Driving stick is an art. Mastering it might not bolster your reputation as a motor enthusiast, but remaining ignorant to the ways of the manual transmission could knock you down a few pegs in certain circles.
It’s true, you can almost always navigate from point A to point B without utilizing a stick shift and a clutch, but there will undoubtedly come a time when your only option will be something other than an automatic. Perhaps you’ll be forced to drive your friend’s pickup truck home after he or she had a bit too much to drink. Maybe you’ll find yourself looking at the perfect hatchback at your local dealership, only to discover it is, in fact, equipped with a manual. Or you might need to rent a car in Europe, where knowing how to drive stick is imperative.
Knowing how to operate this type of gearbox will serve you well — and it certainly can’t hurt, anyway. After all, manuals are easier to maintain and are known to help with fuel efficiency given their direct level of control. Here’s our simple guide on how to drive manual, so you can operate everything from compact economy cars to the best sedans to forklifts using a clutch pedal and a stick (self-driving forklifts are for wimps!). There’s truly no substitute for first-hand experience, but our simple instructions are a great place to start.
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 extra 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, and as always, ensure your seat belt is buckled.
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
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 and the brakes were disengaged, 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.
Step 3: Simulate a real driving scenario
Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. In general, manual transmissions require shifting when your vehicles reaches 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 mph or so and switching from first to second to third gear. Practice depressing the clutch and manually shifting up through fourth gear. Practice releasing the clutch while simultaneously giving the engine gas. 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 may help 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
Practicing with the engine off is a great start (no pun intended), but it doesn’t quite compare to the real-world scenarios you’re likely to 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.
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 backwards. 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.
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, RPMs measure rotations of the vehicle’s crankshaft. For example, if you idle at 1,000 rpms, then your car’s crankshaft is rotating on its axis 1,000 times every minute.
Tachometer: Within the gauge cluster, the tachometer measures your RPMs. 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 cut power. You should be shifting 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. In lieu 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!
Learning how to drive stick isn’t easy — you’ll mess up, we promise. Don’t let it get you down! You’re probably learning in an ordinary car, and the sound of the gears grinding can put your teeth on edge. Always remember, it could be worse.
Good luck and shift safely!