I recently swapped out my trusty 2015 Toyota Prius C for a used 2013 Subaru WRX STI that I got a great deal on. Part of it was that I felt I just needed a change; the Prius is great for a daily commuter car, but I have my motorcycle for that. Mostly I used the Prius C for road trips, and while it could do them, it was really lacking. It tops out at less than 100 horsepower, and on hills it would magically transform into a semi that would go at most 45 miles per hour. But at the same time it was light enough that at the slightest downhill it would zip to 80 without even my having a food on the gas!
But all these quirks aside, it was time for a change. I wanted to drive stick, and I wanted to be comfortable on road trips, but more than anything I wanted to have fun driving. Driving an automatic - especially a quiet hybrid - doesn’t even feel like an activity. Your attention isn’t really on the activity; it’s just a means to an end of getting to your destination. I firmly believe if you’re doing any activity that you aren’t focusing most of your attention on, then it’s simply not worth doing. And for most people, driving is a chore that isn’t worth doing. So for the near future, they’ll put up with it, but most people in the long run are going to outsource the chore of driving to a driving service like Uber or just wait until self-driving cars become a reality.
But for the select few who still enjoy road tripping and driving, why not go all the way and really enjoy driving? The difference between manual and automatic is almost as big a jump from motorcycling versus driving. Driving a stick shift puts you in touch with your car far more than an automatic ever could, and you have to pay attention to the road. And, if you enjoy driving, why wouldn’t you want to?
Like trying anything new, I was pretty nervous. I hadn’t had any classes on how manual cars work or how to drive them, apart from my general motorcycle knowledge. Looking up online didn’t seem very helpful - there are very few stick shift driving classes. So, like any millennial, I turned to Youtube.
StreetSpeed717 had a helpful video, and after watching this about fifteen straight times for confidence, I turned to articles on the internet. Doug DeMuro has probably the most famous column on first time stick-shift experience, and of course there are some great Reddit threads. The general consensus seemed to be that a trial by fire of just going out and buying it, parking it in a lot, and doing circles for a couple hours wasn’t too bad. Heck, most of them even lived.
So I showed up to the dealership without any experience whatsoever and decided to wing it. I wasn’t sure what my plan was going in - whether I was going to lie and say I had actually driven stick before, or just come clean immediately - but the option was quickly taken away from me. My salesperson casually mentioned I should take it out for a test drive, and, bottling the nerves, I casually agreed. I sat down in the car, and tried to turn it on, when… of course, it didn’t turn on.
He immediately turns around to me and says, “You’ve never driven stick before, have you?”
I folded immediately. “Nope.”
Turns out, on a car, you have to press the clutch down way further than on a motorcycle, which is why I wasn’t able to turn on the car. The salesperson took a deep breath, as if to say “Not this shit again”, and then resigned himself to an “Alright, let’s go…”
The first drive actually wasn’t too bad - I only stalled once on an uphill stop, and that was slightly nerve wracking, and you could definitely smell the clutch afterwards. But besides that it wasn’t too bad. Of course, every red light was still nerve-wracking (as it was on the first day of motorcycling for that matter). But overall it was pretty great! And boy was it a world of a difference from automatic driving. For the first time in so long, driving consumed all of my attention.
And of course, there were some rather embarrassing moments. After everything was signed, it turned out the dealership could not take credit card for the full downpayment, so I had to drive home and bring my checkbook. They kindly let me take the new car home. And, except for one or two stalls, I mostly made it home okay. And on the way back, it was an almost perfect drive - right up to the point of actually pulling into the dealership parking lot, which was on the slightest uphill. After stalling three times, this super cute girl named Skye came out and sweetly offered to park my car for me.
Let me tell you - there is nothing more embarrassing than a 5’ 1” blonde girl offering to park your 350 horsepower muscle car for you because you’re incapable. She was of course super sweet about it, and saying “Oh we’ve all been there” and so on, but of course that only deepened the embarrassment. Turns out she was a motorcyclist too, so we immediately hit it off, talking about the difference in driving stick versus motorcycling.
For the uninitiated, most motorcycles (Ducati being the major exception) use wet clutches. Wet clutches can handle way more abuse, and when going at low speeds, it’s actually preferred on motorcycles to just ride the clutch at a slightly higher gear, as they give you a smoother ride. But dry clutches (used in all cars) do not like to be ridden at all, which is why when you do (as novices often do when stalling), you smell the clutch a lot. Dry clutches definitely prefer just stopping, and when there’s enough space, driving forward, before stopping again. The slow creeping forward that automatic cars do tends to be rougher on a dry clutch, with the tradeoff being that dry clutches give you more power.
There are, of course, a whole host of other differences - the gearing and rev speeds tend to be far higher on a motorcycle (even my CBR 500 revs up to 12k RPM, whereas my STI only revs up to ~8k), along with the way engine breaking differs, and many others.
So for the most part, the first week was pretty cool. I somehow took it on the bridge to work in rush hour traffic (definitely stalled a couple times), and eventually stalling in what is almost always the fastest car around (and a muscle car to boot) ceased to be embarrassing.
Driving a stick in SF is probably the best training ground as far as hilly driving goes. The next week I drove to Tahoe during a national ski competition, and it was packed. I was inching up at 2 miles an hour for almost forty minutes, and as luck would have it, a cop car was right in front of me. The guy probably thought I was being unnecessarily rowdy, as in almost every start / stop I revved the engine a bit too much to prevent stalling, but luckily there weren’t any issues. I definitely received my fair share of judgmental looks.
To be fair, just two weeks prior, if I saw a dude wearing a black hat that said ‘SQUAD’ in bright gold lettering with Ray Bans on driving an STI and revving loudly, I would have rolled my eyes and judged him, too. How times change.
All in all, switching to stick shift has absolutely been worth it. The number of people I’ve been able to relate to, the new experiences it has provided, and the sheer enjoyment of driving has transformed what was the most monotonous and exhausting activities in to an absolute joy. Traffic doesn’t seem so soul draining anymore, and my day just starts out happier.