Driving Manual Transmission

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

I was, I’ll confess, a reluctant driver. The process of learning to drive seemed like a lot of stress for not that much reward (especially as I was pretty convinced that I’d never have a car of my own.) However, my mother, sick of driving me around, dragged me to the DMV on the day I turned 16.

Having barely mastered driving automatic in time to scrape through my driver’s test (I didn’t learn to parallel park or reverse in a straight line until years later), I never thought I would learn to drive standard. Why bother making driving even more annoying? It seemed like a huge hassle for not too much reward.

Then, miraculously, I had the opportunity to own my first car. The only catch was that it was standard shift. I had to learn quickly. So, I found a large parking lot and slowly and painfully began to practice with my new car.

Years later, I am immensely glad that I learned to drive standard, and I strongly suggest that everyone–whether or not you think you will ever drive a standard shift car–should cultivate this skill. Find a friend with a manual transmission and bribe him or her into taking you for a few practice sessions. You won’t regret it, and you may end up becoming a standard shift convert like me.

So, why bother?

First of all, driving standard is more fun. Driving automatic is pretty much a mindless exercise: you push a pedal and you move. A monkey could do it. Driving standard, however, requires more skill; as a result, driving becomes more of a challenge or game than a mindless grind. Plus, you’re sure to impress all of your automatic-driving friends with your new skills.

Second, driving standard is safer. With a manual transmission, you have greater control over the vehicle. Once you’ve learned to operate your clutch effectively, you’ll be able to dictate how much torque you send to your wheels in different situations. For example, you’ll be able to control exactly how much power you exert on the road if, say, you are trying to climb a slightly icy hill. Additionally, you have to pay a lot more attention to what you’re doing when you’re driving standard; it’s hard to “drift off” in the way that you can when driving automatic. This increased attentiveness to your car, the road, and driving conditions around you will make you overall a safer driver. Plus, should your battery fail, you can also push-start a manual transmission car–no need for jumper cables.

This brings me to my next point. Driving standard is cheaper. First, cars with standard shift are usually less expensive than their automatic counterparts. With fewer and simpler moving parts, they are also easier to maintain and last longer. Additionally, standard shift cars tend to get better fuel economy; on average, they are 5% to 15% more efficient. This is because these transmissions weigh less, have fewer electrical parts (like the automatic transmission’s hydraulic pump) to power, and lose less power in the transfer from engine to wheels. It’s also easier–and, in fact, quite natural–to use gas-saving driving techniques on a standard shift vehicle. See my previous entries on saving gas and hypermiling for more information about this.

Finally, standard shift cars are more efficient because they often have more gear ratios than automatic cars (5-6 as opposed to 4, although this is changing.) This, as well as the greater degree of driver control, makes it easier to keep the car within its power band: the RPM range at which the engine is most efficient. (To understand why this is the case, you may want to check out my recent entry on how a manual transmission works. This is good background information for anyone who wants to learn to drive standard.)

Last but not least, knowing how to drive standard is a crucial life skill, like learning to swim; even if you don’t use it on a daily basis, you never know when you may be called on to do so. For example, while most cars in the US are sold with automatic transmissions (and almost all rental cars are automatic), much of the world doesn’t use automatic transmissions. In India, Europe, Latin America, and Africa, standard transmission are far more common. For example, in 2008, 75% of vehicles made in Europe had standard transmissions. This means that if you ever have the opportunity or desire to travel or live abroad, you will likely need to know how to drive standard in order to get around. I, for example, ended up living in Southern Africa–something I never foresaw when I was 16–and needed to drive standard in order to get around. If I hadn’t had this skill, I would have been in a very difficult position.

There’s really no reason NOT to learn how to drive standard, aside from the fact that it takes a little bit of time and effort to master. Furthermore, there are lots of reasons why one would consider owning a standard shift rather than an automatic. The only significant drawback is that it takes a more effort to drive a standard shift in stop and go traffic, although even this isn’t so bad if you have mastered the use of your clutch and practice gas saving driving techniques. Some automatics can shift faster than the driver of a standard shift can, but the advantage gained by this is small.

So, it’s decided: you’re going to learn to drive standard. Now, where to begin? First, you’ll need a car. Find a friend or family member who owes you a favor and convince them to take you for a practice session. On your first time out, you’ll want to begin practicing in an open and empty space; an unused parking lot is ideal. Avoid places with too many obstacles, like lamp posts or trees. On your next time out, you’ll also want to practice on a stretch of straight, empty roadway. Have a good location or two in mind before you set out.

The Basics

Once you’ve reached your practice space, have your friend park the car and trade places with you. Once you’re in the driver’s seat, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land.

First, a standard transmission car has three pedals. (See figure 1) Your accelerator is on the far right, and your brake is in the center, just as on an automatic car. However, you have a third pedal on the left, the clutch pedal. You’ll operate brake and accelerator with your right foot, as you’d normally do; you’ll use your left foot to operate the clutch.



