and RPMs (again, in general terms), making a connection to the gears of a bicycle for a relatable point of reference.

Snapping her seatbelt into place and adjusting the mirrors, Rachel put the shifter in neutral, depressed “that third pedal” and pushed the centre-console-mounted starter button. We slowly began with the basics of just finding the friction point (when the engine connects with the transmission) without the use of any throttle. Clutch in, clutch out, clutch in, clutch out. Once she was comfortable, she released it completely and we pulled away without incident. “That,” I told her, “Is the hardest part of driving a manual transmission.”

Throughout the afternoon, there were some spinning front tires and more than a few stalls involved. Like anything in life, it takes focus and persistence to achieve a favourable result. How someone approaches the frustration of stalling a manual transmission or, say, a tangled set of Christmas lights, is very telling. I’ve had more than one former girlfriend storm off in frustration while attempting to teach them the same skills. Rachel was much calmer and fared far better. Letting out a groan, she’d shake her head and take a deep breath, ready to try again. Returning the shifter to the neutral position, we’d go back to the fundamentals and start over.

She managed to find the friction point, change gears, set off from a stop on an incline, and engage reverse. All in all, a very good first effort. Even more importantly, we’re still on speaking terms and she’s willing to try it again. Advanced skills such as rev matching and heel-toe shifting can be covered another day in another car.

If retro stuff like vinyl records and neon clothing can make a comeback, maybe the manual transmission has a fighting chance of being seen as cool by the next generation. Regardless of whether it is because it is ironic or not, I’ll take it. For now, if she ever encounters a situation where operating a manual transmission is necessary, she’s got it covered.

Of course, it is important to pass important skills along to the next generation, but the best thing we can give them is our time and attention. In the end, that’s what they’ll remember most.