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.