Figure 1: typical standard shift car

Now, look over to your right. The stick shift itself is in the center of the car. In most cars, the gear pattern will be outlined on top of the stick shift. (See figure 2) It’s usually a variation on this H shape, although the placement of reverse varies. Note that the center position is neutral, i.e. no gears are engaged. The shift will feel a bit loose when in neutral; testing the feel of the shifter is one way to make sure that you are, in fact, in neutral. (The gear shift on each car will look and feel a bit different; sometimes the difference between neutral and “in gear” will be seem pretty slight.)



Figure 2: gear shift close-up

Before you turn the car on, take some time to familiarize yourself with the gears. Begin by shifting into first gear. In order to shift, you will first have to depress the clutch. With the clutch down, you will then be able to push the gear stick into gear. In order to get into first gear, push the stick gently to the left and then away from you. The shifter should slide easily into the right position. Remember that you should never force a shift; it should always be a smooth and easy sliding motion.

Once you’ve got it into first, then try pulling it straight towards you, past the center point, and into second. Practice the neutral-first and first-second shifts a few times.

Next comes the second-third shift. This one can be a bit trickier. First, put the stick back into neutral. Then, push it more or less straight “up” (away from you.) Now, go back to second and try going straight from second to third. You may also want to try shifting from first to third; you’ll never actually do this while driving, BUT it can help you to get a feel for how the placement of these gears differs, as they can sometimes be mistaken for one another.

Fourth gear will be down and to the right; fifth gear will be up and to the right. Sometimes fifth gear is a bit further right than fourth; ask the car’s owner about the placement of fifth gear. Now, practice shifting 1-2-3-4-5 several times. Then, try reverse. This gear will be a bit different on each car. Sometimes you will have to pull up or push down on the gear stick or push a button. Again, ask how to shift into reverse, and then practice this shift as well.

When you actually start driving, you will only use two gears to start from a standstill: first and reverse. Also note that you should never shift into either of these gears while the car is moving.

Getting the Car to Move

Depending on the car and your own foot-eye coordination, this could be a lot more difficult than you’d think (then again, it could also be easier.) In general, new cars have “stiffer” clutches, which makes them a lot harder for a beginner to operate. If possible, try to find a car with an easy clutch to practice on.

Now, it’s time to start the car. On some cars, you will have to have the clutch fully depressed in order to start the car. On other cars, particularly older ones, you should start the car in neutral, with the clutch released. Ask the owner of your car what to do. Note, however, that you should always park a car in first gear. Thus, it’s important to remember to either shift into neutral OR depress the clutch before starting the car. If you start the car in gear, it will immediately lurch forward and stall, which can be a big problem if you’re in a cramped parking space.

Once the car is started, take a moment to listen to the sound of the engine. You may want to roll your windows down while practicing, as hearing the sound of the engine is an important cue for gear shifts. Next, take note of the RPM dial on your car and note the speed at which the engine is idling.

Now, shift into first gear, keeping the clutch depressed. Then take off the parking brake; unlike many automatics, manual transmissions use hand brakes. Begin to let the clutch out, as slowly and smoothly as possible. At some point, you’ll hear the engine speed beginning to drop (the pitch will become lower.) You’ll also notice the RPM dial beginning to drop. Once you reach this point, push the pedal back in again. This point is the “friction point.” This is going to be different for every car, so you’ll have to experiment a bit to get the “feel” of it. If you let the clutch too far out, the car will stall; once you’ve experienced this (which will likely happen more than once on your first day out), you’ll know what sounds to look for when you are approaching the stalling point. When you do hit the friction point correctly, however, the car will likely start to move forward very slowly.

Once you’ve identified the friction point, you’re ready to add the accelerator to the mix. As you approach the friction point, slowly start to depress the accelerator. You release the clutch as you feed the accelerator; you are aiming for a smooth exchange between pedals. You don’t want to depress the accelerator too much and rev the engine while the clutch pedal is in, as this will put a lot of stress on the clutch. At the same time, you’ll stall if you don’t depress the accelerator enough. You’re aiming for a smooth and slow motion, so that the car “glides” forward.  The goal is to keep the RPMs constant, so using this dial could help you to identify the correct accelerator-clutch ratio.

It may take a fair amount of practice to get this shift down. Personally, it took me about ten tries to just get the car to move. Other people do it on their first go. A lot will depend on the car you’re driving. Take heart, though, and hold out for that “aha!” moment when the feel of the process “clicks” with you. Also, starting in first is the most difficult shift, so once you’ve mastered this, the rest will be easier. At first, you’ll be pretty slow with this shift. Keep working at it until it only takes you a couple of seconds.

Moving Faster

Once you’re comfortable shifting into first, keep the car in first and start to accelerate. Notice that the RPM climb quickly (and listen to the whine of the engine as well.) Push the clutch in and brake. Before you go any further, note that you should always depress the clutch before braking.

Now, shift into first again and accelerate. Once you get to around 3-4000 RPM, which should happen pretty quickly, depress the clutch, shift into second, and engage the second gear, using the same clutch-accelerator exchange that you did for first gear. This shift should be a lot easier.

