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Once you’re comfortable slipping the clutch and getting your manual transmission vehicle going in first gear, it’s time to get out on the road and actually start driving. You’ll need to understand and practice shifting your gearbox all the way up to the highest gear and coming back down to first. You’ll have to recognize when to shift and how to know which is the right gear to be in.
How To Shift a Manual Transmission Car Up Through the Gears
If you keep driving along in 1st gear, gradually picking up your speed, it won’t be long before your engine tells you it’s not happy. It will be loud, and the car will feel as if it’s straining. If you glance at the tachometer, you’ll see it’s high, maybe a little over 3,000 RPM, maybe a lot over. It’s time for shifting gears. Here are some tips for upshifting.
- Most of the time, you should be changing gear when the tach is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000. Lower than that, and the engine will hesitate and possibly stall. Higher, and you’re putting undue strain on your engine.
- To complicate matters, you really ought to be looking at the road and not the tachometer. It’s OK to glance down, especially when you’re first getting a feel for the right shifting point. After all, even experienced drivers glance down at the speedometer. Eventually, however, you’ll want to recognize that the car is ready to be shifted.
- To shift into second gear, lift your foot from the gas pedal then disengage the clutch by pressing the clutch pedal to the floor. The action should be firm but not rushed. The RPM will drop and the car will slow, but only a bit.
- While the clutch is disengaged, move the gear stick from 1st to 2nd gear. This should feel like a two-step motion, first moving from first to neutral and then from neutral to second. If you have familiarized yourself with the gearbox in the car you’re driving, you won’t have to look at the shifter knob to do this.
- When the car is in second gear, release the clutch. Pull your left foot up smoothly but not too fast or jerkily. Gradually depress the accelerator pedal as your foot comes off the clutch pedal. It’s OK to release the clutch pedal entirely before you start to accelerate.
- It’s also acceptable to start giving the car throttle just before the clutch is completely engaged. Some drivers will “blip” the accelerator by giving it a brief, light push before the clutch pedal comes all the way up. The increases the RPM to get it close to what it’ll be when you accelerate in the next gear.
- Remember, the clutch has two plates that come together to connect the engine and the wheels. As you release the clutch pedal, you’ll feel a friction point as the plates come into contact just enough to move the car forward. It’s similar to the bite point you felt when you got the car rolling in first gear. At that point you can start applying the gas as you continue to release the clutch pedal.
- If you have the accelerator and clutch pedals pushed down too far at the same time, you’ll hear the engine race. That’s because the engine is working but the clutch isn’t engaged enough for most of its power to go to the wheels. Just release the clutch pedal the rest of the way and you’ll be fine. Release the clutch pedal in a smooth motion; don’t “pop” it.
Most novice stick shift drivers will make some rough transitions as they’re shifting up through the gears. They’ll shift too quickly and try to ram the shift lever into gear before the clutch pedal’s all the way down. They’ll go through the process too slowly, the car will slow too much, and it will jump when they finally press the accelerator.
We’ve all seen movies where a driver stomps the clutch, slams the gear lever into a new gear and mashes the accelerator. It might look cool on the big screen, but it’s not the right way to shift gears.
Aim for a smooth transition. Every motion – the clutch pedal, the gas pedal, the shifter – should be confident but not rushed. Think of your passengers. Ideally, you’d like the change of gears to be so smooth that they barely notice it. Keep practicing and you’ll get there.
The process is the same for shifting from second to third, third to fourth and all the way up to fifth or sixth. It’s a little easier in the higher gears. You’re moving at a higher speed, and there’s more leeway to re engage the throttle and come back up to speed.
When you’re moving from first gear toward your highest gear, there’s no reason to skip gears. No need to go from second to fourth or from third to fifth. It’s possible to do it, but you might struggle to get a car up to speed when the RPM are too low for the speed and the gear you’re in.
How To Shift for Rapid Acceleration in a Manual Transmission Car
The smooth, gradual process described above is ideal for the situation where you have plenty of time to get up to cruising speed.
But what if you have to speed up in a hurry? For example, when you’re merging from a freeway on-ramp. For example, where you’ve turned from a side road onto a highway with traffic moving at high speed.
In these cases you’ll need to “wind it out” by going up to a higher RPM in each gear before you shift. As has been noted, you’re putting more strain and wear on the engine when you do this. But it’s not abuse; you’re making necessary use of the engine to safely do what the car needs to do.
