Mini Has A MINI Manual Driving School, And I Was The First to Try It

MINI is bringing back the thrill of driving a manual transmission with their new MINI Manual Driving School, and A Girls Guide to Cars got to test it out.

I'D Given Up On Ever Learning How To Drive A Manual Transmission Car. I Should Have Started On A Mini! Photo By Allison Bell
I'd given up on ever learning how to drive a manual transmission car. I should have started on a Mini! Photo by Allison Bell

If you’re looking for a fun, safe and stress-free way to learn (or re-learn) the lost art of manual driving, this is it.

When I got the invitation to attend Mini USA’s brand new MINI Manual Driving School Program, I was excited — and terrified. This extremely cool, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would certainly be a memorable one, but it meant that I would have to confront some demons from my past. See, learning (or rather, attempting to learn) to drive a manual transmission nearly cost me my marriage several years ago. It wasn’t that my husband was rude or impatient, but my ego as a then-newlywed took a serious beating as I repeatedly tried — and failed — to get our 1992 Mazda Miata to move more than a few feet in our church parking lot. The experience left me so frustrated that I vowed never to do it again because I clearly wasn’t meant for this.

We Spent Plenty Of Time Familiarizing Ourselves With The Positions Of Each Gear. Photo By Mini

Would I learn to unlock the secrets of the manual transmission? Photo by Mini

It Seems the Universe–and Mini–had Other Plans

Nearly nine years after making that promise, I found myself at the BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, Calif., ready to finally tend to those old wounds and prove my past self wrong. Of course, I still felt apprehensive. Would I be the one person that just wouldn’t “get it”? Would I be huddled in a heap by the end of the day, chewing my hair and rocking back and forth in the fetal position?

Well, step on the clutch, put things into gear and get ready to roll because I’m going to take you through my experience of being the first person ever to test out the new Mini Manual Driving School Program.

Related: 2022 MINI Cooper Hardtop Makes Driving a Manual Transmission More Fun

The Day Starts With Some Brief Classroom Instruction To Go Over The Basics Of Driving A Manual Transmission Car. Photo By Allison Bell

The day starts with some brief classroom instruction to go over the basics of driving a manual transmission car. Photo by Allison Bell

The Driving School Puts the Focus on Fun

Before we hit the track, the Mini team provided some brief classroom instruction on what we could expect for the day. Aside from a quick overview of the mechanics of a manual transmission, proper seat positioning and the basic steps of driving “stick,” they also shared some interesting statistics from a recent consumer survey.

They found that 63% of respondents agreed that learning to drive a manual transmission was “a rite of passage and an important life skill.” Plus, out of all the characteristics associated with driving a manual, most respondents agreed that being “fun to drive” was No. 1.

A Flat, Forgiving Course With Gentle Curves Was Perfect For Learning How To Drive The Manual Minis. Photo By Allison Bell

A flat, forgiving course with gentle curves was perfect for learning how to drive the manual Minis. Photo by Allison Bell

And yet, the survey also found that just 24% of respondents owned a manual-equipped car. Nearly half (49%) of Gen Z and 42% of women said they didn’t know how to drive one, but more than half (53%) said they were interested to learn. An impressive 67% of younger respondents between ages 18–34 were the most eager to learn how to drive a manual transmission car.

Bottom line: The manual transmission is not dead yet. And now, Mini’s Head of Corporate Communications Andrew Cutler is excited to bring back this “lost art” through the company’s new program.

“We argue that the fun and community of getting out into the open road in an engaging way in its best form is done with a manual transmission,” Cutler said. With that in mind, we were ready to hop behind the wheel of our Minis and put that theory to the test.

The Instructors At The Mini Manual Driving School Offer Helpful Feedback After Each Lap. They'Re Also Patient And Encouraging. Photo By Allison Bell

The instructors at the Mini Manual Driving School offer helpful feedback after each lap. They’re also patient and encouraging. Photo by Allison Bell

Learning to Drive a Manual Transmission One Mini Baby Step at a Time

Next, we stepped outside to meet our instructors and each of us got to jump into one of the Mini Coopers lined up on the track. As fate would have it, I wound up in car No. 1, which meant I’d be the first one to give it a whirl. Though I would normally find that daunting to say the least, there were several factors that put me at ease.

