The final frontier for any American student driver. Or adult one, for that matter. This weekend I finally achieved mastery of the stick shift on my wife's car, after driving an automatic for ten years, and I feel ridiculously proud of myself.

I mean, owning a car with an automatic shouldn't be construed as a sign of weakness or ineptitude or anything like that. Automatic transmissions are a remarkable and intelligent invention, which allow your vehicle to select the appropriate gear without computers or anything. It's a brilliant piece of engineering, and there's no reason why any sensible driver wouldn't want one.

Well, okay two reasons. First, a manual transmission costs less than an automatic -- a couple thousand dollars, if you're buying a new car. Second, a car with a stick shift operates around five miles per gallon better than an identical car with an automatic. So you're saving money twice, a very Good Thing.

But that doesn't mean it's easy to use one. I tried for the longest time, after my wife showed me the basics. The basics were easy: when the engine starts to whine loudly, that means you have to release the gas and stomp on the clutch, shift up a gear, then release the clutch and stop on the accelerator again. Simple. I mastered this in about five seconds.

But going from zero to first gear -- that is the tricky part. You can't just release-stomp-stomp-release here. There's a special "zone" for both the clutch and the accelerator where you have to have both pedals to ensure that the car moves. Release the clutch too fast and the car stalls and dies; release it too late and the car lurches and stops, lurches and stops, until you finally get the pedals in the right order or the car stalls and dies. It took me forever to find that zone.

And then there's the joy and pain of trying to move from zero to first gear while your car is pointing uphill, because in case you didn't already know, the car is in neutral whenever you're not depressing the brake or the gas pedal.

But please don't forget to hit the clutch each and every time you're about to shift gears. Including reverse. The transmission will make strange noises forever after if you don't, and you'll have to fess up about it sooner or later.