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How to Drive a Stick Shift

driving a stick shift car

Over 90% of cars nowadays are built with automatic transmissions. Because of this, manual transmission with stick shifts has become less frequently built. However, that doesn’t stop car manufacturers from producing some vehicles with the seemingly antiquated stick shifter.

Every now and then, a car renter or buyer may come across a make and model which has a manual transmission that requires the driver to switch gears, operate the clutch, and know their way around a stick shifter. Learning how to drive a stick shift or manual is all about techniques involving the brake pedal, accelerator, and gear shifter.

A couple of scenarios like renting, borrowing, and purchasing could lead to you finding yourself behind the wheel of a car with manual transmission and a stick shift. For first-time gear shifters, it may feel like you’re in the cockpit of an alien spaceship.

Not to worry, its much like learning to ride a bike. Learning how to drive a stick shift requires practice and repetition in order for the stick shifter to feel second nature. Find yourself an empty parking lot rather than a street to practice driving a stick shift car.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to drive a stick shift car, what the clutch is for, and how to safely switch gears when driving.

How a car with a stick shift is driven?

The primary function of a car with a manual transmission is to regulate the clutch on your car, which transmits the power from the motor to the transmission.

Nowadays, cars can gearshift automatically. But that doesn’t stop select high-end luxury car and semi-truck manufacturers from including a manual stick shifter. Even some SUVs and minivans are still made with stick shifters.

We’ll be throwing a lot of automotive terminologies your way, so here’s a handy cheat sheet:

  • Gear shifter. Manual transmission and stick shift refer to the same thing. The stick shifter itself is located in the center console of a car between the passenger and driver seats. The shifter often comes labeled with the different gears the car has.
  • Gear. Much like a bicycle, a car has low and high gears for driving. How many gears precisely depends on the make and model. Some models can go up to 5 gears, while others can have up to 12 gears. The shift lever is required to manually shift your car into the correct gear, depending on its speed. Unnumbered gears include reverse and neutral.
  • Clutch. The clutch is a third pedal located on the left of the brake pedal, exclusively for cars with manual transmissions. It works almost like a brake pad that keeps the car in place when it’s at rest. The more you press down on it, the more still your car will become. Easing up on the clutch may cause the car to move. In contrast to the brake and accelerator, the left foot is used to release the clutch.
  • Transmission. Every car is built with a transmission in its engine to convert the gas combustion into kinetic energy to move the wheels. As previously mentioned, it’s something that has been automated, but there are still vehicles out that you have to drive manually with a stick shift.

How to drive a stick shift

Seldom are people able to start, move, and stop their car with manual transmission on their very first try. It’s all about mastering the order, timing, and knowing when to execute. Shifting gears is an example. That can only be done when the car is in motion.

You can never seriously hurt your car while driving by failing a gear shift. The worst that can happen is the car makes an unpleasant sound and stalls. The goal of the guide below is to reduce the number of stalls, sounds, and jerky movements as you operate a manual transmission.

Here are the first steps how to drive a stick shift car:

  1. Begin with your left foot on the clutch pedal. First, you get into the car and place your left foot on the clutch pedal before turning on the car. The gear shifter should be in neutral. If your car has a manual emergency brake, then make sure it’s inactive.
  2. Start up the car and press the brake pedal. When starting the car’s ignition, keep your left foot on the clutch pedal while placing your right foot on the brake. The brake is the center pedal.
  3. Set selected gear to first, then move your right foot from the brake pedal. We’ll get into what the individual gears mean specifically. But generally, the gears work similarly to a bike-the higher the faster. The first gear is naturally the first one you switch to. At the same time, lightly taking your right foot off the brake pedal will begin to move the car.
  4. Gradually release the clutch pedal and accelerate. Now, begin to ease off the clutch pedal slowly. Move your right foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal ever so slightly. You don’t want to go too fast for the first gear. Do this until you fully release the clutch.
  5. Accelerate and switch into second gear. As you begin to drive and pick up speed by pressing on the accelerator pedal with your right foot, watch for the speed which requires you to switch up to the higher gear. In this case, it’s the second gear since you just started to drive. To switch gears, ease off the accelerator pedal with your right foot and place your left foot back on the clutch pedal. Release the clutch once you shift to second gear.
  6. Repeat with higher speeds and gears. As you begin to pick up speed, you’ll need to manually switch into the appropriate gear. Simply repeat the step above to change gears. If slowing down, it would work the same way but in reverse order until the car comes to a stop.

When I’m driving a manual transmission, when do I change gears?

