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How to Drive a Stick Shift

A guide to getting into gear with a manual transmission.

Although manual cars are less common these days, it's still helpful to know how to drive a stick shift. 

deineka / Shutterstock

Though cars with manual transmissions, or stick shifts, are a rarity on American roads these days, it’s still worth knowing how to drive them. Not only are stick-shift vehicles generally less expensive than their automatic counterparts, they’re also easier to maintain and cheaper to repair. What’s more, if you’re traveling in Europe, many rental cars are available only with manual transmissions; automatics, when you can find them, are generally more expensive to rent.

The advantages to stick shifts don’t end there. When driven correctly, manual transmissions can give you better gas mileage than automatics, along with more precise control over your vehicle. And because they require you to use both hands, they can make you less prone to distracted behavior, such as fiddling with your cell phone—something you should never do behind the wheel anyway. Of course, there are disadvantages to manual transmissions, too—including a steeper learning curve. Mastering a stick shift takes some stick-to-itiveness. But if you can learn to drive, you can learn to drive a stick.

Before You Begin

Whether you call it driving a manual or driving a stick, the same rules apply. Here’s what you should know before you get into gear:

Get familiar with the footwork.

Cars with manual transmissions have three foot pedals instead of two. The pedal on the left is the clutch, and you control it with your left foot. The center and right pedals are the brake and gas, respectively. You control both of those with your right foot. When you push down on the clutch, you are essentially breaking the connection between the engine and wheels, leaving the wheels to spin at their own momentum. You’ll need to depress the clutch in order to shift gears.

Get used to the gearshift.

In most manual transmission cars, the gearshift, or stick, is located between the passenger and driver seats. The positions of the gears are indicated with numbers, typically 1 through 4 or 1 through 5—depending on the vehicle—with the letter R designating “reverse.” To get familiar with how the stick moves, depress the clutch without turning on the engine and shift your way through the gears. This will give you a feel for the hand movements.

Learn the lingo.

Upshifting: As the term suggests, upshifting means shifting to a higher gear in order to increase your velocity.

Downshifting: This is the opposite of upshifting. You’re changing to a lower gear as you slow down.

Neutral: When your gear shift isn’t in gear, it’s in neutral position. This is where it should be when you start the car.

Stall out: If you release the clutch too quickly while shifting gears, your engine will quit, causing what’s called a “stall out.” When this happens, don’t panic. Shift into neutral, keep your foot on the brake, depress the clutch, and restart the ignition.

RPM: As you get more experience driving a stick shift, you’ll be able to tell when it’s time to shift gears from the sound and feel of your engine. But you can also use the RPM gauge on your dashboard to help guide you. RPM refers to your engine’s revolutions per minute. The numbers on an RPM gauge indicate RPM as a multiple of 1,000, with 1 meaning 1,000, 2 meaning 2,000, and so on. The ideal operating range for most engines is about 2,000 to 3,500 revolutions per minute. RPM gauges have a red area, known as the redline. Exceeding this limit can lead to engine damage, so you want to shift gears before your gauge gets into the red. As a general rule, when the RPM reaches 3,000, it’s time to shift.

A typical gearshift in a manual transmission car. 

Zeljiko Radojko / Shutterstock

On the Road: Step-by-Step Instructions for Driving a Stick

Driving a stick shift calls for some nimble footwork that will likely feel awkward when you’re getting started but will become second nature over time. Follow these steps for an intro course in driving a manual.

  1. To start the car, press the clutch down with your left foot, brake with your right, and turn on the ignition. The gearshift should be in neutral and the hand brake engaged.

  2. With the engine on, release the hand brake. Depressing both the clutch and the brake, shift into first gear.

  3. Slowly release your left foot from the clutch as you begin to gently press the accelerator with your right foot. When the car starts moving, your left foot should release the clutch completely as you continue to accelerate with your right foot.

  4. You likely won’t remain in first gear for long. When you’re ready to change gears (approx. 3,000 RPM), step on the clutch and move the gearshift into the next position. Repeat to shift into the next gear depending on your speed. If you slow down, you’ll follow the same process to downshift.

When you’re first learning to drive a stick, stalling out is common, if not inevitable. If this happens while you’re in the flow of traffic, steer as best you can to the side of the road, out of the path of other cars. If you stall out at a light or a stop sign, you’ll have to stay where you are until you get the engine running again. In either case, do the following: press the clutch all the way down with your left foot while pressing on the brake with your right foot. Shift to neutral. Turn on the ignition to get the engine running again, shift into first gear, and start driving.

More Tips for Driving a Stick

Get a handle on hills.

When you’re driving a stick, hill starts can be tricky, as you risk rolling backwards while shifting into gear. That’s where the hand brake, or parking brake, comes in. When you come to a stop on a hill, engage the hand brake, press the clutch with your left foot and the brake with your right foot. To get moving, release your right foot from the brake and push the gas pedal, applying steady pressure while releasing the clutch and the handbrake simultaneously. Precisely how fast you release the clutch and how much pressure you apply to the gas pedal will depend in part on the steepness of the incline. There’s no substitute for experience. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Give yourself a brake.

No matter what kind of vehicle you’re driving, you should always engage the hand brake when you park. This is especially important with manual transmissions. Leaving a stick shift in gear does not lock the vehicle in place. Engaging the hand brake is a crucial safeguard against your vehicle rolling, all the more so when you park on a hill.

Get a lesson.

Many driving schools offer classes on how to drive a stick, with the vehicle provided to you during the instruction. Research online to find a reputable instructor in your area. 

Teach your kids.

There is a long, proud tradition of parents teaching their kids to drive in empty parking lots, and with good reason. They’re great places to learn. It’s best to do so on a clear day in dry conditions. And it’s a good idea to set up cones or pylons, the better to practice various skills, such as parallel parking or executing three-points turns. Teaching your teen from the passenger seat can be a stressful experience. Do your best to make it fun. Stay calm. Steer away from criticism and focus instead on encouraging words.

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