image of a manual transmission

Manual Transmission 101: How to Drive a Stick Shift

For a long time, knowing how to drive a stick shift was an essential skill. In the early days of the automobile, manual transmissions were ubiquitous. In fact, the manual transmission used to be known as the “standard” transmission. They were preferred for their reliability, fuel efficiency, and sporty feel.

Now, however, less than 3% of cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmissions – compared with 80% in some European and Asian countries (LA Times).

Although you might have some trouble reselling a manual transmission car (only 18% of Americans know how to drive a stick shift), knowing how to use a clutch pedal and stick shift is a skill that can help you save money, drive sportier cars, and even save a life one day.

They also tend to have cheaper maintenance costs, and in many countries, they are a lot cheaper to rent than automatic transmissions.

So, how do you drive a stick shift?

How to Drive a Stick Shift

Learning how to drive a stick shift takes a lot of practice and patience. After getting familiar with the different manual maneuvers, practice in an empty parking lot until you are completely confident to take it on the road.

  1. First, let’s get familiar with some of the parts

Clutch Pedal – Manuals have 3 pedals unlike automatics, which only have two. The clutch pedal is the furthest one on the left. You use it when shifting up or down from one gear to the next, including neutral. When the clutch is fully depressed, it is disengaged. When the clutch pedal is released, it is engaged and ready to resume the transmission of power.

Use your left foot to operate the clutch and your right foot for the gas and brake, just like you would in an automatic.

Stick or “Gear Shifter” – Modern manual cars have the shift lever located in the center console. Older cars may have a steering column or dash-mounted shift stick. Locate your stick shift and study it.

Manual cars have up to 6 gears. The gear guide is normally located on the head of the stick shift. Neutral, which is not a gear (you won’t go anywhere), is normally located in the middle of the “H” pattern. There is also an “R” for “reverse.”

Emergency Brake – Since there is no “park” gear, the emergency brake is especially important for stick shift cars. Use the emergency brake when stopping on hills and whenever you park to prevent the vehicle from rolling.

  1. Next, practice with the engine off and emergency brake engaged

Before turning the car on, locate the clutch. The clutch must be pressed down when shifting gears! Practice pressing and releasing the clutch pedal with your left foot. You will begin to feel (in your foot) when the clutch is engaged or disengaged.

After you get a feel for the clutch, depress it fully and move the shifter into 1st gear. Then, begin releasing the clutch with your left foot (sometimes called “feathering”) at the same time as you press down on the gas pedal. If the car were on, you would begin to move forward.

How to Upshift

To shift into higher gears, release your foot from the gas and follow the same process:

  1. Depress the clutch
  2. Move the shifter up to the next highest gear
  3. Release the clutch while pressing down on the gas

How to Downshift

To shift into lower gears, you are basically doing the same thing. Release your foot from the gas pedal while you are shifting.

  1. Depress the clutch
  2. Move the shifter down to the next lowest gear
  3. Release the clutch while slowly pressing down on the gas

Practice upshifting and downshifting while pressing and releasing the clutch pedal while the car is off.

To come to a complete stop, you must depress the clutch to shift into neutral. Then, take your foot off the clutch. Generally, you want to shift gears when your car reaches 2,500-3,000 RPM. Eventually, you will know when to shift by sound and feel.

  1. Practice in an empty lot

It’s one thing to use the clutch and shifter while the car is off, but it’s an entirely different experience when the car is actually moving. Once you have practiced shifting with the car off, find an empty parking lot and practice shifting while driving.

With the car off and in neutral, press down on the clutch and brake pedals at the same time while you turn the key and start the car.

  1. With the clutch and brake pedal depressed, put the car in 1st
  2. Release the parking brake.
  3. Release the foot from the brake pedal and slowly press down on the gas pedal while you simultaneously ease pressure off the clutch pedal. Your right foot will be pushing down on the gas while the left foot will be releasing the clutch. This takes practice! If you don’t do this right, you might “pop the clutch,” causing the car to lurch forward and stall.
  4. If the car stalls, simply engage the emergency brake, depress the clutch pedal and put the car into neutral to start over.
  5. Continue pressing on the gas pedal until the tachometer reaches around 2500-3,000 RPM. To shift into 2nd gear, remove your foot from the gas pedal, press down on the clutch pedal and shift into 2nd Make sure the clutch is fully depressed before shifting. Otherwise, you may “grind the gears.” Then, start to release the clutch while simultaneously giving it gas. Don’t keep your foot on the clutch as you speed up, also known as “riding the clutch”!
  6. As you continue to gain speed, follow the same procedure to shift into higher gears. Generally speaking, these are the mph ranges for the different gears:
    • 1st Gear: 0-10 mph
    • 2nd Gear: 3-25 mph
    • 3rd Gear: 15-45 mph
    • 4th Gear: 30-65 mph
    • 5th Gear: 45 mph +
    • Consult your owner’s manual for more accurate gear ranges.
  7. To downshift, remove your foot from the gas pedal and depress the clutch before shifting the lever to the lower gear. Do not shift while pressing the gas pedal as this can damage either your engine or transmission. After you release the clutch and decelerate, use the same method to shift to the next lowest gear. Always work backwards, in reverse gear order.
  8. To make a stop, at a stop light for instance, either put the car in neutral and release the clutch, or keep the clutch engaged while the car is in 1st If you are stopping for any length of time, it’s best to put the car in neutral. Depress the clutch and put the car into neutral. After setting the stick to neutral, release the clutch.
  9. Practice reversing as well. The process remains the same. Depress the clutch to shift into reverse, and then release the clutch slowly as you reverse.

Once you have mastered reversing, starting, stopping, upshifting, and downshifting on flat land, practice the same maneuvers while going up and down hills.

When coming to a stop on a hill, use your emergency brake. When it’s time to accelerate, release the hand brake, shift into first, and slowly accelerate as you release the clutch pedal.

Don’t worry about it if you stall. Just engage the emergency brake and start again.

Learning how to drive a manual transmission can be frustrating at first, but it’s well worth it. Not only will you gain a valuable life skill and a deeper appreciation for how engines and transmissions work, but you’ll also be able to drive nearly any type of automobile, in any country.

And like many other drivers, you may prefer manuals over automatics for their better performance, fuel economy, and driving experience.

Related Resources:

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