Learning to drive a stick shift while being screamed at by a parent used to be a rite of passage for America's youth, but times have changed. Studies have shown fewer and fewer people are bothering to learn, the percentage of manual-equipped new car sales in this country is foundering in the low single digits, and electrification is threatening to do away with the H-pattern entirely. Thankfully, one automaker is trying to do something about it. As of today, Mini's stick shift driving school is open for business.
Run a few times a month at BMW's Performance Center West in Thermal, California, the new half-day program is intended for people who have never so much as looked at a manual gear lever, teaching them the fundamentals of driving stick in a safe, controlled, low-pressure environment. It's $499 to sign up, and registration is open at this link. The goal is not to turn absolute novices into a heel-toeing Ayrton Senna clone in an afternoon, but to show people how fun it can be and provide a solid foundation they'll hopefully want to build on out in the real world. And who knows, maybe even with their next car purchase.
Though I know how to drive stick, I turned up at the inaugural class yesterday to see just how realistic this vision of a manual school for the masses will be. In preparation, Mini had another study commissioned to gauge the demand—according to its (optimistic) numbers, 53% of those surveyed say they're very interested in learning, a number that jumps to 67% of all 18-34 year olds in the sample.
We can debate the methodology and veracity of those figures, same as any poll. But Mini has another data point up its sleeve. For most of 2022, it had to pause all manual transmission orders over supply chain issues tied to the war in Ukraine. Since it reintroduced the stick option on the Cooper two-door hardtop models (regular, S, and John Cooper Works), the manual take rate for buyers has been an impressive 32%. Seeing that, this week Mini is also bringing back the stick for the Cooper and Cooper S convertibles as well as the four-door Cooper and Cooper S. If there's any automaker that can claim to be the vanguard of the manual transmission, Mini has one of the strongest cases.
Five hundred dollars is a little steep, but much cheaper than a lifetime of therapy, so I wanted to see just what it buys you. The day begins with a classroom session where one of the Performance Center's pro drivers talks through the basics of how a manual transmission works. This was a crucial step missing from my own education as a 17-year-old shaking nervously behind the wheel of my dad's 1998 Toyota 4Runner. In the one lesson I've given to someone in the past, I found it to be enormously helpful even if the student can't tell an engine from a differential. Good to see Mini agrees.
Special consideration is given to explaining the clutch and what's physically happening with every inch of pedal travel, complete with a complex 3D animation of a flywheel, pressure plate, and a clutch plate that I think caused some eyes to widen in the room. Maybe a little too much detail there. Thankfully, the instructor is adept at talking through concepts like the engagement point clearly and concisely, and leans a lot into talking up how fun a stick shift can be.
Armed with their newfound knowledge, the class of five 20/30-somethings heads out to the track to start learning for real. The driving portion takes place on a small handling track, and after another recap explaining how to sit and get a feel for the clutch, the students hop in a mix of Cooper S hardtops and convertibles for the first of many, many slow laps.
Each begins with an instructor laying out key pointers and incremental goals in the starting box one-on-one with every driver. This structure surprised me; rather than riding along in the cars, the instructors offer feedback and pointers via radio as they watch from various stations and listen to the cars revving and stalling. Some may appreciate the space to, shall we say, verbalize their frustrations in private. Others might be left wanting for some right seat instruction to guide them in the moment. I rode along with one participant, and while my intention was to just sit back and observe, he started peppering me with questions immediately as stress mounted. I obliged and slid into teacher mode for the rest of the day, and throughout our time together he kept saying how thankful he was for the extra help.
Regardless, the course is well-designed to slowly build up skills. It starts with just easing off the clutch in first gear so you can practice that motion and feel the car begin to move when you hit the engagement point. Students are told to start and stop repeatedly so they can get used to clutching in and out, over and over again. Once that's done, the course introduces the first-to-second shift, then downshifting from second back to first. That's another interesting decision in my book, since it's rare to do that in real-world driving. But I suppose if you can master that downshift, the rest are a lot easier.
After that, if students are feeling comfortable, the instructors open up third gear and the third-to-second downshift. At the outset, I honestly wondered what I would get out of tagging along at a school for a skill I already possess. But it was very cool to watch someone gain a new ability in real time while having zero stake in the result. It also served as a reminder that learning to drive stick is not a linear process, which I think is ultimately what trips up so many lessons between loved ones. When you're learning to operate a clutch, you will nail three smooth starts followed by 10 where you stall the bejesus out of the car. It's just how it goes. After a hot start, I noticed some obvious regression in "my" pupil, with jerky shifts and surprising stalls as he started to overthink things. He still had a blast, though.
Ultimately, the course does what Mini promises, and that's give people a baseline, working understanding of how to drive a manual. Even under the tutelage of kindly pro drivers, four hours is not enough for anyone to go from zero to stick shift hero—for the course to be successful, for people to actually cement this as a new skill, it has to be followed up (and soon) by more real-world experiences. And I submit that exclusively holding this course way the hell out in Thermal, when it could be replicated anywhere there's a big empty lot, is going to limit its potential impact. That $499 entry fee is just the start when you factor in paying for a trip to the southern California desert.
At the end of the day, the instructors asked who felt confident in now being able to get in a stick shift car and head out on real roads. The common answer was, "I could do it if my life depended on it." Better than the alternative!
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