Driving stick is an art, so to speak. 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 with just about everyone.
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.
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 forklifts using a clutch pedal and a stick. There’s truly no substitute for the first-hand experience, but our simple instructions are a great place to start.
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 off. Get a feel for the clutch, the extra pedal that’s located directly left of the brake. Familiarize yourself with its resistance and when you can feel it grip. Afterward, locate the gear shifter or “stick,” 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 embedded 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, the 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.
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 the 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.
SIMULATE A REAL DRIVING SCENARIO
Accelerating requires shifting to higher gears. In general, manual transmissions require shifting when your vehicles reach 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 RPM up and access more of the engine’s 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.
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. Again, you’ll want to shift gears when your car runs at roughly 3,000 RPM.
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 provide plenty of time should you stall the engine as well. 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 drivers license, consider bringing a friend who knows how to drive stick. To start the vehicle, make sure the car is in first gear, press down the clutch, and turn the ignition key. 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 RPM gauge reads more than 3,000, or you’re going roughly 15 mph, press down on the clutch and shift from first to second gear, 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 backward. It’s tricky unless you have three feet.
This is when the handbrake — typically located directly between the front seats — is useful. After you come to a stop, pull up on the handbrake 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 handbrake 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 handbrake, 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.
Good luck and shift safely!
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