There are a couple of ways that your car can tell you that you can switch to higher gears. The sound your motor makes while your drive can indicate a need for higher gear based on how loud it is. You can also check your RPM gauge or tachometer on the dashboard. The time for a shift is indicated when the RPM of the vehicle reaches 2500 to 3000. Other car experts suggest there are certain speeds where you are required to shift gears.

Those speeds are:

  • 0-10 MPH. Typically when the vehicle is just starting, the slower speeds are meant for first gear, the lowest setting.
  • 3-25 MPH. If you’re driving down suburban streets, not yet breaking 30 MPH, it might be time to switch to second gear.
  • 15-45 MPH. Third gear is necessary for those high-speed streets. A good rule of thumb is to shift to third gear if you’re going over 30.
  • 30-65 MPH. At this point, you’ve merged onto an express or high way and need to shift up to 4th gear. 3rd would be enough for rush hour traffic, but 4th will give you the extra speed if needed.
  • 65 MPH and up. Most cars with a manual clutch and gear shift go up to a maximum of 5 gears. However, there may be some exceptions. If you’re going at a constant high speed, then the higher the gear, the better.

How to downshift with the gear shifter

If you’re bringing your vehicle to a stop, then downshifting gears works the same as accelerating, except you switch to the lower gear. You’ll want to keep the throttle constant as you would braking. The car can stop more suddenly if it’s not fast enough when you downshift. This can be jerky and uncomfortable for yourself or passengers. Practice this to be able to stop your car more smoothly rather than using the brakes.

Is it worth complicating something as simple as driving my car?

The time it takes for a driver with a manual transmission to start and operate their car is just as long as the time it would take for an automatic. You could even get higher fuel economy driving stick than an automatic transmission. Learning all the gear shifting, clutch managing, accelerating, and braking is best learned the same way you learned to drive.

Find an empty parking lot or level ground and familiarize yourself with your car and its manual functions. A Gear Lever comes labeled with diagrams demonstrating which placement sets to the different gears. At a certain point, you’ll be able to tell what gear setting on your own by feel. In short, it’s a muscle memory function, and the only complication you may have is learning to drive it.

When I’m driving stick, how will I know when I’ve done something wrong?

Practice makes perfect when it comes to driving a car with a manual shift, so it’s natural to expect some missteps or mistakes along the way. It’s best not to be discouraged or overly concerned since shifting mistakes can’t cause any significant damage to your car. When having difficulty with your brake, clutch, gear, or shifter, here’s a couple of the most common troubleshooting that may occur:

  • The car doesn’t start. If your car doesn’t start, then it may not be just a mechanical issue. The leading cause of this would be the clutch doesn’t have enough pressure on it. Remember, always start with your left foot on the clutch pedal.
  • The car stalls. A car with a manual transmission may stall a bit when you switch to a higher or lower gear. This is normally because you’re not giving the car enough gas with your right foot while driving.
  • The car suddenly lurches. A car will lurch forward suddenly if the driver is not evenly easing up on the clutch pedal. Any adjustments made with your left foot or clutch pedal should be made smoothly.
  • The car engine makes a noise. The engine can make a loud revving sound whenever you’re going at an inconsistent speed or shifting gears at incorrect times. It may sound like your engine is being damaged, but it’s not. With practice, your car will grow quieter over time.

We’ve covered manual startups, using the brake, and stopping. What about parking and reversing?

There is no parking gear for cars with stick shifts. For your parking needs, you would have to use the emergency parking brake. Your shifter should be set to a lower gear instead of neutral. This further keeps your car from moving while parked.

Reversing your manual car requires very little acceleration. Often, your vehicle will just move backward on its own when you release the brake pedal. The car should be set in the reverse gear when you are stationary since there is no parking gear.

The decline of the once-popular manual stick is a result of mechanical improvements to cars over the years. Over 90% of vehicles now come with automatic transmissions. However, there are some makes and models that include the manual one with various gear settings. Smaller and cheaper cars often come with the 5 gear manual. It’s also a common scenario where a driver will rent a car on a trip with a manual gear shifter and will be almost clueless on how to drive it.

Truck driving is an occupation where knowledge of a stick shift is a must-have. Most semis don’t include an automatic transmission. A mac or semi-truck can have up to 12 gears. Some sports cars, even newer models, may also come with a 5 or higher manual stick shift. For car collectors and buyers, it’s become a sort of novelty. Because of this sense of novelty, driving stick shift has become a prideful skill.

Even though it seems antiquated, there are modern benefits that driving a stick shift can offer you. A manual car may be the more economically healthy choice since they run more affordably and are better on fuel economy. Handling your car’s gears on your own enables you to accelerate faster and set them at your leisure.

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Updated: December 2023

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