  • First, the course was flat. (Phew!)
  • Second, our Minis were equipped with a forgiving automatic restart feature, which bailed me out of several shaky attempts to find that friction point on the clutch.
  • Third, our instructors, Chris Hill and Loni Unser, were extremely knowledgeable, friendly, encouraging and, above all, patient.
Before We Got In The Manual Minis, Our Instructor Chris Taught Us How To Properly Position The Seats. Photo By Allison Bell

Before we got in the manual Minis, our instructor Chris taught us how to properly position the seats. Photo by Allison Bell

We started out with a simple task: Step on the clutch, put it into first gear and let the car roll forward. Then step on the clutch, press the brake and stop. Once we got used to that, we added in a little throttle. We practiced going around the track in first gear using that same process until we felt comfortable. Then it was the same thing but we added in second gear. After a few rounds of that, then came third gear. After every lap, we’d get feedback from the instructors and a chance to ask questions, which was helpful. If they sensed you getting flustered, they’d put your mind at ease and remind you to “take your time.”

Though I can’t claim total proficiency in the art of manual driving after a half-day of instruction, I will say this: I did it. I drove the thing. Shaky and imperfect as it was, I got it from Point A to Point B over and over again. And I had a blast doing it.

Related: Teach Someone to Drive a Stick Shift in 8 Easy Steps

If You'Re Going To Learn To Drive Stick, Stick With One Of These Cars. The Manual Minis Are Very Forgiving! Photo By Allison Bell

If you’re going to learn to drive stick, stick with one of these cars. The manual Minis are very forgiving! Photo by Allison Bell

I Might Have to Buy a Manual Mini Now

After experiencing that promised fun of driving a manual transmission Mini, the perfectionist in me can’t help but daydream about owning one for myself and really honing these newfound skills. For anyone who feels a similar urge, there are currently seven manual transmission Minis to choose from.

Just last November, Mini announced that they were bringing back manual transmission versions of its Cooper, Cooper S and John Cooper Works 2-door hardtops. And now they’ve announced four additional manual transmission models that will be available to order this week: the Mini Cooper Convertible, Mini Cooper S Convertible, Mini Cooper 4-Door Hardtop and Mini Cooper S 4-Door Hardtop. Production on the new models begins March 1.

In Order To Master The Basics Of Operating A Manual Transmission, It Helped To Know How It Worked. Photo By Allison Bell

In order to master the basics of operating a manual transmission, it helped to know how it worked. Photo by Allison Bell

Is the Manual Driving School Program Right for You?

If you want manual driving lessons, you won’t find a better place to learn. The Mini Manual Driving School is great for novice drivers and anyone who hasn’t driven a manual transmission in a while. In the company’s words, “This school is designed to welcome a new generation of manual drivers while allowing others to sharpen their skills after years of driving automatic.”

For $499 per person, you get to learn this new skill in a safe, controlled environment with someone else’s car (a Mini, no less). And when you factor in the money you’ll save on therapy sessions you’ll surely need if you try to learn from a friend or relative, this is a steal. No need to feel self-conscious or nervous. You’re in good hands.

You can find out more about the Mini Manual Driving School Program here.

Related: 5 Reasons You’ll Want To Drive A Manual Transmission

Owning A Manual Mini Cooper Convertible Is Now Officially On My Bucket List. Photo By Allison Bell

Owning a manual Mini Cooper Convertible is now officially on my bucket list. Photo by Allison Bell

Final Thoughts

I’d like to thank the Mini team for hosting us and making this experience so enjoyable. I learned that it’s truly never too late to learn something new (or in my case, something you vowed never to try again). Now I’m a little cooler in my kids’ eyes — and my husband could not be more proud.

Finding That Friction Point With The Clutch Pedal Takes Practice, But These Minis Make It As Easy As It Gets. Photo: Mini

Finding that friction point with the clutch pedal takes practice, but these MINIs make it as easy as it gets. Photo: Mini

Key Takeaways From Mini Manual Driving School

  • Don’t be nervous — everyone is new at this.
  • Go slowly so you don’t get flustered.
  • Be patient when you’re letting out the clutch.
  • Don’t be afraid to step on that throttle so you can have a smoother takeoff.
  • Above all, have fun!

Disclosure: MINI invited me to spend the day on the track with their cars and professional instructors from the MINI Manual Driving School Program. All opinions are my own.

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Allison is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the wife of a car-obsessed husband who got her... More about Allison Bell