Learning how to drive a stick shift used to be a rite of passage for most young drivers. At a time when families had at least one manual transmission vehicle, it made sense for teens to learn how to drive stick. But as automakers continue to limit the production of manual transmission cars, fewer drivers see the value of learning the skill.
As of 2016, only 18% of Americans knew how to drive manual car.
In some ways, driving a stick was more art than skill—releasing the clutch slowly, driving uphill without stalling, and listening for cues from the engine to get the right timing for switching gears. While it may be inconvenient for some, any car enthusiast will tell you that driving a manual is all about the experience.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sixteen-year-old who’d choose a vehicle with manual transmission over an automatic, let alone one who knows how to operate it. The waning interest in driving manual transmission cars is reflected in declining domestic sales, making up only 3% of total vehicle sales in the U.S. in 2018.
It’s no surprise that automakers like Volvo, Lexus, Chrysler, Buick, Mercedes-Benz, Lamborghini, and Ferrari no longer produce models with a manual transmission. Ford, Honda, Toyota, Kia, Nissan, and many others only offer the option for the base models. From almost half of all models in 2006, only 20% of the new models in the U.S. were offered with a manual option in 2018.
As sales and production numbers dwindle year-on-year, you must wonder—will driving a stick become obsolete in the next decade?
When did people stop learning how to drive stick?
For decades, stick-shift cars were the vehicles of choice for most drivers. In fact, most cars manufactured in America featured manual transmissions in the first half of the 20th century. It was so popular that it was referred to as the “standard” transmission by automakers for decades.
The second half of the century saw the rise in popularity of the automatic transmission. The introduction of GM’s Hydra-Matic in 1938 and the Buick Dynaflow transmission in 1948 paved the way for modern automatic vehicles.
Automatics proved easier to operate, relying less on the skill of the driver to complete a perfect shift. There were also fewer concerns about gear grinding, stalling, and ease of maintenance.
The difference between manual and automatic transmissions
Your car’s transmission transfers power from the engine to the drive wheels. Also, because the engine only creates adequate torque at certain speeds, the transmission must use gears to manipulate engine output. That way, ample torque and power will be available throughout the driving range.
A manual transmission requires the driver to step on the clutch pedal and move the shifter to change gears. A common manual shifter typically has six forward gears, a reverse gear, and a neutral position. Higher gears are overdrive gears, which allow the engine to keep a relatively low speed while the vehicle is travelling at high speeds.
Manual transmission-equipped cars also feature a clutch pedal that sits to the left of the brake pedal. For the vehicle to move, you had to hold down the clutch after shifting to first gear then slowly release it as you step on the accelerator. This technique is a bit tricky and trips most drivers up when they’re just learning
On the other hand, an automatic transmission switches gears for you as you step on the gas pedal. An automatic shifter traditionally features a straight pattern that includes P-R-N-D (Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive) shift positions. You may also see a manual override that limits the highest gear that can be selected during automatic operation (i.e. P-R-N-D-3-2-1).
What are the pros and cons of learning to drive stick?
Here are some arguments for and against driving a stick shift.
PRO – Better fuel economy compared to automatic vehicles
Given a choice between a manual or automatic transmission of the same model, you’re more likely to enjoy better fuel economy by going for the stick shift. Older automatics have a reputation of failing to switch to the right gear when driving conditions are misinterpreted. This results in wasted engine power and fuel.
If you’re in the market for an older model, choosing a manual will likely provide you better efficiency.
CON – Less efficient compared to modern automatics, electric vehicles, and hybrids
For years, people have highlighted fuel economy as an advantage over driving an automatic. However, electric and hybrid vehicles have taken their place as the most efficient type of drivetrain by minimizing the use of an internal combustion engine and utilizing an electric motor. Newer automatics also feature up to 10 forward gears which, especially in continuously variable transmissions (CVT), provide lower gear ratios that allow you to save on gas.
PRO – Avoid accidents caused by distracted driving
Ask any car aficionado you know –they’ll sing praises about the unique connection between man and machine that only comes with driving stick. A manual transmission requires you to be more alert and observant of any changes in your vehicle. Apart from looking at the tachometer, you must listen to and feel the movement of the car. On the contrary, automatics are so easy to drive that it’s tempting to fiddle with your phone to kill boredom.
CON – Driving in stop-and-go traffic can be tiring and frustrating
Constantly changing gears and activating the clutch in heavy traffic can make your daily commute tiresome and unpleasant. Repeating the same actions over and over can be taxing on your muscles and joints. This makes it an unlikely choice for people who expect to drive through gridlock every day and take long trips at a time.
PRO – Good to know when you have no other option but to drive a manual
Imagine flying in to visit some friends or family and suddenly, there’s an emergency. You get in the driver’s seat to take your friend to the nearest hospital, only to find out that it’s a stick. Knowing how to drive a manual can help you save someone’s life. You can also prevent someone who’s drowsy or intoxicated from getting into an accident by offering to drive for them.
This skill is also useful for international travel. You’ll have no problems renting a car in Europe or Asia where cars with manual transmissions continue to be very popular.
Knowing how to drive a manual makes it easy to switch to an automatic and vice versa.
CON – Learning how to drive a stick-shift is harder compared to an automatic
If you didn’t learn how to drive a manual from the get-go, it can take a while to develop the dexterity and situational awareness needed for driving a stick. You’ll also need to take your hand off the wheel to shift gears. This could take some time to get used to, especially when you’re used to driving an automatic where you can always have both hands on the wheel.
Do you know how to drive stick? Is it still necessary for Americans to learn, or should we just embrace the changing times and let manual transmission cars become a thing of the past?
Sound off below!