How to Drive a Manual Transmission
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It’s true: Manual transmissions are a dying breed. Given their slow death, you might question the point of learning to drive stick today. All it takes, however, is one trip abroad and the car rental place running out of automatic options to see otherwise. Why? Because some countries still like to use a stick shift like their ancestors did.
Learning to drive stick isn’t archaic, yet. It also isn’t difficult to learn if you have an open, safe space away from traffic, pedestrians, and (preferably) hills.
Things You’ll Need
It doesn’t take that much to learn to drive a manual transmission. When you are starting out, and likely to crash into something, it’s helpful to have a large buffer zone of emptiness between your car and the rest of the world. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A car – one with a manual transmission or mode.
- Lots of space – an empty, ideally-flat parking lot is a good start. An empty parking lot is ideal.
Before you even turn on the engine, it’s a good idea to get a feel for the shifter(s), clutch pedal, mode selector, and other things you normally don’t use while driving an automatic. This can include:
- Move the gear shift through its different positions to change gears with the engine off.
- Press down on the left pedal to feel where it disengages the clutch.
There are several ways to shift manually in a car, all of which depend on the type of car you have. Cars with a manual transmission will have a gear shift in the center or paddle shifters on the steering wheel (if your car is fancy/expensive enough). You’ll also find a third pedal (known as the clutch pedal) that your left foot will be getting familiar with shortly. Cars with an automatic transmission typically have a manual mode where you can switch the gears with buttons or paddle shifters.
Stick and Paddle Shifters
Shifting with a gear shift is the classic approach most manual cars—that still exist—use. The trick to using a gear shift is learning to shift while pressing the clutch pedal in and easing off of the gas. This two-foot tango may require a few choppy practice laps around the parking lot to feel out since all cars are different.
Paddle shifters are a more efficient and ergonomic way to shift, making them popular in activities, like racing, where both hands are needed to avoid pancaking against walls or people at high speeds. If you own a luxury or sports car with paddle shifters and don’t know how to drive stick, now is the perfect time to learn. Otherwise, you will have a large, lovely sculpture in your garage or driveway that won’t be going anywhere.
To start your shifting adventure, you need to get the car going:
- Make sure the car is in neutral.
- The emergency brake should be off at this point.
- Keep the engine between 1,000 to 2,000 rpm at first. Be careful not to give the car too much gas. The car can lurch forward as the gear engages with too much gas.
- The balance between pressing the gas and releasing the clutch is different with each car. If you kill the engine, just repeat the previous steps until you get the right feel.
As the car accelerates, you will have to keep shifting up for faster speeds. Sometimes, you may also need to shift down to lower gears if you need to decelerate. To shift to a higher or lower gear:
- A good time to shift up is when the engine is near 2,500 rpm.
- You can shift down through several gears, especially if you are drastically slowing down. Be careful not to shift down too much or you might redline the engine once you hit the gas again.
To come to a complete stop, you need to keep the car in gear until you can safely shift to neutral at the end. Depending on the stop, you may shift down through the gears or keep it in the current gear until the car as stopped. To make a complete stop:
- If you are stopped at a stop sign or traffic light, it’s best to keep the car in neutral until you start up again.
The shifter can throw the car into reverse if you’re stopped. There will be a giant “R” on the gear shifter or gear indicator to mark its position. The steps are similar to starting a car in first gear. To shift into reverse:
- This is a good time to check your rear/side mirrors and blind spots before reversing the car.
- Keep the car slow as you move.
Manual Mode (Automatic Transmission)
If you want the freedom to choose your own gears without shouting at your left foot to use the clutch correctly, an automatic car is your best bet. You are likely to find a giant “M” on the mode selector that will open up a whole new world of shifting when you please, how you please.
Entering Manual Mode
The manual mode of an automatic transmission is located on the same lever or knob you use to switch between park, neutral, drive, and reverse. Once you are driving in manual mode, you will be able to start, stop, and reverse the car as normal. To select this mode:
- Move the lever or knob to the “M”. You will most likely shift from park after turning the engine on, but many vehicles allow you to switch from drive to manual on the go.
Shifting in manual mode is done with either a button press or paddle shift. You don’t have to worry about pressing the clutch (since it doesn’t exist), and you can keep the gas pedal pressed as normal while accelerating. To shift up or down:
- Press the up or downshift button/paddle as you accelerate. You will feel the car temporarily stop accelerating in speed. Eventually, the engine will engage again automatically.
- A good time to shift up is when the engine is near 2,500 rpm.
- Expect to stall the engine a few times if you are learning to drive stick for the first time. Since each car is different in the feel of the gas and clutch pedals, you will need to get their feel.
- When you accelerate a car, shift through the gears sequentially so you don’t redline the engine.
- Never keep your car in gear while stopped at a light. This will cause extra wear and tear on the clutch.
- Don’t press down on the clutch pedal unless you are shifting. When you press the clutch pedal (disengaging the clutch itself) while you drive or wait at a stop, it can wear the clutch down. This is known as “riding the clutch.”
- When you are slowing down or bringing the car to a stop, shift down a gear instead of to neutral. This will cause “engine brake,” where the engine slows down the vehicle. In certain driving conditions like rain or snow, engine brake is a good addition to your normal brakes to maintain control of the vehicle.
Q: How many people still drive stick?
A: Only around 18% of drivers in America are still driving stick in new cars and old. The number of manual transmission cars produced each year has shrunk to around 5%, but there are still many manual cars, especially in the used market.
Q: When should I move to driving on roads?
A: When you feel comfortable enough driving around the parking lot and aren’t breaking your neck from the clutch shutter anymore. Shifting should become second nature, especially starting out when getting into second gear or higher gears. Once you have the muscle memory, it will feel just like driving an automatic car.
Q: How do I practice shifting or starting on a hill?
A: Since you’ll need to learn to conquer hills so you aren’t avoiding them like the plague, it’s best to start in a remote area. Find some country roads with a small hill if possible. Back streets around town are also a good way to start if traffic is light.
Q: Will engine brake harm the car?
A: Despite popular opinion, the engine brake is just fine for the car since there isn’t any wear and tear on the transmission. When you take your foot off of the gas pedal while in gear, a throttle valve closes, creating a vacuum that slows the engine. The car slows down, the transmission remains fine, and the brakes get some extra support for hills or poor driving conditions.
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