One excellent cure for a boring drive is a manual transmission so here’s our guide on how to drive a stick shift  

Driving a Stick Shift: A Skill Worth Mastering 

For many, driving can be a simple task. Many modern cars feature a complete suite of technologies that can do a lot of the actual driving without much human interaction. It should be no shock then that many look at driving as a chore. Still, for others, driving is viewed as a privilege and as an activity that they want to accomplish with skill or even mastery. Regardless of your viewpoint, driving a stick shift, or a car equipped with a manual transmission is a skill worth learning. It offers a number of practical benefits and opens up the entire automotive market when in search of a new vehicle. For those who love driving as an activity, operating a manual transmission with skill is a craft that provides a level of engagement that automatic transmissions struggle to match. Here’s our guide on how to get started, how to improve, and how to use your new found skill to its maximum potential.

What Is A Manual Transmission and How Does It Work 

6 Speed Gearstick
6 Speed Gearstick

As the name might suggest, a manual transmission requires the driver to change gears while driving. In all modern vehicles, that action is completed through the use of a gear shift level usually located between the front seats. That apparatus leads to the slang term ‘stick shift’ since the lever can often look like a stick and it’s used specifically to shift gears. These are the exact opposite of vehicles that use an automatic transmission to do this job without any action from the driver.

Most modern manual transmissions have five or six forward gears and a single reverse gear. Low gears are used for lower speeds while higher gears are used for higher speeds. Typically, the gear location and pattern is indicated on the top of the gearshift with a small diagram. When the lever is removed from all gears it’s in the neutral position. The gear lever is just one half of the shifting system in a car with a manual transmission though.

The other half is the clutch pedal which, when depressed, mechanically disconnects the transmission from the engine. To change from one gear to another the clutch must be depressed. What makes operating a manual transmission somewhat challenging for new drivers is how the clutch and gear shift must be used together. Without smooth operation the car can stall, buck, or even spin the tires.

Getting Rolling In a Car With a Stick Shift 

Gas, clutch, and Brake Pedal
Gas, clutch, and Brake Pedal

Practicing on a flat surface with someone who can drive a manual transmission is the best way to start learning yourself. Before starting the car, get familiar with the gear pattern. Try to memorize where each gear position is without having to look at it. Doing so will increase your ability to change gears on the real road without having to look down. Get comfortable putting the gear shift into neutral too because you’ll use that position often.

Now take a little time to get a feeling for the resistance that the clutch pedal provides. Using a manual transmission skillfully requires subtle manipulation of the clutch pedal so understanding where the mid-way point is, how forcefully the pedal pushes back against your foot, and where it bottoms out will be key to smooth driving.

Automatic Transmission
Automatic Transmission

To start the drive make sure that the car is in neutral. Most modern vehicles require the clutch pedal to be fully depressed before they’ll start. Push the brake pedal in fully with your right foot. Turn on the ignition. Here’s another good chance to use the clutch pedal a few times just to see how it feels once the car is on. It’s also a good time to practice on the accelerator by finding out how much pressure will get it to rev up. Most cars can set off from a stop with about 2,000 to 3,000-RPM.

When you’re ready to go push the clutch in completely and put the car in first gear. Take your right foot off of the brake and very gently release the clutch pedal as you put increasing pressure on the accelerator. When you stall the car just remember that you’ll need to add more pressure to the accelerator next time. If the car sprints away from the stop or bucks quite hard you might be feeding in too much accelerator. It’s also possible that you need to release pressure from the clutch more smoothly.

Driving Around Town with a Manual Transmission 

Gas, Clutch, Shift
Gas, Clutch, Shift

Once you know how to set off with a manual transmission shifting between gears is a bit easier. Most important is depressing the clutch fully between gear shifts. But before we get there, when should you shift? Most cars are most fuel efficient shifting somewhere between 2,000-3,000 RPM but keep in mind that the entire rev-range is there to be used from time to time. So long as you’re shifting before you reach the redline (a literal red line near the end of the tachometer) the car should perform fine. You can even shift below 2,000 RPM but keep in mind that every engine needs to maintain a minimum speed to keep running so if you shift at too low of an RPM you could stall out.

Once you’re moving and you’re ready to go from one gear to another just depress the clutch pedal completely, change to the desired gear, and release the clutch pedal. The process is the same whether you’re going up a gear or down a gear. You don’t have to be as subtle with the clutch pedal once moving but you also don’t want to treat it like an on/off switch. Be gentle with your clutch and aim to make gear changes smooth. Not only will your ride be more comfortable but your clutch will last longer.

Driving a Stick Shift 301 

Descending Hill
Descending Hill

When you’re comfortable starting off and shifting while moving down the road it’s time to find out how good you can really get at this engaging driving skill. Practice taking off up a hill without stalling the vehicle. Not only does such a skill make you a better driver but it will also come in handy someday in traffic.

In addition, try downshifting without causing a noticeable bucking or weight shift in the car. To accomplish that, rev the engine as you’re releasing the clutch pedal. You’ll notice that as you match the engine speed to the lower gear that the transition is smoother.

Manual transmissions are also great for descending mountains or steep hills because they naturally maintain a slow speed when in a low gear. Once in first or second gear and pointed down a hill the car can’t go any faster than those gears will allow. This means that you won’t need to use your brakes as much. Many steep roads will actually have signs that direct drivers to use their transmission in exactly this way.

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Stephen Rivers

Stephen Rivers is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion, extending to nearly all car cultures. After obtaining an occupational studies degree in sports medicine, Stephen turned his attention to sports cars. He was employed as an auto shop manager, spent time in auto sales, and worked as a software developer for a racing company, but Stephen began writing about cars over 10 years ago. When he's not in front of a computer screen, he's racing his own Bugeye Subaru WRX in as many autocross and rallycross competitions as he can.

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