Stick nostalgia clashes with automatic ease

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August 26, 2019

If you’d asked me last year how I’d feel if General Motors dumped the manual transmission in the Chevy Corvette (News, page 8), I would have complained about the loss of soul for such an iconic vehicle. I would have criticized the driving public for choosing lifeless technology instead of opting for the visceral joys of managing engine power delivery. I would have prattled on about finding that exact point where the clutch disc and flywheel make contact.

Then, I tried to teach my newly licensed teenager how to drive stick.

It seemed like it was going to be easy. We started in an empty parking lot on a sunny day – great visibility, few obstacles, and a lot of optimism. Sure, she stalled the first few times, but in about an hour, she seemed to have the hang of things. She did a lot better than I did at 16 when my father took me out for a similar lesson. Everything was going well until the biggest enemy of old-school transmissions reared its head.

It was supposed to be a short trip – five miles to the store and back home – my daughter driving, me riding shotgun to offer advice and support. How could I have forgotten that there was a hill at a stoplight on the way there?

For those of you who have only driven automatics, those transmissions constantly send engine power to the drive wheels, so if you take your foot off the brake, the car inches forward. In a standard, it doesn’t. If you’re on a hill, you roll backwards.

No problem for experienced stick pilots. Reflexes honed on hundreds of hills give you the confidence to quickly move your right foot from brake to accelerator, ease off the clutch, and get the car moving before it rolls into the car behind you. On steep hills, you can use the parking brake for extra assistance.

My daughter didn’t have hundreds of hills of experience. The car rolled back, she panicked, pulled her foot off the clutch and stalled the car. Five times. Through three green light cycles. Thankfully, there was room for other cars to get around us.

Sixth time was the charm, and we’ve had a few more lessons since. She’s gaining confidence and will soon be proficient in manual driving.

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me. Every car I’ve owned since 1991 has been a standard, and I’ve always loved the control and connection they give. The complexity that pushed most drivers to automatics is what standard drivers want.

The technical reasons to go stick – better fuel economy, lower cost, easier to repair – have all died off as computer-controls have made automakers more efficient and reliable. GM says the Corvette automatic will shift gears faster than any human driver could.

So, I come to bury the stick, not to praise it. Nostalgia aside, I’m finally willing to admit that there’s a better way.