How to Drive a Manual Transmission

It's fun and satisfying, and you can do it.

Subaru

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Although most people these days don't drive manually shifted cars, sticks are still alive and kicking. Manual is still the move for most car enthusiasts, who choose to "row their own" gears. What's more, in an age of convenience, using a clutch pedal and working a shift pattern to create motion in a car is a satisfying skill to learn. Not to mention, if you travel abroad chances are you'll find many rental cars have manual transmission. If you can drive stick, it'll improve your options. Plus, it's fun.

Learning to drive stick may be viewed as somewhat archaic, yet it isn’t difficult to learn if you have an open, safe space away from traffic, pedestrians, and (at least at first) hills. Here's how to drive a manual transmission safely and enjoyably.

Basics

Estimated Time Needed: 30 minutes to an hour to start, and a lifetime to perfect.

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Powertrain

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Safety

Driving your car can be dangerous, putting your life and the lives of others at risk is real when you are unsure of your skills. So as you don’t die, get maimed, or hurt the person who graciously let you use their car. Here’s how to drive a manual transmission safely.

  • Find a deserted parking lot.
  • Find someone who’s comfortable teaching you.
  • Comfortable clothing that won’t inhibit driving.
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Everything You’ll Need

It doesn’t take that much to learn how to drive a manual transmission, so here's everything you'll need.

Tool List

  • A manual transmission car, duh.
  • An empty, ideally flat, parking lot.

And that's it!

Setting Up Your Car

Finding a comfortable seating position. You'll need to be entirely unencumbered to work all the pedals with your feet, steer, and shift confidently. Before setting off, look around and note where potential hazards are lurking, such as light poles, curbs, and/or other humans. Remember where they are. Finally, make sure your seatbelt is on. 

Before you even turn on the engine, it’s also a good idea to get a feel for how the shifter moves and where each gear is, as well as the weight of the clutch pedal.

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Here's How to Drive a Manual Transmission

Let's do this!

Starting Off

  1. You will likely stall the car. That's ok. Don't get nervous. You won't break anything.
  2. Push the clutch pedal in, make sure the gearshift is centered in neutral, and start the engine.
  3. Release the emergency brake.
  4. With your foot on the clutch, shift to first gear. 
  5. Ease your foot off the clutch slowly to feel where the engagement point is, and the car starts moving.
  6. Continue easing off the clutch while pressing the accelerator pedal (the throttle). Listen to the engine revs rise; keep between 1,500 to 2,000 rpm at first. 
  7. The trick is in coordinating the clutch release with the application of throttle. If you give the car too much gas with the clutch half-engaged you will "ride the clutch." (If you keep doing this, you'll eventually damage it.) 
  8. If you release the clutch too quickly, the car will lurch forward. If that happens, simply push the clutch back in and start again.
  9. Release the clutch fully and apply throttle.
  10. If the engine stalls, repeat the steps. Keep trying until you get the feel for how the clutch and throttle work together.

Shifting Gears

  1. As the car accelerates, and the rpms climb, you will have to keep shifting up to go faster.
  2. When the revs have reached around 3,500 rpm on the tachometer (our recommended zone for beginners) release the gas pedal, press in the clutch, shift into the next gear, and apply throttle smoothly as you release the clutch.
  3. Continue the process until you reach the desired speed.
  4. If you slow down, you will need to downshift to a lower gear. 
  5. Release the gas pedal, press in the clutch, and shift into the lower gear. Apply throttle smoothly as you release the clutch.

Stopping

  1. Release the gas pedal and apply the brake.
  2. Press in the clutch.
  3. Stop.

Reversing

Reversing uses the same clutch-shift-throttle technique as going forward. Your car may or may not have a reverse lockout—a plastic ring-shaped piece of metal or plastic underneath the gear knob's base—to ensure you don't accidentally shift into reverse at high speed. 

Without a Reverse Lockout

  1. Push in the clutch. Shift into reverse. 
  2. While looking behind you, ease your foot off the clutch while adding throttle slightly. 
  3. You're going backward!

With a Reverse Lockout

  1. Push in the clutch. Pull up on the lockout ring while shifting to reverse.
  2. While looking behind you, ease your foot off the clutch while adding throttle slightly.
  3. You're going backward!

You did it, congrats!

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Tips From a Pro

Over the years, The Drive staff have driven every form of manual imaginable—from dog-leg race-inspired gearboxes, sequential manuals on motorcycles and racecars, and every 3-speed, 4-speed, 5-speed, and 6-speed around. Suffice it to say, we're somewhat adept at driving the more "archaic" form of shifting. Here's how pro tips for every beginner.

Expect to Stall 

You're gonna stall the engine a few times if you are learning to drive stick. Since each car is different in the feel of the gas and clutch pedals, you will need to get their feel. It's something you just have to accept, as well as whoever's car you're borrowing to learn, but they likely know that already.

Look Up

As our friend Trevor Wert, an instructor at Dirtfish Rally School put it, "One of the amazing things about the human body is that we naturally adjust what we’re doing based on what we’re focused on, including looking where you want to go. Naturally, your body will do everything it needs to make it there, so whatever you do, DO NOT look at the object you’re trying to avoid, you will hit it."

Slow Down

When you're learning how to drive a manual transmission correctly, speed is your enemy. Slowing down allows you the time to process everything around you and reduces the time it takes to stop if something bad occurs, such as a kid entering the parking lot.

Don’t panic

Don’t brake, don’t hit the gas, don’t freak out. If you encounter something unexpected, stay calm, push in the clutch, put the gear lever into neutral, and come to a stop with the brakes. Everything is going to be fine.

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How many people still drive stick?

Only around 18% of drivers in America are still driving stick, in new cars and old. The number of cars produced each year with manual transmission has shrunk to around 5%, but there are still many manual cars, especially in the used market. 

When should I move on to public roads?

When you feel comfortable enough driving around the parking lot, and aren't stalling with regularity. Start with roads that don't require stopping on hills. Shifting should become second nature. Once you have the muscle memory, it will feel just like driving an automatic car. 

How do I practice shifting or starting on a hill?

Since you’ll need to learn to conquer hills so you aren’t avoiding them like the plague, it’s best to start in a remote area. Start on a quiet road with a small hill. Try a large hill as you get more comfortable. Before you know it, you'll be able to start on a hill without thinking about it. 

Life Hacks

We compiled some hacks to make your life easier.

  • Ask a friend to let you learn how to shift from the passenger seat (that's how we learned). Listen to the car's revs and learn to match them with the gears. It's easy, you learn without destroying the clutch, and bonus points, if you're ever in the United Kingdom, or any other right-hand drive market, you'll know how to drive!

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Got a question? Got a pro tip? Send us a note: guidesandgear@thedrive.com