How to Drive a Manual Transmission Car

stickshiftOne of the questions we see pop up often from young drivers is “How to drive a stick shift (manual transmission) car?”

The question arises for a number of reasons. Some people who are driving for the first time know they’ll be driving a “stick shift” car and are concerned that it might be difficult to learn. Others who have been driving automatic transmissions for years may be looking to buy a manual shift vehicle for the first time.

Manual transmissions (often called “standard transmissions”) were around a long time before automatics. It wasn’t that long ago that most cars had manual shifts although now it’s the other way around.  Manual shift is popular with car enthusiasts who enjoy the feeling of greater control over the operation of their cars. Some car owners feel that a manual is more fuel-efficient and provides better performance, although that’s not necessarily so with today’s much improved automatics.

There will be cars with stick shifts around for many years to come, and there will be people who want or need to drive them.

So, if you’ve never driven one before, how does it work and how do you learn?

First, let’s understand how a standard transmission works and its purpose. Briefly, the engine in a car needs a way to transfer its power to the drive wheels (front, rear, or both depending on the car). That’s the purpose of any car’s transmission. However, it’s not that simple. When a car is starting from rest, it needs the transmission to provide plenty of low-speed power (torque) to the wheels to begin moving.  Then, as the car gets going, less torque is needed and more speed is required. As the car goes faster, even less torque and more speed is needed.  This is why manual transmissions (and automatics too) have multiple “speeds” (gear sets) — to match the speed of the engine to the torque and speed needs at the drive wheels.

In the old days, a car might only have two gear “speeds”, low and high (and reverse, of course). Now, 4 speeds and 6 speeds, or more,  are common.  The lowest gear is for starting from rest, and the highest gear is for highway cruising. Shifting from one gear to the other is generally done sequentially, with no skipping of gears.

In order to shift from one gear to another, the transmission must be temporarily disconnected from the engine during the change process. That’s the purpose of the clutch — the left hand pedal on the floor.  Depress the clutch pedal during the shift, let it up to engage the engine and transmission again.  Performing this operation smoothly is simply a matter of practice. Beginners often are frustrated by their seeming inability to get it right.  But practice always solves the problem.

Many people new to manual transmission cars expect to simply jump in and drive away. It rarely happens that way. It takes practice, practice, and more practice. It CAN be done because millions of drivers around the world have learned to do it.

The best way to learn to drive a stick shift car is to start slowly. Don’t expect to learn to start, stop, and smoothly shift all gears in one day. Take one step at a time.

Start by learning the operation of the clutch. Take the car to a long driveway or empty parking lot and simply practice starting, stopping , reverse, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, never getting out of first gear or reverse. Once you’ve learned to start smoothly without bucking or killing the engine, graduate to starting in first gear, getting a little speed and shifting into second gear. Then stop, shift back to first gear, and do it all over again. In a parking lot, you may not have enough room or speed to shift into higher gears but the procedure is the same.

When you’re stopped, with the engine running, you must always hold the clutch pedal down (or shift into “neutral”) to disengage the engine from the transmission.

Finally, get onto a road or street without traffic and practice shifting through all the gears.

One question that always comes up is: “How do I know when to shift from one gear to another?” You listen to your engine. When the engine sounds like it’s running abnormally fast and your car doesn’t seem to be gaining speed, it’s time to shift to a higher gear. You’ll soon get the feel of this procedure and it’ll become natural to you without your having to think about it.

Another question that often comes up is: “What if I accidentally grind the gears when using the clutch improperly?” This is not usually a problem. The sound is not very pleasant but rarely does it cause any damage. Just try to not make it a habit.

One other tip before we close this discussion: Do not “ride” the clutch pedal. By keeping your foot on the clutch pedal when you are not actually shifting gears may cause premature wear on the clutch itself. Clutches in manual shift cars do wear out and occasionally need to be replaced.

One last tip: When you park your car, put it in first or reverse gear, never neutral. This allows the stopped engine to be used as a kind of brake to keep the car from moving. However, always engage your parking brake too, as additional protection against you car rolling or moving.

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