How To Drive Stick Shift

A beginner’s guide for driving a manual-shift car.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED May 4, 2022 6:00 PM
How To Drive Stick Shift
Andrew P. Collins (Adobe, Getty assets)
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A car doesn't necessarily need to have a manual transmission to be fun to drive, but an otherwise-boring car can feel a lot more exciting with a stick shift. Shifting on your own can make you feel more connected to your machine, and it's a valuable skill worth learning even as three-pedal cars become less common. Hey, what if you end up on "The Amazing Race" and have to drive stick? That show is still on, right?

Whatever your reasoning for wanting to learn this useful life skill might be, The Drive’s technically proficient group of nerds is here to help. Let's discuss how to drive a manual car.

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Safety Precautions

Thankfully, learning to drive manual is a generally safe activity. It's not like you're doing anything hazardous, like attempting to dress up a honey badger in a pair of overalls to re-enact Grant Woods' American Gothic or playing hide-and-seek in an abandoned coal mine.

However, there are still some things to keep in mind in order to have a safe and responsible time learning how to drive a manual car. Firstly, buckle your seat belt. Also, be aware of nearby motorists while your attention is closely paid to the learning process. Finally, obey all traffic laws.

The Toyota GR86 is one of the most fun cars you can buy new right now with a manual transmission.

Here’s How To Drive a Manual Car

Let’s jump right into it!

Find a Low-Stress Environment for Practice

  1. This usually entails you having a stick-driving friend drive your new stick-shift car that you haven't driven yet, riding along in their stick-shift car, or any other scenario where you have access to a vehicle with a manual transmission.
  2. A big empty parking lot is a great place to start. A street in an industrial area or industrial park after working hours also works. You'll want to be out of the way of other motorists and limit the amount of things that could interrupt the learning process.
  3. Beware of nearby pedestrians, dogs, cats, birds, etc. in the road, too.

Get in the Car

  1. Situate yourself nice and comfortably, ensuring the mirrors are properly adjusted and that you can easily operate the clutch (see Fig. 001) through its entire travel. Buckle your seatbelt, too!
  2. Ensure the e-brake is engaged and/or brake is pressed, the shifter is in neutral, then push in the clutch and turn the ignition on.
  3. With your foot still holding the clutch in, row through the gears to get a sense of where each one is. Unless it's a purpose-built racecar with what's known as a sequential gearbox, the gear orientation will be in an H pattern (see Fig. 002), with either five, six, or even seven speeds. The latter could be a late-model Porsche or Corvette, which we're jealous about you learning in this kind of vehicle. Finally, figure out where the reverse gear is and how to shift into it. Sometimes, there's a lever you need to pull up on, or you need to push down on the shifter for access.

Get Ready To Move

  1. Now comes the exciting part of learning how to get moving in gear.
  2. Engage the clutch, and put the car in first gear.
  3. Ever so slightly and slowly let off the clutch, seeing how the car reacts, as well as where the take-up point is in the clutch pedal travel, otherwise known as where the gear is fully engaged with the driveline.
  4. The car might start rolling on its own or it might stall out. If it stalls out, put your foot on the clutch and brake, shift to neutral, and start it back up.
A very fun car that's a bit hard to find with a manual transmission: an E82 BMW 128i.

Start Balancing the Pedals and Shifting

  1. If the car will roll in gear without any usage of the gas pedal, congratulations, this will all be a tad easier to learn!
  2. Next up, get the car rolling by putting the car in gear with the clutch engaged, and then start balancing the clutch and gas pedals to make a seamless transition. Give yourself plenty of room and space to see how much gas pedal is needed as the clutch is let out or vice versa. You might stall the car a bunch, but never fear, you'll get this! The car will be fine.
  3. Just focus on getting in and out of first gear using the following sequence of movements: clutch in, select first gear, slowly let out clutch while adding gas, roll for a few feet, then let off the gas, engage the clutch, shift to neutral, then stop. Continue repeating until you're comfortable with the process and can do it smoothly.
  4. Next up, instead of shifting from first to neutral, shift to second gear while the clutch is engaged, and follow up by balancing the clutch and gas pedals to make a shift from gear to gear. Continue to refine your skills in figuring out the take-up point, and becoming as smooth as possible.

