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Here's How to Master Driving a Manual Transmission

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author photo by Eric Brandt April 2017

The topic of learning to drive a car with a manual transmission has been beaten to death. The query "how to drive stick" yields just under 100 million results on Google and over 17 million instructional YouTube videos. What I'm here to tell you is not how to drive a stick shift, but how to get good at it.

Maybe you know the basics, but you're not very confident in your shifting skills. Maybe you're starting from scratch, and you've always wanted to learn this increasingly rare skill. Either way, there's one path I'd recommend to truly mastering the three pedals: Buy a cheap car with a manual transmission that you absolutely don't care about.

For me it was a 2000 Chevy Metro (don't you dare call it a Geo). I knew the basics of shifting, and I had driven stick a couple times -- but I really wanted to get good at it. So I did what any sane person would do, and I went looking for a practice car. What I found was a rusty 3-cylinder Chevy Metro hatchback with a 5-speed -- and I drove that dumb little car every day for about a year. After that, I was confident enough in my manual skills that I upgraded to a Focus ST (you should have seen the salesman's face when I showed up in my Metro).

The Mighty Metro was slow, it was noisy, it looked ridiculous, and it caused my wife to make fun of me -- but I didn't care, because it was teaching me how to master the stick shift. I snubbed it, I ground gears, I missed shifts, and I even had to replace the clutch -- but eventually, driving stick became second nature. It got to the point where if I found myself driving an automatic I'd instinctively reach for the clutch pedal to start the car. That's a good sign that you've finally mastered the manual transmission.

But why did it have to happen in such a crappy car? Why didn't I just buy something more modern that I could comfortably keep for a while? Simple: I wanted this test mule to be cheap and unimportant to me -- because what if I really broke something? Worse, what if my failure to shift properly got me in an accident? I'd much rather have that happen in something cheap that I don't care about than in something newer that I really wouldn't want to hurt.

And here's another good reason to practice on a cheap car: What if you learn that you just don't like driving a manual? If you drive a manual beater for a while and decide you'd rather let the car do the shifting, you're not stuck in a long-term investment. If your first manual car is something nice and modern that you took out a loan to obtain, you could be signing up for something you won't actually want -- for a long time.

If you're ready to row your own gears, hit up Autotrader and check the little "Manual" box to find your first car with a stick. Then sort by lowest price first and get the cheapest car that you (and, if applicable, your significant other) can tolerate. Chances are you'll end up loving your beater like I learned to love my Metro.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's How to Master Driving a Manual Transmission - Autotrader