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It takes place at the worst possible time. Your manual transmission car starts to shake or hesitate. The engine sputters and then goes silent. You’ve stalled.
It happens to everybody, even folks who’ve been driving stick shift for years. But that’s small consolation when you’ve just pulled out from a stoplight and there’s a line of impatient drivers behind you. If you hear a horn or two from the throng back there, it only adds to your anxiety.
The most important thing is to keep your head and not panic. It takes just a second or two to get the car restarted and on its way. If you rush or become over-anxious there’s a fair chance you’ll stall out again.
Just remember, you haven’t hurt your vehicle, and everybody in line, including you, is going to get where they were going without noticeable delay. Here a few pointers about stalls: what causes them, how to prevent them and what to do if one happens.
How To Avoid Stalling a Manual Transmission Car
The best way to deal with an engine stall is not to stall in the first place. The occasional stall is inevitable, but with good manual transmission practices those stalls will be less frequent.
When you roll to a stop, be sure to disengage the clutch in plenty of time. If you’re approaching the stop in neutral, you already have that taken care of. If you’re in a gear, push in the clutch pedal before the engine starts to hesitate. Even if it does start to shudder, you’re not too late. Push in the clutch pedal immediately, and you’ll slide into the stop with your engine still running.
Be sure to move the shift lever into 1st gear before you start out again.
When to move out from the intersection, use your best clutch control skills. Let the clutch rise to the bite point, where the engine sound changes and the front of the car rises slightly. You can give it just a little gas before you raise the clutch pedal or hold off on throttle until you feel the bite point. Slowly and smoothly release pressure on the clutch pedal and increase it on the accelerator pedal until you’re moving forward in first gear.
You really want to avoid stalling while driving up a hill, which leaves you in a difficult situation. When going uphill, be sure to shift into lower gears in plenty of time. If you feel the engine start to struggle, immediately press the clutch pedal and downshift. Keep shifting all the way down to first if that’s what it takes to keep from stalling.
Why Does a Manual Transmission Car Stall?
An automatic transmission car won’t stall unless there’s something wrong with the car itself. But a stick shift car can stall as a function of the way it works. Remember, your clutch consists of two discs, one connected to the engine and the other to the wheels via the transmission.
When the manual car is in gear and your foot is off the clutch pedal, the clutch is engaged and the two discs come together. For the car to move smoothly, the engine and transmission must have the same RPM. When you slow the car, the engine RPM drops. If you don’t raise that RPM by shifting to a lower gear, the car engine will struggle and eventually stall.
Likewise, when you start from a stop, as you release the clutch pedal and begin to engage the clutch, the engine speed needs to be matched to the acceleration. If it doesn’t keep up, the car will stall.
What Common Driving Mistakes Cause an Automatic Transmission Car To Stall?
The underlying cause for a stall is that the engine has stopped because its RPM has dropped too low. However, there are several typical reasons new stick shift drivers stall their automatic cars:
- Releasing the clutch too quickly. This happens when you release the clutch rather than slowing or stopping at the bite point. Another problem is when you give the car too much throttle and release the clutch quickly, or “pop the clutch,” slamming the clutch discs together. The car may stall, or it may accelerate quickly. This might make you feel like a racer, but it also might put your car in the shop.
- Not providing enough throttle. A lot of new stick shift drivers worry about using too much acceleration and making the car jump. Actually, though, it’s the clutch more than the throttle that governs how quickly you move out. If you raise the clutch pedal smoothly the throttle won’t grab. If you do find yourself taking off too fast, you can always press the clutch down farther to disengage the engine and reduce speed.
- Braking and stopping with the car in gear. For new stick shift drivers, this might be a matter of forgetting. If you slow with the car in gear and don’t use the clutch pedal, sooner or later the engine RPM will drop to the point of stalling. The higher the gear, the higher speed at which the car will stall. Usually the engine will sputter before it dies, and you can recover by pushing in the clutch pedal, better late than never.
- Starting the wrong gear. This can happen when you either forget to put the gear shifter into first or move the gear shift into, say, third gear when you meant to go to first. With good clutch control it’s possible to start in a higher gear, but it’s a lot easier in first.
- Shifting up too soon. As you’re starting from a stop, you need to let the RPM build a little in each gear before moving to the next one. RPM drops when you upshift, and if you upshift too soon, it may drop too low. If you recognize this soon enough, you can recover without stalling by shifting back down.
- Shifting up into the wrong gear. This can come if you’re unfamiliar with the gear box on the car you’re driving. Because of how the gears on the typical manual gearbox are positioned, you’re more likely to go two gears too high, for example to go from first to fourth instead of second gear, or from second to fifth instead of third. Again, if you recognize this quickly enough, you can downshift before you stall.
- Driving uphill in too high a gear. This can be a problem not only with hill starts but also in a moving climb if you’re not in a low enough gear.
