Step-by-Step Guide on Driving Stick Shifts

SEP 05, 2018

Step-by-Step Guide on Driving Stick Shifts -
Let’s fill the gap with Driver Start experts so that you can enjoy time-honored stick shifts like your fathers (or grandpas) did.


While the sales of manual cars in the USA have been decreasing significantly since the 90s, stick shifts are still popular in European and Asian countries, especially in developing economies, which is often explained by the price. Undeniably, vehicles with manual transmission are usually cheaper than automatics, but this is hardly the only reason for choosing a manual car. Experts and auto enthusiasts hold that driving a manual vehicle allows the driver to gain a completely new experience that is appreciated by drivers. They highlight the fact that many powerful sports cars come with manual transmissions and this is done for a reason – you can better feel the car and the speed while gaining full control over the gears. For the same reason, driving a manual car can be safer in winter with its slippery roads, but this also depends on your driving skills.

Besides, some drivers continue to claim that driving stick shifts help significantly reduce fuel costs, though with some of modern automatics this claim is debatable. The same goes for transmissions durability – gone are the days when the standard transmission was much more reliable than self-shifting. However, the cost of stick shift maintenance is usually more affordable, since in manual cars you can often replace only a couple of rather cheap parts instead of replacing the entire unit, as is frequently the case with sophisticated and expensive automatic gearshifts. And there is at least one more reason to favor stick shifts – they are so uncommon in the present-day United States, so many car thieves to ignore them since they are unable to drive these cars.

Well, but this is the point – many good Americans, especially the young people, don’t know how to drive them either. So, let’s fill the gap with Driver Start experts so that you can enjoy time-honored stick shifts like your fathers (or grandpas) did.

Step 1. Learn Your Shift Pattern

How does a stick shift differ from an automatic transmission? Manual vehicles require the driver to choose and shift between gears, while manual vehicles do this without the driver’s direct participation based on current traffic conditions. So, it is needless to say that your first step is to get an insight into the gears and then to discover how to change them (watch this video for a better understanding of the under-the-hood).

Most manual cars come with five speeds plus reverse gear, but your vehicle can actually feature anything from four to six speeds – it’s of no consideration at all since the basics of shifting don’t depend on the number. Nevertheless, something requires an explanation:

  • First gear is designed for starting a car, and thus it delivers the highest torque, sufficient for making the vehicle move.
  • Second gear is the most frequently used in urban traffic where vehicles stop, start, and accelerate all the time – you shift to second gear almost immediately after starting, just after gaining some speed. It is also helpful for driving off-road, up and down steep slopes, and in other rough conditions.
  • Third gear is usually used for further acceleration with a high torque, yet relatively low speed.
  • Fourth and further gears serve to propel your car at a cruise speed.
  • Reverse gear is designed for backing up when parking and maneuvering around obstacles. Note that when shifting to it, you can accelerate faster compared with first speed. However, you should avoid driving in reverse gear for a long time since this can lead to gearbox breakdown.
  • In addition, you have a neutral stick position which means that the engine doesn’t transmit torque to the wheels since their connection is broken. From this position, you can shift to any speed, including reverse.

Now you know what all those speeds are for, but you cannot achieve a fast and smooth selection between the gears without learning your shift pattern. Usually, five-speed gearboxes feature a so-called H layout, with first and second gears to the left, third and fourth speeds in the middle, and fifth and reverse gears to the right, while the neutral position is located between gears. Yet, other layouts can be found in vehicles of different makes and models – some of them are illustrated here. As a manual driver, you should have your layout at the tips of your fingers to select speeds without even looking at your shift knob.  

Step 2. Learn Your Pedals

Now it is time to get yourself familiar with pedals:

  • Clutch pedal. Upon pressing the pedal on your left, a special mechanism in the gearbox allows the car to shift to the necessary speed using the shift knob. However, it won’t be possible until the pedal is pressed to the floor.
  • Gas pedal. The pedal on your right serves to accelerate your car and allows the driver to use the maximum engine torque set for each speed.
  • Brake pedal. This is a central pedal designed for braking, and it works exactly the same as in cars with self-shifting transmissions.

Thus, instead of two pedals coming with an automatic transmission, you get three and the gear stick into the bargain. Now, the main question is how to use them all together – yes, your clutch, gear stick, and throttle should be applied almost simultaneously. But let’s start with getting a sense of the clutch since this is the weirdest thing in your manual car.  

Step 3. Learn Your Clutch

One of the main challenges of standard transmission for novice drivers is finding the so-called biting point – the very moment when the clutch provides the connection between the engine and the drive train, setting your car to a motion. You see, your leg muscles are too big for the fine movements required to feel the biting point, so you may need to train your leg muscles for mastering clutch control.  

