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Rediscovering the romance of driving stick shift

Honda media event restores driver's appreciation for manual transmission

Published July 24, 2013

It was like an urban horror story. A sunny afternoon in the countryside. Dad had agreed to a lesson in driving a manual transmission in my brother’s old red Jetta. The winding country roads near Heidelburg, Ont., seemed an ideal place to do it.

But there I was, stalled in the middle of an intersection. On one corner was the Heidelburg Inn, where on this particular sunny day a large group of frat-boy types were drinking beer on the patio.

As I tried and failed, repeatedly, to get the VW to move into first gear, the frat boys noticed my humiliating predicament.

Suddenly they were on their feet, cheering and jeering drunkenly. Dad was silent; he had done all he could. But beneath his silence, I knew there was an inferno of rage that could come spewing forth at any time.

After about a million years, I got old red into first and great whoops of joy could be heard from the frat boys as I chugged off down the road.

My experience was hardly unique. It plays out any time a new driver wants to know what “driving stick” is all about. But it plays out less and less as manual transmission cars are less in demand and seem set to go the way of ancient Aramaic.

Although I’m now fairly competent at driving standard, it is experiences like my Heidelburg episode that Honda hoped to banish at a recent manual driving school for local media members.

Under the watchful instruction of professional race drivers, I’m trying out the Civic Si and Accord in their limited-edition Honda Factory Performance (HFP) versions.

These cars are so easy to drive that the gears seem to know what to do on their own. Just easing off the clutch puts you in motion, and the transition to first gear is seamless.

I guided the Civic through pylons in a parking lot near Ontario Place, while longing for an open road where I could more fully understand what the car has to offer.

I could barely hear the engine, but I could sense its inner workings. As I shifted gears, there was none of the clunky jerking that is commonly associated with a stick shift; just smooth transitions and an easy ride.

The Accord HFP transcends its reputation as a sensible family sedan. Its sleek style is complemented by a more heightened driving experience.

Whenever I drive a stick shift, I realize I’m discovering nuances and evolving as a driver.

Under instructor Daniel Morad’s tutelage, I got pointers on downshifting. He explained that if you haven’t quite mastered gearing down, it can be very hard on the car, so it may be best not to. But as you get better, it’s easier on the car, and the gear shift becomes more like an extension of your arm.

With some practice, I began to get better at matching the r.p.m. to the speed of the car by revving the engine slightly, to make the clutch engagement smoother, which is important in downshifting.

Morad explained that while many of his fellow 20-somethings shy away from driving standard, once he shows them how much fun it can be, they are very interested.

Although the smartphone generation tends to boil experiences down to their simplest essence, what can be lost is the importance of understanding how something works, so that you might more easily command it.

It dawned on me: If manual transmissions disappear, what becomes of the true art of driving? In 50 years, the elegant dance from gear to gear could be the equivalent of gleaning the meaning of ancient hieroglyphic cave drawings.

For me, learning to drive stick has been a constant evolution; from the tense time with my dad years ago, to picking it up again last year with the help of a friend in a rusty old beater, to honing my winter driving skills in a Porsche, to fine-tuning my downshifting skills in the Hondas.

Each time, my return to my own car, an automatic, is more of a boring, depressing, letdown. There’s no romance there; just a dull, mindless, two-pedal transport from point A to point B.

When the driving lessons concluded, Honda had a surprise for us: an appearance by Alex Tagliani, and a chance to get some face time with the Canadian racing star.

Our names were entered into a draw for a chance to do hot laps with the IndyCar driver. Now, this was truly exciting.

What could Tagliani, known for his technical abilities and feel for the car, teach me so I could evolve further? Could he be the key to the next step in my education?

Alas, my name was not drawn. To be continued, Tag.

The vehicles driven by Star editor Serena Willoughby were provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca.

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