In addition to these reasons, you might stall the car on purpose. Why, you may ask, would you want to do that? The answer would be, for practice. If, for example, you’re starting in an empty parking lot, and you release the clutch pedal completely rather than stopping at the bite point, you’ve simulated something that could happen in real on-the-street driving. You can develop the habit of calmly restarting the car and proceeding on your way.
What To Do When a Manual Transmission Car Stalls
As just noted, it’s not a bad idea to deliberately stall in practice situations, so you can teach yourself to stay calm and take the right steps.
Another thing you might practice is getting into a situation where you almost stall, for example, if you shift up into too high a gear or if you brake to a stop with the clutch engaged. In situations like this, in practice or on the road, you can often save yourself simply by pushing in the clutch pedal. That buys you an extra second to take other corrective action, such as shifting to a lower gear or letting the clutch pedal out more slowly.
What To Do When a Manual Transmission Car Stalls As You Stop
If you’re close enough to coast to the stop, the correct action is easy. Just shift into neutral, coast to the intersection and restart the car once you get there. If it looks like you’ll come up short of the intersection, you’ll need to make a judgment about whether to pull over. You can do it if you haven’t lost too much speed. Remember that, when the engine dies, you’ll lose your power brakes and power steering, so don’t try to pull off unless you can do it quickly.
When you restart the car, it’s usually correct to shift into neutral gear. However, iot also works to push the clutch all the way in and start in first. If the engine were cold, you wouldn’t want to start the car in gear before the oil is circulating, but it’s less of an issue when the engine is warm.
What To Do When a Manual Transmission Car Stalls As You Start Moving
You might want to roll down the window and yell at the people honking at you to hold their horses, but if your engine is dead your power windows won’t work. It’s better if you just get restarted and get on your way.
- You can reset your handbrake, although it’s not really necessary if you’re on a flat surface, and it makes for an extra step.
- Hold down the brake pedal.
- Shift into neutral and restart the engine. It also works to start in 1st gear with the clutch depressed. If you do this, make sure it’s all the way down.
- Shift into first with the clutch still all the way down.
- Optionally, give the car a little throttle.
- Raise the clutch pedal to the bite point.
- Slowly and smoothly add gas and release the clutch pedal all the way.
What To Do When a Manual Transmission Car Stalls On a Hill
You're less likely to stall on a downhill, and even if you do, starting up again is no harder than on the flats. Starting up when you're going uphill, however, presents a more difficult problem.
If you’re starting out from a stop sign or stoplight you won’t be able to pull off the road so you’ll have to take care of business right where you are. If you stall while moving (because you didn’t shift into a low gear soon enough), you may have enough momentum to get to the side of the road.
Starting out on an uphill is one of the trickier stick shift maneuvers. It can be easier to use the emergency brake. If your car has the “brake hold” feature, use that. It makes life easier.
- Set the parking brake.
- Shift into neutral.
- Restart the car.
- Depress the clutch pedal and with your right foot ready for the gas pedal.
- Shift into first gear.
- You may give the car just a little throttle, but it’s not mandatory.
- Let the clutch pedal rise until you feel the bite point.
- Release the hand brake and press down gradually on the accelerator pedal. The steeper the hill, the more throttle you’ll need.
- Slowly, completely release the clutch pedal.
These are the same techniques you need to get started uphill in the first place, stalled car or not. It just takes practice to consistently do them successfully. As you get better at uphill starts, you can skip the emergency brake assist and instead move your right foot quickly from the foot brake to the gas pedal when the clutch reaches the bite point.
What To Do When a Manual Transmission Stalls While You’re Moving
This is unusual. Usually a stall will happen while stopping at or starting from an intersection or while climbing a steep hill. However, you could also stall when you upshift too soon or don’t downshift soon enough while slowing.
It’s also possible your car stalled because there’s something wrong with it. This can happen with automatic transmission cars and it can occur with manual cars as well. Maybe there’s a mechanical problem, or possibly the car is just out of gas.
You need to get your car out of traffic and to the side of the road. It’s best to do this quickly, because your power steering and power brakes will stop working. Once you’re off the road, you can evaluate the problem and see whether you can restart it and keep going or whether you’ll have to call for help.
How To Be Confident About Dealing with Stalls in a Manual Transmission Car
The more experience you get driving a manual transmission vehicle, the less likely you are to stall. However, you’ll never become immune. Even experienced stick shift drivers stall from time to time.
The skills you need to recover from a stall are the ones you’ve been working on all along. Specifically, they’re the clutch control skills that enable you to start off smoothly whether you are on a flat surface or a hill.
Some general advice about stalling:
- Practice your clutch control skills until they’re there for you even in a tense situation.
- Practice stalling and restarting in parking lots and on empty roads.
- If it feels like you’re about to stall, press the clutch pedal. Sometimes this will prevent the stall, and it may buy you a second or two to take other action.
If you do stall, don’t panic and don’t rush. If it takes you a few seconds to gather yourself and proceed methodically, that’s fine. If you panic, hurry and stall a second time, that’s not as good. With some practice, you will master stalling in no time at all.