How to drive stick in a manual transmission car

Driving stick, a coveted skill among car buffs, allows you into a whole new set of cars to drive. If you drive a manual transmission car, it also is a great excuse not to let someone else borrow your ride. 

Learning how to drive stick takes patience as you learn to engage the clutch, transition gears, and try not to roll backward when starting on a hill. By following a few simple steps below, you will drive stick in no time at all. Please remember to practice in an empty parking lot before you take it on the road.

Step 1: 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 components while the vehicle is not running. Get a feel for the clutch, the third pedal that’s located directly left of the brake. It’s the heart of the difference between automatic and manual. Familiarize yourself with its resistance and when you can feel it grip. Afterward, locate the gear shifter, or “stick,” which is 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. You need to be able to push the clutch in all the way.

Next, examine the shift pattern, likely laid out 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 “gray 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.

Step 2: Practice shifting with the 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, 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 your right hand, typically in gear order.
  3. Slowly depressing the gas pedal with your right foot while simultaneously releasing the clutch.

The faster you’re driving, the faster you can ease back the clutch, but keep in mind that smoothness counts more than quickness. Beginners should get in the habit of shifting from first gear directly to second gear, not third.

Step 3: Simulate a real driving scenario

Miles Branman/Digital Trends

Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. In general, manual transmissions require shifting when your vehicle reaches about 3,000 rpm, or when the engine seems to be overworking; keep an eye on the tachometer if you’re not sure when to shift. With the engine still off, practice accelerating to 15 miles per hour or so and switching from first to second to third gear. Practice depressing the clutch and manually shifting up through fourth gear. 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 engine revolutions up and access more power. Depress the clutch and carefully 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. This instructional video helps you to visualize the correct action.

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 without stalling.

Step 4: Start slow and repeat

Miles Branman/Digital Trends

Practicing with the engine off is a great start (no pun intended), but it doesn’t quite compare to the real-world scenarios you’ll 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 also provide plenty of time should you stall the engine. 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 driver’s license, consider bringing along a friend who knows how to drive stick. To start the vehicle, make sure the car is in neutral, press down the clutch, and turn the ignition key. Once you’ve selected first gear, 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 tachometer reads more than 3,000, or you’re going roughly 15 mph, press down on the clutch and shift from first to second gear before releasing it, and repeat until you reach your desired speed. Master this technique, and you’ll be ready to take cars like the Mazda MX-5 Miata for a spin.

Starting on a hill

The most complicated part of driving a car equipped with a manual transmission is starting on a steep hill. That’s because you need to operate the clutch pedal to engage first gear, the gas pedal to get the car moving, and the brake pedal to keep the car from rolling backward. It’s tricky — unless you have three feet.

This is when the hand brake — typically located directly between the front seats — is useful. After you come to a stop, pull up on the hand brake so the car doesn’t roll backward. When it’s time to move again, start like you normally would on flat ground while simultaneously releasing the hand brake. Timing is key here. Releasing the hand brake too slowly will prevent the car from moving, while releasing it too quickly will cause the car to roll backward. Get it just right, though, and the brake will keep the car still long enough for you to pull away.

Don’t sweat it if you stall; it happens to everyone. Re-engage the hand brake, put the car in neutral, start the engine, and give it another shot. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be stick-shifting your way through downtown San Francisco in no time. And, in many late-model cars, the hill-hold function keeps the vehicle stopped for a few seconds so you can drive off normally without needing to hold the handbrake.

Common transmission terms you should know

Clutch: A clutch engages and disengages two independent shafts. In a vehicle, it is used to mate or decouple the crankshaft (which leads to the engine) from the driveshaft (which leads to the powered axle). The clutch is, by default, engaged, but depressing the clutch pedal disengages the clutch in order to change gear.

This video from the Learn Engineering channel gives an excellent overview of the clutch and its role in a transmission.

Gear: In a vehicle, gears transfer power from the crankshaft to the driveshaft. There are multiple gears to change how the engine’s power rotates the car’s wheels. Smaller gears are used to get the car up to speed. Larger gears are used to build and maintain that speed.

RPM (revs): Revolutions per minute is a measure of how many rotations on a fixed axis are completed in a single minute. In a car, the tachometer measures rotations of the vehicle’s crankshaft. For example, if you idle at 1,000 rpm, then your car’s crankshaft is rotating on its axis 1,000 times every minute.

Tachometer: Within the gauge cluster, the tachometer measures your RPM. Typically, the tachometer sits right next to the speedometer, but in some performance vehicles, it is centered among the gauge cluster. As you accelerate, the tachometer needle will climb until it reaches the redline, when the engine will usually cut power. You should be shifting well before the needle reaches the redline.

Upshifting: Moving the stick from a lower to a higher gear is called upshifting. To shift, you need to engage the clutch and move the stick to the desired gear notch.

Downshifting: The reverse of upshifting. It’s when you move the stick from a higher gear to a lower gear.

Double-clutching: Usually, drivers will disengage the clutch and move the stick directly from one gear to another. This transition relies on the synchronizer to match the rotational speed of the crankshaft to the rotational speed of the driveshaft. To avoid using the synchronizer, drivers can disengage the clutch to move the stick to neutral, release the clutch pedal, then disengage it once more to move from neutral to a new gear. The pause in neutral allows the crankshaft and driveshaft to sync.

Double/dual-clutch gearboxes: Double or dual-clutch gearboxes use two clutches, each with its own set of gears. For example, on a six-speed car, one clutch will be responsible for gears 1,3, and 5 while the other manages gears 2,4, and 6. The benefit of a dual-clutch is that the transitions between gears are quicker; while a gear is engaged on one clutch, the other clutch is readying the next higher or lower gear.

CVT: A CVT is neither a manual, nor an automatic transmission. Instead of gears, a CVT relies on a belt and pulley system that provides an infinite number of ratios. In other words, the transmission never shifts.

Remember to have fun!

We promise you’ll inevitably stall dozens of times as you learn how to use a clutch pedal — we did, once in the middle of a busy intersection. You’ll get honked at, but don’t let it discourage you. Once you get the hang of driving a stick, it will become second nature, and you’ll never have to think about it. Good luck, have fun, and be safe.

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