Look, how you can do this:

  • With your parking brake on, start the engine and push the clutch pedal to the floor, then begin shifting from the neutral position to first gear. Then start lifting off the clutch smoothly, while listening to your engine – when you hear it dropping, there is the required point. Also, watch your tachometer – it will go down to the point you need to capture. Press the pedal again and then repeat the exercise dozens of times to check you can both hear and see how the engine operation changes at the point. To improve your skills, go over the exercise with the reverse gear.
  • Now you can try to set the vehicle in motion. Engage the brake pedal instead of the parking brake, push the clutch down and put the car into first speed. Then find your biting point, hold it until the engine revs drop, lift off the brake without releasing the clutch and then slowly let the clutch go – if everything is done correctly, your vehicle will move forward held only by the clutch and won’t stop when you remove your foot from the pedal. Stop the car by engaging the clutch and then the brake, guiding the gear stick to the neutral position again. Repeat the exercise a dozen times with first speed and then with reverse gear.       

Upon mastering the clutch control, you will get prepared for another task – adding the gas pedal to the scheme.

Step 4. Learn Your General Scheme

Check your gear stick prior to starting the engine – is it in the neutral position? If it is not, correct the mistake, but never change gears without applying the clutch, since this is a sure way to kill the gearbox before its due time. Also, don’t forget about your brakes: once the engine is started and the car is shifted into a gear, either the parking brake or the corresponding pedal should be applied to hold the vehicle from moving and to avoid an accident.

Now, we have come to the core problem, which many novice drivers find the most difficult in manual vehicles. The task is to remove your right foot from the brake pedal and put it to the throttle, then slowly releasing the clutch, while adding gas gently. Somewhere in the process of releasing the clutch, you will feel that proverbial biting point and see the engine rpm drop (by 100-200 rpm) – now relieve the pressure on the clutch smoothly, at the same time applying more pressure to the accelerator pedal to increase the revs – your vehicle will start moving.

It is highly likely that you will at first experience some problems with releasing the clutch smoothly enough and at the right time, even after going through the training described above. If the clutch is released too early, there is the risk of stalling, so the challenge is to find the balance, working on the pedals very gently. If you notice the signs of upcoming stalling (usually the car begins to jerk), push the clutch pedal a little bit further or hold it where it is a little bit longer. But if you do stall, pull yourself together, get the clutch depressed, engage the brake, and maneuver the gear stick to neutral. Then restart the engine and try again.

Also, avoid revving the engine by adding gas too fast – this can result in the premature wear of mechanical parts. The same negative effect is guaranteed if you fail to apply the necessary pressure to the clutch pedal for pushing it down right to the floor-specific scrape will inform you about the mistake. And it is a bad idea to hold the clutch pedal depressed for more than a couple of seconds since this adds to the wear of your transmission. That’s why experts recommend to set the gear stick to neutral even at traffic lights, as well as to avoid resting your foot on the pedal when it is not used as intended.

Evidently, every beginner needs some practice with this pressing/releasing process, especially since that different vehicles feature more or less responsive clutch levers. And certainly, it is better to practice somewhere in a safe and empty place with a flat surface like a parking lot or back road.

Step 5. Learn When to Shift

Another problem often faced by many novice drivers, operating manual cars, is the lack of knowledge about when to change gears and which gear to choose.

Again, you can learn whether you lock in the right speed by listening to your engine and trying to feel the speed. When the car doesn’t accelerate, and the engine rev sounds rather low, you need to shift to a lower gear, while when the engine gains speed, producing a roaring sound, then you should shift to a higher gear.

However, this is a tricky method for a novice driver, and it is better to focus on your tachometer, showing engine revs. Usually, experts recommend upshifting when the engine reaches 2500-3000 rpm.

Besides, in order to learn when you need to change the speed, you can take a cue from your speedometer. The basic idea is to shift the gear upon gaining every 15-20 mph. However, these figures are rather loose since the more powerful your car is, the higher the figures are.

When your speed decreases, you need to choose a lower gear to avoid stalling. Discontinue the power flow to the wheels by pressing the clutch. Now, downshift and slowly let up the clutch without adding gas. However, you can briefly add gas, while the clutch is pulled, to match the speed of the engine to the speed of the wheels for a smoother transition.    

While practicing your manual operation, don’t forget about driving basics required for passing your road exam – they are the same for both stick shifts and automatics. Go to Driver Start to refresh your memory by undergoing a sample test for your state or download our user-friendly app from App Store or Google Play!