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How to drive a manual transmission car

Driving stick is an art, so to speak. Mastering the stick might not bolster your reputation as a motor enthusiast, but remaining ignorant to the ways of 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 manual transmission and a clutch, yet there will undoubtedly come a time when your only option will be something other than an automatic. Perhaps the situation will present itself when you’re forced to drive your friend’s pickup truck home from the bar after he or she had a little too much to drink. Or 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 transmission rather than an automatic. Knowing how to operate a manual transmission will serve you well — and it certainly can’t hurt, anyway. After all, manual transmissions are easier to maintain an are known to help with fuel efficiency given their direct level of control.

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 stick shift. There’s truly no substitute for first-hand experience, but our simple instructions are a good starting point. Additionally, check out guides on buying used cars and our picks of the best cars for new drivers, along with our thorough breakdown of various transmission types.

Familiarize yourself with the clutch and stick shift

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 manual components while the vehicle is turned off. Take note and get a feel for the clutch, the extra pedal located directly left of the break pedal. Afterward, locate the gear shifter or “stick,” typically located in the center console between the front seats in most vehicles or adjacent to the steering wheel in some. Make sure your seat is adjusted so that you can easily reach all three pedals, and as always, ensure safety-belt is buckled.   

Clutch and stick shift

Next, examine the shifting guide, likely embedded on top of the gear shifter and showcasing a series of lines and numbers that correspond to the selected gear. Note the placement of the individual gears, most notably the reverse gear, often accessed by shifting down from fifth gear. Occasionally, on many Volkswagen vehicles for instance, the reverse gear is located by pushing down on the stick shift and shifting down from first gear. There’s also a neutral gear located halfway between every gear, allowing you to release the clutch and while keeping the car running. Depressing the clutch and positioning your gear shifter between first and second gear for example, will allow you to shift into neutral.

Practice shifting with engine off and emergency brake engaged 

Here’s the golden rule of manual transmissions: shifting begins with the clutch but ends with the gas pedal. Drivers should always have a foot on the gas or clutch, except when the car is in neutral, then it will run without the gas pedal or having to hold down the clutch. With the engine off, practice slowly releasing the clutch while slowly depressing the gas pedal, noting that pushing down on clutch frees up the gear shifter. Afterward, reference the shifting guide and shift your car into first gear. As far as shifting technique goes, press the clutch down with your left leg while operating the stick with your right hand. 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.

Practice a driving scenario with engine off

Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. With the engine off, practice accelerating by shifting from first gear to second gear. In general, manual transmissions require shifting when your vehicles reaches 3,000 RPM or when the engine seems to be overworking. Practice accelerating to 30 mph and switching from first to second to third gear. Practice depressing the clutch and manually shifting up to 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 slow down. Slowly depress the clutch and maneuver the gearshifter 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 gearshifter into the neutral position, 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. 

Girl in car shifting

Make sure you practice stopping. Release. Then, following the shifting guide, press down the clutch to shift from gear two to three and keep doing so until you’ve reached gear five or the highest available gear. Most drivers prefer to put in their car in neutral when stopped at a traffic signal as stopping with a manual transmission requires a little maneuvering. Some drivers still opt to keep their car in first gear when waiting at a light, but that requires the clutch depressed. Again, consult your shifting guide to access your reverse gear.

Practice driving

Practicing with the engine off is a great start, but it doesn’t quite compare to the real-world scenarios you’re likely to face while using a manual transmission. 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 — a temporary setback that often occurs when you release the clutch too soon and allow the RPM to drop below a certain level, thus stopping the engine. Try not to panic when it happens though — engine stalls inevitably go hand-in-hand with learning to drive stick shift.

Cars in a parking lot

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. For faster speeds, quickly press down on the clutch as you would normally, giving  the engine gas at the same time.

[Photo Credits: Jiri HeraSergey Mastpanov, Yuri Samsonov/Shutterstock].