My Left Leg has to do Stuff?

As is clear from any of my previous posts, I love cars. This obsession started with issue #95 of EVO magazine in September 2006, and has since grown to include a religious observance of multiple car mags, TV shows, and automotive website. One debate has consistently raged across these forms of media ever since I started being a serious petrolhead: automatic vs. manual. More specifically, we aren’t talking about the slush-box found in your Mum’s minivan. No, we are comparing the new fangled flappy-paddle gearbox with the old-school manual.

The consensus in recent years has been that cars equipped with Playstation style paddles are faster and more fuel efficient than their three pedal counterparts. But a proper clutch and stick are still seen as a purer, more engaging driving experience.

As a product of the 90’s generation in North America I never really had the chance to try a manual. My family has always owned autos: VW Golf, Honda Odyssey and Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus (Why Grandma, Why?). I grew up with simulation driving games that didn’t require you to change gears yourself, so why should my cars be any different?

Whenever people find out that I can’t drive stick they seem surprised because as a known car nut it’s an apparent pre-requisite that I use both feet while driving. In talking with a friend recently he pointed out that automatic transmissions are much more popular in North America and have an overwhelming majority (I guess this also explains why this continent has the largest population of minivans). In fact, it’s predicted that only 5% of all cars sold in the US and Canada are manual, so it’s not really in our culture. But then why do I still feel disappointed in myself when others point out this omission in my petrolhead education.

I never saw myself needing to learn manual as I felt that paddle-shifting sports cars were the way to go and I even went out and bought myself a prime example of this with my Dual Shift Gearbox (DSG) equipped GTI. This was one of the first paddle-shifters that really got enthusiasts excited, and in my MK6 it works brilliantly. I can crawl through downtown traffic in full automatic, and then take direct control when I find a bit of twisty tarmac. It’s the best of both worlds, and I don’t regret my choice for a second.

Many people assume that the higher up you shop in the automotive market the more manual cars you will find, but this is becoming less true with each new übercar that’s released. Ferrari, for example, only sold 1% of all their F430s with an open-gated manual. And, of the something like five hundred 599s sold in the UK, only one of them was manual. Of Ferrari’s newer models, both the 458 Italia and FF aren’t offered with a manual transmission, and the next generation 599 and California won’t be either. Of the thousands of Californias that were sold in 2010 only six were equipped with a stick, and it’s a sad sub-thought that the California will most likely be the last Ferrari to come with a manual, as the 599 is due for replacement this year.

But it’s not just Ferrari. Lamborghini says that only 5% of its global sales are equipped with a stick, and their new flagship Aventador is only offered with paddles. Audi’s next generation R8 will only come with some form of advanced DSG trickery. Pagani’s new unpronounceable creation is only offered with an automated manual gearbox. Of the prestige brands, only Porsche seems to be further developing a manual for the future, as seen in their seven-speed unit that debuted in the new 911. But they too have embraced the paddles with their PDK gearbox.

In my mind, I will only ever buy DSG cars as they’re great for my run-about town and easier to live with day-in day-out. It can also be argued that they provide as much fun as a manual, and you only have to use one leg. And when I buy my second-hand übercar (I say that with such unsupported confidence) I plan on getting it from one of the previously mentioned manual-less manufacturers.

So what am I getting at? Clearly I will never want to drive manual and I have no need to. But, despite the fact that manuals are being phased out by the majority of übercar creators, and that there is a good chance I’ll never own one, I still want to learn. Maybe it’s to see what I’m missing. Maybe it’s so I can provide more unbiased facts in this argument as my view is clearly skewed. Or maybe it’s because I will be driving three manual übercars in a few months time and I don’t want to make a hash of it. Stalling in a Murcielago is generally frowned upon.

I’m going to document my transformation from a devoted paddle shifter into, at the very least, a manual appreciator. I may grow to love a stick in my right hand (wait, not like that) and a sore left leg, or I may learn to love my DSG even more, but either way I have to learn. And fast.

A few days ago my friend (who’s going with me on our übercar experience day) brought over his sister’s manual Nissan Versa for me to get my feet wet in. Now I think that this is the best way to learn: have a friend bring over one of his relative’s cars, so if you break the clutch it’s really his fault for letting a complete amateur loose in a car that isn’t his in the first place! After reading this he probably won’t let me in it again. Plus I scared him crap-less while I drove it.

That’s a fun story. I had spent about half an hour driving around in the Versa, getting used to changing gears with a clutch and starting and stopping without stalling. Later that evening we were going out to the pub and he suggested I be the one to drive the five minute trip. It was about 7:30 and almost pitch black outside, and I at first couldn’t even find reverse. In the Versa you have to reach far down on the shifter, pull the physical shifter up and then slot into the far top-left slot. Let me just repeat that this was in the dark as this will play into the story later.

I pulled out of the driveway and promptly stalled the car. Once on the move again I arrived at the stop sign at the end of my street and prepared to turn left onto a busy-with-rush-hour-traffic 60km/h road. For the first time in months there was also a car waiting patiently behind me (my road is not populated, so you rarely have a line up at this stop sign), which further increased my nervousness. But I followed what I had been taught: slowly ease off the clutch until you feel it start to give out, then slowly but consistently apply some throttle. This resulted in me stalling the car two times as I rolled into the street. By the third stall we had diagnosed the problem: I was starting the car in third. With it being dark I couldn’t see which gear I was in. Clearly I didn’t have the feel yet.

As I sat perpendicular to about twenty oncoming cars, stalled in the middle of the road, looking like a complete fool and having other drivers honk and flash their lights at me I finally got it into first. Much to my friends chagrin I then proceeded to rev the nuts out of the thing in first gear as I tried to drive away from the awkward situation as quickly as I could. At the next red light I got out of the driver’s seat.

This is not a good way to start my manual education. In this particular manual gearbox’s defense, I started with a pretty shite example, as even with an automatic the Versa is crap. My next manual experience will be in about a week when another car-mad friend will let me play in his Genesis Coupe. I’ve decided that I won’t allow myself to take that car anywhere close to other people, to protect both the car and what’s left of my dignity. I’ve also decided to learn from professionals and will soon be enrolling at a local manual shift training school called Shifters. After five lessons I hope that I’ll feel comfortable enough with a clutch and stick to drive a Lamborghini, Ferrari and Aston Martin. Gulp.


~ by ubercar on January 5, 2012.

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