Driving Stick Shift Cars: Techniques for Manual Transmissions

Learn Instructions for How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car and Enjoy the Ride

A high school tennis coach once told me that he'd never drive an automatic. His reason? Stick shift keeps the monotony out of driving. I thought he was out of his mind, but over the years of growing accustomed to driving a stick shift car myself, I find that there may be truth in his words. When driving my parent's car, I find myself missing the manual controls. If you just started learning to drive stick shift, you probably think I'm out of my mind. Give it a few years... you'll see.  Learning how to drive a manual car will make driving more fun.

The following will teach you how to drive a stick shift car and about manual transmissions. When driving manual transmission cars, it is imperative to learn how to master the clutch as it allows you to shift gears. It is much different than learning how to drive a car that has an automatic transmission. Practice is the key.

  1. The control differences.
    • That third pedal... With an automatic, you should never use your left foot for anything. One of the major differences between manual and automatic transmission is the use of your left leg to work the clutch (the left-most pedal). That left leg is going to get a workout!
    • No stick shift without the stick. Of course, another major difference in your controls is the stick. You'll notice it in place of the boring old gear stick in an automatic (which you would use mainly just for shifting between Reverse, Park and Drive). This stick features both Reverse and Drive, too, but that single Drive gear of an automatic has been divided into multiple gears, each one meant for driving at certain speed ranges! No Park, however, since parking requires that you slip your car into Neutral, clench your emergency brake and stop the car.
  2. The gears.
    • 1st gear is mainly for starting your car from standstill. You'll only be able to accelerate in 1st gear until somewhere between 10 and 15 mph. Then, you'll have to shift to 2nd gear, which is very versatile.
    • You'll find 2nd gear useful because you can drive in it virtually to a crawl or take it up as high as about 25 mph; in stop-and-go traffic, follow further away from the car in front of you so that you can use 2nd gear to save your brakes.
    • The higher gears. You'll gradually memorize the speed ranges of each of these higher gears; ranges differ slightly from car to car. Much of your town and city driving will be done in 3rd gear (until you stop and start again). As you enter an interstate highway, you'll shift up to your highest gear and stay in that gear until you have to slow down or stop.
  3. Starting the car in 1st gear or reverse - the dreaded stall! In order to move your car using the gas pedal, you must first have your car either in 1st gear or in Reverse. And in order for you to have the car motionless in 1st or reverse (or any gear for that matter), you must have your left foot pressed down upon the clutch.

    Now comes the delicate art of balancing gas with clutch - try these driving techniques carefully. When driving manual, you have to press down on the gas as you ease up on the clutch. Letting go of the clutch too quickly (with too little gas) will cause your car to stall (the engine stops and you have to re-turn the key in the ignition to start it up again). Easing up on the clutch too slowly (with Shifting gearstoo much gas) will just needlessly cause the noisy revving of your engine.

    Don't be discouraged when you stall at first. Even a seasoned driver of stick shift cars stalls one every so often. And don't worry - the more you practice, the easier and more fluid your pedal-work will be, until it's like second nature.

  4. Accelerating - shifting up according to RPMs. Notice that little gauge next to the speedometer? That measures your RPMs (rotations per minute). Use it as a guide for when to shift either up or down. When the RPMs enter the "3" range (which actually means 3,000 rotations), you should shift up a gear. To shift up, just take your right foot off the gas pedal (but keep it hovering right over the gas), press your left foot down on the clutch and, while the clutch is pressed, shift the stick from its current gear to the next highest one using your right hand. Once the shift has been made, release the clutch while simultaneously pressing your right foot with graduating firmness on the gas pedal. You should be easing up on the clutch just as you're easing down onto the gas. This synchronization of foot movements is probably the single trickiest part of learning to drive a stick shift car.
  5. Decelerating - shifting down. By contrast, downshifting is relatively easy. You still have to press the clutch down when you downshift (same as if you were shifting up) but you don't need the same choreographing of clutch and gas when decelerating. In fact, downshifting naturally slows your car down; people often save their brakes by downshifting, which will cause a brief spike in RPMs and slow down your car. Generally, if your RPMs fall below the 2 mark, you should downshift in order to keep your car handling well and responsive to your control.
  6. Stopping. You can either stop in Neutral (to keep your foot off the clutch) or stop in any gear with your left foot pressing the clutch. You can shift directly to Neutral from any other gear. But if you're on the highway and need to stop on a dime, for example, you don't have to bother shifting gears and all that. Just slam your feet onto the clutch and the brake. When you start moving again, be sure you shift to 1st gear and move as usual.
  7. Neutral - lazy man's friend. Learning to drive a car involves understanding "neutral." Neutral allows you to coast down hills without using your clutch. You can brake freely, of course, and rest your left leg that way, but you'll have to enter the proper gear in order to actually work the gas at all. For that reason, some consider neutral coasting to be a lazy recipe for an accident. I love it, though...
  8. Hill - sounds like Hell (for a reason). When you first start learning to drive a stick shift car, don't do it on any kind of a hill. Find the flattest ground possible when you first start off learning! Hills greatly increase a beginner's apprehension, because it will likely mark the first time you, as a driver, feel any kind of drift while starting your car; inevitably, there is a tiny lag between when you release the brake and when your car registers the gas while you simultaneously release the clutch. During that lag between braking and moving, you not only have the beginner's anxiety of not stalling the car, but you have the added anxiety of feeling your car drifting backward down the hill as you try to move it forward. Once you're more comfortable managing the clutch, brake and gas pedals without any trouble, you'll be able to master hill-driving as well.

One final reason why stick shift keeps driving interesting: you get to know a car on a much more intimate level. You'll find that every car is slightly different; each has its own disposition and quirks. What's more, in some parts of the world, manual transmission may be your only option, so travelers might as well take the time to learn now. With some practice (starting in empty parking lots and flat, sleepy streets), the threatening aspects of stick shift will disappear and you'll come to share the beliefs espoused by old tennis coach. And then people will think you're crazy...


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