x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Getting the most out of a Yaris by taking control of the gear lever

Is there a conspiracy of people bent on turning us all into single-celled life forms piloting automatic cars?

I remember it very clearly. The first time I sat behind the wheel. It was back in 1987, I was 12 years old, and the vehicle was my father's rather uninteresting brown-and-beige Daihatsu. The first thing I did was grasp the wheel, madly turning it left to right making ridiculous "vroom-vroom" noises. I looked around, wide-eyed. I had watched my father closely whenever he was driving and thought if I could just imitate the motions then I would be able to drive as well. The steering wheel was obvious enough but the rest was far cooler.

The gear box to my right presented the greatest fascination for me. I grasped the gearstick and threw it about again and made more daft "vroom-vroom" noises. Then I looked with real wonder towards the floor under the steering wheel. I stared at the three metal pedals that seemingly came out of nowhere. Pointing at them, I yelled out to my father: "What are those for? You never showed me those!" I wanted to take it all in. Even with the car in a static state, I could feel how the adrenalin would hit when I could finally drive. The thrill of hand-foot-eye co-ordination that triggers instinctively when you drive a manual transmission is a sensation unlike many one has while going about our day to day activities. For me, it is a way of feeling alive.

People who only know how to drive automatic cars will tell you that such horrid transmissions are easy and pleasurable to drive. Honestly, an amoeba could drive an automatic car. I prefer to use my brain and left foot when I sit behind a wheel, rather than depending on some ghastly hydraulic fluid pressure mechanism to shift my gears up and down. It is far better to control these movements myself and enjoy the thrill of pushing each gear to its limit in order to push the car's performance. Nothing compares to the absolute thrill of shifting gears and feeling the response of your car.

At the moment though, I am forced into using a car with an automatic transmission. The utter lack of vehicles in the UAE with a beautiful manual transmission is the harsh reality I live with. I love my rental - and my helpful rental company too - but for some reason, the motoring world has pulled violently away from its roots and now denies its very essence. Is there a conspiracy of people bent on turning us all into single-celled life forms piloting automatic cars?

Thankfully though, for those who want to regain control of their vehicles, there is the option of using the automatic transmission's lower range gears. These minor wonders are not exactly the same as a regular manual gearbox but they can bring some of the control back. A lower gear position in an automatic transmission is normally used when attempting to negotiate steep climbs or rougher terrains, but in the city it can be used to soup up the braking power of your engine when it is required.

Looking around at the driving talents of some, better brake control is something to be revered in a car on these roads. My faithful Toyota Yaris comes with a miraculous number of lower range gear options. I have at my disposal the Drive gear, as well as 3, 2 and Low. Whenever your gear lever is in any of the lower range positions, the transmission will not shift automatically to higher gear ratios.

Using these with the correct amount of brake pressure makes my Yaris behave somewhat like a manual - or at least as close as it will ever get to a proper transmission. Now I am waiting for my annual holiday next month - I am going back to Europe - where the majority of vehicles thankfully still function with manual transmissions. It will be marvellous to drive around with three pedals and a gearstick during my time away. I'll be on a road trip chauffeuring my grandmother around the Iberian Peninsula, changing gears the whole way, and I cannot wait. psantos@thenational.ae