A few 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 produced 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 gear-changing 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 www.spdt.ca