Drive slowly around the parking lot in second gear. Practice pushing in the clutch, coasting, and then releasing the clutch to put the car back into gear. Once you’ve mastered first and second gear, you’ll probably need to find a different practice space in order to try out the other gears.

Out on the Road

As you accelerate, you will continue to shift into higher gears. How do you know when to shift gears? Well, once you’ve been driving for a while, you’ll know from the sound of the engine. Basically, you don’t want the RPM to go too high (a screaming sound from the engine) or too low (a low-pitched spluttering sound, indicating you’re going to stall soon.) You’ll quickly get a feel for when you should shift.

Each car is a bit different, though. However, the following speed ranges should help you get a general idea of when to use each gear:

First gear: from 0 to 15 MPH

Second gear: 5 to 25 MPH

Third gear: 15 to 45 MPH

Fourth gear: 30 to 65 MPH

Fifth gear: 45+ MPH

First gear is really only used for starting the car. You’ll shift out of first almost immediately, unless, say, you’re maneuvering into a parking space. Once you get more experience, you’ll also be able to start the car in second gear; this can be useful if you’re in a situation, say on an icy slope, where you need more torque as you start. Most city driving is done in third gear; fifth gear is primarily for highway cruising. (This is the overdrive gear, which improves fuel mileage; for more on how this works, see my previous entry.)

On your first day out, you probably won’t go above third gear. As you get more practiced, you’ll be able to head out on the highway to try out fourth and fifth gears as well.


Of course, sometimes you’ll need to slow down. In these cases, you’ll need to downshift. First, notice that when you release the accelerator but don’t depress the clutch, the car slows down significantly, unlike on an automatic, in which the engine “coasts” more when the accelerator is released. If you want to coast downhill, you’ll need to depress the clutch and/or shift into neutral.

As a result, if you need to slow down, you don’t necessarily need to brake; you can also do so by taking your foot off the accelerator. This is called “engine braking,” a technique which is particularly useful when you need to adjust your speed by a small amount. If you slow down too much, you will need to downshift.

Smooth downshifts can be difficult; the trick is to make sure that you have slowed down to the speed at which the two gears overlap.  Push in the clutch and shift down to the lower gear. Then, let out the clutch and push in the accelerator. The “feel” of downshifting may be slightly different. The goal, however, is to get as smooth a shift as possible. If you feel a lurch when you re-engage the gears, you are probably going too fast for that gear.

Downshifting can also be helpful when you want to slow down gradually. Say, for example, that you’re approaching a red light. You can downshift and then putter along in a lower gear in order to avoid having to come to a full stop before the stoplight, thereby saving gas.

Two warnings about engine braking: first, remember that people behind you may not be driving standard (or may not be familiar with how a standard shift car works.) They won’t be expecting you to slow down without braking. If you are slowing down by downshifting, make sure that you tap your brakes once or twice to alert drivers behind you.

Second, don’t use engine braking to slow down ALL the time; some people recommend this as a way of saving your brakes. However, unless you are a very skilled driver, downshifting will put stress on your transmission. Transmissions are usually much more expensive and difficult to repair than brake pads, which are easily replaced.


You’ll have noticed by now that, unlike an automatic transmission, standard shift cars don’t have a “P” or “parking” gear. Neutral is NOT a parking gear! Your car will roll easily when in neutral. For this reason, make sure that you get used to ALWAYS setting the parking brake when you park, if this isn’t already a habit for you. You should also shift the car into first gear after you have turned it off.

Be careful, however, that you shift back into neutral OR depress the clutch before starting the car. On some cars, you will have to depress the clutch in order to start. If this isn’t the case for your car, then start in neutral instead, as starting with the clutch pedal in can place extra strain on the clutch.

Hill Starts

Unlike an automatic transmission, manual transmission vehicles roll on hills. On an automatic, you can stop on a hill, sit for a moment, and then depress the accelerator and start forward again, without sliding back. However, in a manual transmission, you’ll start to roll–even in places where you didn’t know there were hills.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with shifting in and out of gears one-four, you’ll need to practice hill starts. Begin on a gentle slope, in an area free from traffic. First, come to a complete stop on the hill. Release the brake slightly and notice how you start to roll. Hit the brake again. Now, put the car in neutral and set the handbrake; don’t pull the handbrake up all the way, just far enough so that you won’t slip. Put the car into first gear. Begin to release the clutch and depress the accelerator, while keeping one hand on the handbrake. As soon as you feel the gear “catch,” release the handbrake. The goal is to roll forward without slipping at all, but also without grinding the gears or revving the engine too high.

Dos and Don’ts

DO always set the parking brake.

DO shift into neutral at red lights and during other long stops.

DON’T “ride the clutch,” i.e. drive with your foot resting on the clutch.

DON’T brake without depressing the clutch.

DO downshift on hills if you need greater acceleration.

DON’T downshift into first gear.

DO spend a lot of time practicing in safe locations.

DON’T give up if you find your first day on the road difficult; you’ll improve more quickly than you think!

DO take the time to learn to drive standard. It’s fun and useful, and will make you a better driver!

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

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