How To Drive A Stick Shift

Driving a vehicle with manual transmission, also known as a stick shift, can be intimidating for many drivers young and old. Many motorists go through life without owning or ever even driving a stick shift, but it is a good skill to have as these types of vehicles are popular.

Once you learn how to do it, and after a little practice, driving a stick shift is fairly easy. It becomes habit and also becomes, for many, a more exciting and exhilarating way to drive a car or truck.

Stick shift vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, from the smallest economy cars to huge work trucks. This guide is not intended to help you win any drag races or drive a big rig. Instead, it will guide you through the process of learning to drive a stick shift, providing tips to succeed and pitfalls to avoid.

Written instructions are no substitute for hands-on activity and practice, so it is best to read this guide, then use the information in your own vehicle.

Practice with the Car Off

One of the most useful ways to start learning the art of driving a manual transmission or stick shift is to familiarize yourself with the car's controls. You know what the gas and brake pedals do. Get in the car and, with the emergency or parking brake engaged, get a feel for the clutch.

This is also a good time to look at the gear shifter, which is typically located on a center console, on the ground, or on the steering wheel to the right of the driver. Most stick shifts have written guides for the gears. If the guide is worn away or otherwise unreadable, you should consult the car's manual, a mechanic, or other Internet resources to find out the gear configuration for your car. If there is no way of finding out the gear arrangement, you may have to resort to pressing the clutch down all the way and holding it, and then moving the shifter around to feel for the gears.

Once you understand where first gear is, continue practicing with the car off. Without actually depressing the gas pedal, pretend you are driving and practice speeding up. (Making the sounds is optional.) Put the clutch to the floor and put the car in first gear. Pretend you are speeding up, then depress the clutch pedal again and move the shifter to second gear. Do the same for third gear, fourth gear, and fifth gear, which you may or may not have depending on your vehicle.

Practice downshifting, too, by pretending to slow down, depressing the clutch, and shifting down from four to three, and from three to two. You do not need to downshift to first gear in a stick shift.

When you are coming to a stop, you can do two things: you can depress the clutch and keep the car in gear, getting ready to go again in first; or you can put the shifter in the neutral position and let the clutch back up. It is sometimes good to put a stick shift in neutral while stopped, to ease the strain on your leg and foot, and also to lessen wear and tear on your clutch. When it is time to go again, simply depress the clutch and put the shifter into first gear, and give the vehicle a little gas.

Reverse gear on stick shifts is usually achieved by pressing down on the shifter and moving it to the side and then forward. It might be a matter of pushing down, moving to the side and back, or pulling a ring or other release on the shifter. Consult the shifter indicator, vehicle manual, or the feel test to find reverse gear.

Off-road Training

Once you feel comfortable with where the gears are, how the clutch and shifter work together, and how to speed up and slow down for pretend, you are ready for the real thing.

This is when the intimidation factor sets in. You start thinking what about if you are on a hill? What if you can't find reverse? What about the ultimate, dark fear: you are stopped at a light, put the car into first gear to get going and it happens, a stall. Don't worry about all of that. It only takes a second to start a car back up. Besides, that is why it is best to practice on a secluded road, in a vacant parking lot, or somewhere else with plenty of space and time for stalls.

Pick a flat area, too. You will be ready for a stick shift start on a hill soon enough, but at first stick to simple starts from first gear on a flat surface.

Once seated and comfortable with your seatbelt fastened, you are ready to begin driving a stick shift. It is always helpful to have someone knowledgeable with driving manual transmissions or with the vehicle along for the test drive, but you can do it on your own.

To start a stick shift, it is important to have the clutch pedal depressed if starting in gear. If the vehicle is not in gear, and is in neutral, you do not need the clutch depressed. With the vehicle running, depress the clutch all the way to the floor. Put the shifter in first gear, and slowly let the clutch pedal back up while giving the engine gas with the fuel pedal. The car will begin to go, and the more you let up on the clutch, the faster you will go into that gear.

Once the car is revving high in first gear, you are ready to depress the clutch to the floor again, and shift to second. While first gear and reverse are a matter of feeling the clutch disengage and the gear engage while balancing clutch and gas, second and higher gears require only a quick push down on the clutch while you shift. You can immediately let the clutch back up, giving the engine gas while you do so.

Downshifting is mostly a matter of going through the gears in reverse order, down from four to three, and from three to two as your speed decreases. You should not downshift to first gear, but rather when approaching a stop, either keep the clutch depressed and engaged, or put the shifter in neutral. To start again, depress the clutch to the floor, put the car in first gear, and give the car gas as you release the clutch out, slowly for first or reverse gears.

Don't Panic

Once you are comfortable accelerating and decelerating while you shift the gears of the vehicle, and you can comfortably start in first, put the car in reverse and back up, and stop and go, you are almost ready for the real road.

However, it might be a good idea to intentionally stall the vehicle a few times. This will give you familiarity with the car stalling if the clutch comes up too fast or for another reason. Practice approaching a stop, then stall. Then, keeping the clutch depressed and shifter in first gear or reverse, start the vehicle, slowly disengage the clutch and feed the car fuel, and go.

This exercise will prevent panic when the car does stall, and it will give you practice for quickly starting and getting going. Even the most experienced stick shift drivers stall sometimes, so don't feel as though you cannot drive a manual transmission because of it.

The other challenging clutch maneuver is on hills. Motorists should give each other a little extra space on hills, because stick shift vehicles tend to roll back as the driver engages first gear, particularly on a steep hill. The best way to compensate for this is to give the car a little more gas as you get going. Also let the clutch out a little slower. It is good to rev the engine a little higher when shifting up hill, and these should be quick shifts so the car's momentum is not slowed too much.

Working the clutch and shifting gears will become second nature after you have done it for a while. You may even find yourself enjoying the control and excitement of hitting those gears on the open road!

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