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Shift it yourself: How to drive a manual transmission car

Driving stick is an art, so to speak. Mastering it might not bolster your reputation as a motor enthusiast, but remaining ignorant to the ways of the manual transmission could knock you down a few pegs with just about everyone. It’s true, you can almost always navigate from Point A to Point B without utilizing a stick shift and a clutch, but there will undoubtedly come a time when your only option will be something other than an automatic. Perhaps you’ll be forced to drive your friend’s pickup truck home after he or she had a bit too much to drink. Maybe you’ll find yourself looking at the perfect hatchback at your local dealership only to discover it is, in fact, equipped with a manual. Knowing how to operate this type of gearbox will serve you well — and it certainly can’t hurt, anyway. After all, manuals are easier to maintain and are known to help with fuel efficiency given their direct level of control.

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Here’s our simple guide on how to drive manual, so you can operate everything from compact economy cars to forklifts using a clutch pedal and a stick. There’s truly no substitute for first-hand experience, but our simple instructions are a good starting point.

Familiarize yourself with the clutch and stick shift

Manual Details

Assuming you possess or have access to a vehicle with a manual transmission, sit in the driver’s seat and take note of the various features and components while the vehicle is off. Get a feel for the clutch, the extra pedal that’s located directly left of the brake. Familiarize yourself with its resistance and when you can feel it grip. Afterward, locate the gear shifter or “stick,” typically located in the center console between the front seats or adjacent to the steering wheel. Make sure your seat is adjusted so you can easily reach all three pedals, and as always, ensure your safety-belt is buckled.   

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Next, examine the shifting guide, likely embedded on top of the gear knob. This diagram generally showcases a series of lines and numbers that correspond to each gear. Note the placement of the individual gears, most notably reverse, often accessed by shifting down from fifth gear. Occasionally, on many Volkswagen vehicles for instance, reverse is located by pushing down on the shift knob (or pulling up on the shift boot) and moving down from first. There’s also a neutral gear located in the “grey area” between every notch, allowing you to release the clutch pedal while keeping the car running. Pressing the clutch and positioning your shifter between first and second gear, for example, will move you into neutral. Automatic transmissions do all of this… automatically.

Practice shifting with engine off and emergency brake engaged

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Here’s the golden rule of manual transmissions — shifting begins with the clutch but ends with the gas. With the engine still off, press the clutch to the floor and move the shifter into first gear. Then, release the pedal while slowly pressing down on the gas. If the engine were on and the brakes were disengaged, this would propel the vehicle forward.

To move into second, release the gas and press the clutch down again. At this point, you’re just repeating the previous step, only you’re moving into second, then third, then fourth, and so on. Put simply, shifting gears requires the following three actions:

  1. Depressing the clutch with your left foot.
  2. Manually shifting with right hand, typically in gear order.
  3. Slowly depressing the gas pedal with your right foot while simultaneously releasing the clutch.

Beginners should get in the habit of shifting from first gear directly to second gear.

Simulate a real driving scenario

Learning to drive

Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. In general, manual transmissions require shifting when your vehicles reaches 3,000 RPM, or when the engine seems to be overworking. With the engine still off, practice accelerating to 15 mph or so and switching from first to second to third gear. Practice depressing the clutch and manually shifting up through fourth gear. Practice releasing the clutch while simultaneously giving the engine gas. Imagine you see a traffic signal in the distance.

Downshifting requires shifting into lower gears. If the engine seems to be puttering, you’ll need to downshift in order to bring the RPMs up and access more of the engine’s power. Depress the clutch and maneuver the gearshift from third gear to second gear to practice downshifting. Just like accelerating, make sure you slowly depress the gas pedal while simultaneously releasing the clutch.

Coming to a complete stop requires drivers to depress the clutch and maneuver the gearshift into neutral, the position conveniently located in between gears. Neutral isn’t typically indicated on the gear shifter, but once you maneuver the stick into the correct position, you can take your foot off the clutch while keeping the car running. Again, you’ll want to shift gears when your car runs at roughly 3,000 RPMs. 

Start slow, and good luck

Driving

Practicing with the engine off is a great start (no pun intended), but it doesn’t quite compare to the real-world scenarios you’re likely to face on the road. The next step is to actually practice driving, preferably in a flat area relatively devoid of traffic and pedestrians— parking lots, back roads, etc. Secluded and low-traffic locations provide plenty of time should you stall the engine as well. Try not to panic when it happens though; engine stalls inevitably go hand-in-hand with learning to drive a stick.

Although you could practice alone so long as you possess a valid drivers license, consider bringing a friend who knows how to drive stick. To start the vehicle, make sure the car is in first gear, push down the clutch, and turn the ignition key. Slowly drive forward when the car starts, releasing the clutch while simultaneously pressing the gas pedal. Whatever you do, don’t accelerate too fast. When the RPM gauge reads more than 3,000, or you’re going roughly 15 mph, press down on the clutch and shift from first to second gear, and repeat until you reach your desired speed.

Good luck and shift safely!