Learning to drive a manual car

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These days, there is no doubt that automatic cars are more popular than manuals. In fact, there are fewer manual cars being manufactured than ever before. But that doesn't mean that learner drivers should discount them. On the contrary, some driving teachers believe that learning to drive a manual as well as an automatic will make you a better driver.

So what exactly is the difference between an automatic and a manual? In an automatic, the car decides when you shift and automatically (hence the name) changes gears for you. In a manual transmission car, the diver is responsible for shifting gears using the clutch and gas pedals.

James Stewart, head trainer at Ford's Driving Skills for Life teen safe driving program, says that for learner drivers, a car with automatic transmission is much easier to drive than a car with manual transmission."[In an automatic] there are only two pedals, so learners don't have to think about selecting the right gear and using the clutch," he explains.

Stewart says that learners need a lot of coordination to get to grips with a manual car, which can make learning in a manual a very overwhelming experience. "There are so many things going on. Automatic transmission takes the pressure of a third pedal away," he says.

There are several driving situations that learner drivers find tricky in manual cars. In particular, Stewart says that 'hill starts' can be very nerve wracking.

"The coordination of a 'hill start' can be very challenging for a learner driver. There is a lot going on; the coordination of releasing the hand break, lifting the clutch, accelerating and then pulling out of a parking spot at the same time," Stewart explains.

Manoeuvres such as 'hill starts' are not as overwhelming in an automatic, because you don't have to worry about the car rolling backwards.

However, a lot of new manual cars incorporate the same technology that is used in automatics to provide the best of both worlds. One feature that learners driving in a manual car would find particularly useful is Ford's 'hill hold assist', which will prevent the car rolling backwards during a hill start.


Similarly, modern automatic cars tend to have a sports mode that allows the driver to change gears manually. So drivers that know how to drive a manual have more options in real life driving scenarios.

While learning in an automatic is easier than learning in a manual, there are benefits to learning how to drive a manual car. "If you've got the time to do it, I would recommend it,' says Stewart.

"It teaches new drivers an extra skill and a greater understanding of the mechanical workings of the car."

Of course, many learner drivers learn to drive in their parent's car, so some learners may have to learn to drive in a manual. Stewart's advice is to find somewhere very quiet for the first few lessons, preferably off road altogether (an empty car park for example).

Learning to drive a manual car will also give young drivers more choice when it comes to buying their own car. Katie, who is now 27, started driving a manual when she started university because it was the cheapest option. "I purchased a brand new Barina that I couldn't drive," she recalls. 

"The hardest part for me was getting the balance right between the clutch and the accelerator when taking off. Releasing the clutch when you have just enough revs. My step dad taught me how to master it," explains Katie.

Naturally, there were some challenges for Katie – for one, she attended one of Australia's hilliest universities, the University of Newcastle, forcing her to master 'hill starts'.

And, like many learner drivers, Katie also suffered a few embarrassing moments. "I once got stuck on a speed hump out the front of Westfield at a pedestrian crossing. It was humiliating!

"I think I must have been in the wrong gear. But I was too panicked at the time to realise it," she remembers.

The good news is that Katie grew to love driving her manual car. "I can honestly say that changing gears, hill starts and taking off - without getting stuck on a speed hump - have all become second nature to me now," she says.

So would Katie recommend teaching your teenager to drive a manual car? Absolutely! "While I am glad I learned to drive in an auto, I would highly recommend you let your teen learn to drive a manual once they have the basics down pat," she says.