If vehicles with standard transmissions keep making inroads into the market, Honda will have had a lot to do with it. Approximately 20 per cent of its Canadian sales are standards, a healthy number considering many believed the death of the stick was not far off.
There are several reasons manual transmissions are still relevant. While not a fabulous choice for the stop-and-go commuter, for many the very act of driving is more engaging with a stick. Fans will repeatedly tell you they feel like they’re actually driving, as opposed to simply aiming a car, and they appreciate the required driver input. Good drivers will usually see an improvement on gas mileage with their manual, though if you drive it hard for sport, you’ll see that edge evaporate.
Some people find out the value of knowing your way around a clutch the hard way. In most parts of Europe, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an automatic car to rent. Manuals make up about 80 per cent of rental fleets, and automatics are often booked long in advance.
How confident is Honda? The 2012 Civic Si is only available with a standard transmission. A recent invite from Honda put out a brave offer: bring us your leery, your scared, your huddled masses yearning to learn standard. Well, Honda didn’t quite word it that way. But it did do something that would make some of you shudder and clutch your clutches: they put a fleet of the new Civic Sis into the hands (and feet) of newbies.
It was a specific request to have non-manual transmission drivers learn the skill. I hauled along Michael, a neighbour’s son who had driven stick a couple of times but wouldn’t have risked taking one out on the road. A coned slalom exercise on a closed course with instructors and race car drivers was the perfect setting.
Seating position is always important when you’re driving, but with a manual, if you can’t reach the clutch properly, you’ll be unable to fully engage it or rest your foot near the top, a no-no demonstrated by the head instructor with an actual clutch. Holding up a worn clutch, it was easy to see what bad habits could earn you. The same instructor was quick to point out that clutches, in the hands (or feet) of a good driver, will rarely need replacing. If you’re burning through clutches every 20,000 km, it might be time for a lesson.
After 15 minutes of working through the gears without the accelerator – a great way to get a feel for where the clutch engages – Michael started adding some gas. Another 10 minutes and he was in the slalom course, muttering under his breath as the odd cone got nailed.
Ask anyone their biggest fear about learning to drive a standard, and you’ll get the same reply: what if I stall? You’re going to stall; you’re going to stall a lot. Weaving the sporty Si through the course actually forced Michael’s attention elsewhere. It didn’t take long before he was shifting more naturally, his concentration on smoothing out corners, and braking to coincide with selecting the right gear.
No matter how great the lessons, an afternoon with a manual is simply not enough time to be confident in real life situations. With that in mind, Honda offered participants the chance to hang on to a car – for a week. Would a week with a stick get you from shaky to surefooted?
It does if you’re a 21-year-old young man with a hot red 2012 CR-Z hybrid – the only hybrid in North America available with a manual transmission.
While I did drive it home – that stop-and-go commuter traffic was just kicking in when we wrapped up the afternoon – I handed the keys to Michael as soon as we landed. Like a mother leaving her newborn with a babysitter for the first time, I started with instructions. I showed him where the hazards were (a good reflex in the early goings, especially if you stall in heavy traffic; it at least tells people around you that something is going on), a reminder to note the pillars that limited vision out back, and where reverse was. I don’t know if he heard a word I said.
I glanced out the window frequently that week. The car was never there. Michael would come home from work, and then an hour later be gone. Finally corralling him for some pictures one day, I asked if he was liking it.
“I love it. I love driving standard. It just feels normal now.” He’d stalled a couple of times the first evening, but that was it. I asked him if the week had been enough time to get adjusted.
“I got in the shop truck the other day at work and went to put the clutch in,” he laughed.