Knowing how to drive a car equipped with a manual transmission is more important than it might seem. Even if your daily driver is automatic, you may get stuck in a foreign country renting a car from a company that only has stick shifts in stock. Or, you may need to borrow your buddy’s old four-speed truck to move a couch across town.
Although it can seem daunting, driving a stick shift is much easier than it seems; millions of people do it every day. Learning takes a little bit of patience, and mastering it requires a good deal of experience. If you’re ready to get started — no pun intended — our easy-to-follow guide will teach you everything you need to know about driving a stick.
Step 1: Familiarize yourself with the clutch and stick shift
Assuming you own 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, which is 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
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:
- Depressing the clutch with your left foot.
- Manually shifting with your right hand, typically in gear order.
- 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
Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. In general, you should shift 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, and make sure you never exceed the redline; you’ll damage the engine if you do. With the engine still off, practice mentally accelerating to about 15mph and switching from first to second gear. Shift into third, stay there for a few seconds, then imagine you see a traffic signal that’s about to turn red in the distance. It’s time to downshift.
Downshifting means shifting into lower gears. If the engine seems to be puttering, you’ll need to downshift in order to bring its revolutions up and access more power. Depress the clutch and carefully maneuver the gearshift from third gear to second gear to practice downshifting. This instructional video helps you visualize the correct action.
Coming to a complete stop requires pressing the clutch and shifting into neutral, the position conveniently located in between gears. Neutral isn’t typically indicated on the gear shifter, but it’s easy to find. 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
Practicing with the engine off doesn’t quite compare to the real-world scenarios you’ll face on the road. The next step is to actually practice driving, preferably on a flat surface without traffic or pedestrians — parking lots, back roads, etc. Secluded and low-traffic locations also give you plenty of time to get going again if 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 can practice alone, 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 15mph, 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. Maybe you do; we don’t.
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. Alternatively, if your car doesn’t have a hand brake (some have a foot-operated emergency brake), you’ll need to master hill starts the hard way.
Common transmission terms you should know
Clutch: Broadly speaking, a clutch engages and disengages two independent shafts. In a vehicle, it connects the crankshaft (which is part of the engine) to the input shaft in the transmission (which routes power to the drive wheels). By default, it’s engaged, but pressing on the clutch pedal disengages it in order to let you change gears.
This video from the Learn Engineering channel gives a good overview of the clutch and its role in a transmission.
Gear: In a vehicle, gears transfer power from the aforementioned crankshaft to the driveshaft. There are multiple gears to change how the engine’s power rotates the car’s wheels. Just like on a bicycle, smaller gears are used to get the car up to speed, while larger gears are used to build and maintain that speed.
RPM: The term “revolutions per minute” corresponds to a measure of how many rotations on a fixed axis are completed in a single minute. In a car, the tachometer measures the crankshaft’s rotations. For example, if you idle at 850 rpm, then your car’s crankshaft is rotating on its axis 850 times every minute.
Tachometer: Often located inside the instrument cluster, next to the speedometer, the tachometer measures the engine’s revolutions per minute. As you accelerate, the tachometer needle will climb until it reaches the redline, which is when an electronic limiter will often kick in. You should shift well before the needle reaches the redline.
Upshifting: Moving the shifter from a lower to a higher gear (from first to second, for example) 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 disengage the clutch and move the stick directly from one gear to another. This transition relies on a part called a synchronizer to match the crankshaft’s and the driveshaft’s rotational speeds. Alternatively, drivers can disengage the clutch to move the stick to neutral, release the clutch pedal, the press it once more to move from neutral to the next gear. This pause syncs the crankshaft and the driveshaft. The odds of needing to double-clutch are extremely low, unless you’re driving a car with a transmission problem or one that’s very old.
Double/dual-clutch gearboxes: Double- or dual-clutch automatic transmissions use two separate clutches. Each set of clutches has its own set of gears which are odd or even. On a six-speed car, for example, one clutch is responsible for gears one, three, and five, while the other manages gears two, four, and six. These gearboxes are automatic, so they don’t have a clutch pedal, but some offer shift paddles.
There are two main benefits of using a dual-clutch transmission. First, the gear changes are nearly instantaneous. Second, they are more fuel-efficient than many other types of transmissions.
CVT: The CVT (continuously variable transmission) is a type of automatic transmission that relies on a system of belts and pulleys to provide an infinite number of radios. In other words, the transmission never shifts because there are no gears. The CVT system allows engines to operate at a constant RPM regardless of the speed the vehicle is moving. It’s relatively common in the new-car market, especially in Japanese cars, and it’s also found in smaller vehicles like scooters and ATVs. The main benefit of using a CVT is the increased fuel efficiency, especially up steep inclines.
Remember to have fun!
Even if the clutch pedal looks simple enough, getting the hang of it can be tricky. You’ll definitely stall a few times, and if you’re like us, it’ll be in the middle of a busy intersection. Don’t let a few inpatient drivers discourage you from learning how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission —you’re guaranteed to get honked at a few times. But, once you know how to operate that clutch pedal, driving a stick shift won’t feel like such a chore. Just remember to stay safe and be patient with yourself when you stall or mess up.
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