Don't Try To Shift Fast

  1. Take your time clutching in and shifting between gears. You're not in a race and can start working on becoming faster once you've mastered the entire process of becoming a skilled manual car motorist.
  2. Downshifting, such as shifting from third gear to second gear, is generally easy once you've mastered upshifting, or shifting from second gear to third gear. Again, figuring out the take-up point and being smooth is key. Don't worry about rev-matching as you do this either, just be smooth so you don't put too much premature wear on the gearbox. Rev-matching is quickly jabbing the gas pedal before downshifting, which makes for a smoother downshift. But again, worry about mastering the basics first.
  3. When you want to slow down, you can downshift to let the gearing slow you down, or you can simply clutch in, shift to neutral, and solely use the brake pedal to come to a stop.

Practice Always Makes Perfect

  1. We must continue to reiterate: Practice makes perfect.
  2. Once you become comfortable with driving a manual car around town and can smoothly operate the car without stalling it, move on to some light hills and the highway.
  3. For hill starts, a bit more finesse is needed. The car you're driving might have a hill-start assist, which holds the rear brakes so the car doesn't roll back while you're in neutral. Otherwise, you'll need to feather off the clutch and giving it more gas to move forward.
  4. Otherwise, integrating the hand e-brake might be needed, which adds another input that must be balanced with the gas and clutch pedals.
  5. Once you become very good at driving a manual car, you might be able to quickly come off the clutch nice and smoothly, making any brake assistance completely unnecessary. Though, not all cars are capable of this, and if the hill is especially steep, it's a good idea to keep using the e-brake method.

Tips for Driving Manual

Over the years, The Drive’s editors have gotten a lot of seat time in a wide variety of stick-shift cars, all of which have varying feel and action in their clutch pedals, shifters, gas pedals, and so on. Here's what we've learned.

  • Pay extra-close attention to where the clutch take-up point is and figure out exactly what the full travel of the clutch and gas pedals feel like.
  • If you're driving an old manual car or truck, it might have a really long shifter throw, space between the gears in the H-pattern, and might have very little in terms of feel for where the gears are. These factors make it a bit tougher to shift smoothly, but you can use that as a learning advantage. If you can master these, you'll have no problem operating a performance-oriented hatchback or sports car.
  • Don't be embarrassed about stalling or even stalling after you've gained a few years of experience. It happens to even the most skilled drivers.

The Visual Guide to Footwork

Clutch-in, ready to select a gear and begin balancing the clutch and gas pedals.

Up next, coming off the clutch and keeping the right foot exclusively on the gas pedal, getting up to speed.

In case of emergency: if you're in a situation where you have to brake hard and come to a stop, put your left foot on the clutch pedal as well to avoid stalling out and having to restart the car.

FAQs About Driving a Manual

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers.

Q. Is it okay to start driving in second gear?

A. This can be done in some cars, but generally it's a bad idea as it "lugs" the engine, or puts a lot of strain on it at too low of an RPM. Just start out in first gear.

Q. What is an automated manual?

A. This is a transmission that operates like a manual in that there is a clutch between the engine and the drivetrain. But its movement, as well as the way gears are selected, is actuated electronically. In our modern era, this design of transmission is outdated and is most commonly found on performance vehicles from the early-to-late 2000s, such as the SMG-equipped E46 BMW M3, or E-Gear-equipped Lamborghini Gallardo.

Q. What should I do with the clutch when I come to a stop sign or light?

A. When approaching a scenario that requires a stop, clutch in and shift to neutral, but then take your foot off the clutch. Then, only clutch in to shift into gear once you want to start moving again. Sitting with your foot on the clutch pedal can prematurely wear out the throwout bearing, which is a crucial component in your car's drivetrain.

Q. What are some other names for a manual car?

A. You might see people refer to manual cars as stick-shift, driving stick, three pedals, 6MT, 5MT, stick cars, manual gearbox, or a standard transmission.

Q. What types of manual transmissions are out there?

A. Quite a few: a cable-actuated shifter uses cables between the shifter and transmission to shift gears, and a linkage-actuated shifter uses mechanical linkage between the shifter and transmission to shift gears. There's also a transaxle, which is most commonly found in front-wheel-drive cars which houses the transmission and differential in one unit for space considerations, weight balance considerations, as well as to designate which wheels are the drive wheels.

Video

When it comes to great instruction, not much beats Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire's series of videos on how to drive a manual car. He sets up cameras in a way that you can see the balancing of the pedals to help get a solid idea of everything that's happening, too. Plus, that's a Mazda 2 in Part 1.5.

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