If you do this repeatedly and unnecessarily it causes needless wear, but most people accelerate rapidly only some of the time.
In these cases, take the tach beyond the usual 3,000 RPM. Just don’t let it get all the way to the redline. With experience, you’ll be able to judge how far to go by the sound of the engine.
When you make the actual shift, everything should be faster but still not jerky. Push the clutch pedal quickly without jamming it, do the two-step gear-to-neutral-to-gear stick shifting briskly but without ramming the stick, release the clutch pedal quickly but don’t pop it. Re Engage the gas pedal briskly but don’t push it to the floor.
Avoid winding out your manual transmission vehicle in first or second gear. Try to get to third gear before you start taking the tach to higher RPM.
How To Shift a Manual Transmission Car Down Through the Gears
There are a number of reasons you might want to downshift your stick shift car. You might be going up a hill or accelerating rapidly from a moderate speed. You might be adjusting to slowing traffic.
One of the most common reasons, though, is to go down through the gears one at a time as you slow your car down from cruising in high gear.
Shifting down through the gears isn’t the only way to bring a car down from highway speeds. You can also disengage the clutch, either by shifting to neutral or depressing the clutch pedal, and simply brake to a stop. However, coming down through the gears is an important skill, and there are situations where it’s the best way to slow or stop.
So, now that you’ve taken your car all the way up from first gear to high gear, here’s how you downshift through the gears.
- In high gear, smoothly lift your right foot from the gas pedal. The engine will slow, your speed will drop and the RPM will decrease. If you have plenty of room to stop, RPM can drop about as low as 2,000.
- Depending on how much you’re slowing, you may or may not need to brake. In the higher gears, braking should be gentle and light. The reduced engine speed may slow the car sufficiently.
- Next, press the clutch pedal all the way to the floor. Make sure it’s all the way. The shifter won’t move smoothly unless the clutch is completely disengaged.
- Move the shift lever to the next lowest gear. You should have familiarized yourself with the gearbox in this car before you started driving, so you shouldn’t have to look at the shifter as you move it. As with upshifting, it’s a two-part movement, from the higher gear to neutral and from neutral to the lower gear.
- It’s possible to skip a gear, for example, to go from fourth to second. There are circumstances where it’s OK to do that, but you have to be careful. If you shift to too low a gear, the RPM can jump and the tachometer can go past the redline, which can damage the engine. Never shift from higher gear to first gear unless you’re at or just rolling up to the stop.
- Once you’ve moved the shifting stick, smoothly lift your foot from the clutch. Gently press the gas pedal. You can do this after the clutch is completely re engaged or just before the clutch pedal is all the way released. You’ll feel a friction point at which the clutch reengages just enough for the engine to move the wheels. That’s when you can re engage the throttle.
- Some people advocate giving the accelerator a “blip” if you press the gas pedal before the clutch is fully engaged. This more quickly brings the RPM up to where you’ll be driving when you’re in the new, lower gear.
- It's also possible to shift down through the gears not using the gas pedal at all but with a steady application of the brakes only.
- Follow the process, gear by gear, until you get all the way down to second gear. Normally, you won’t shift into first gear until you pull up to the stop or actually some to the stop. The exception would be if there's a situation, such as stop and go traffic, where you’re going to have to drive at creepy-crawly speed.
If you have time for a gradual stop, wait a second of two between downshifts. As with upshifts, you’re looking for a smooth transition. Ideally, your passengers will barely notice when you change gear.
If you find yourself too close to a stop sign, stoplight or stopped car in front, go ahead and apply the brake, just as you would with an automatic transmission car, and don’t worry about going through all the gears. Just disengage the clutch by pressing the clutch pedal or shifting into neutral and come to a stop or to whatever low speed is required.
How To Use Engine Braking Shifting Down Through the Gears in a Manual Transmission Car
Any time you slow down with the clutch engaged, you are using engine braking. The lower engine speed applies less power to turn the wheels. Your engine breaks even more when you shift to a lower gear.
Sometimes you’ll need this extra engine braking from downshifting. While you can downshift an automatic transmission, it’s much easier and more natural in a manual transmission vehicle.
You can slow your vehicle in less time by downshifting before the tach is down to the 2,000-3,000 range. You’ll hear the engine slightly over revving and you’ll feel a fairly quick deceleration of the vehicle. The needle on the tachometer will jump. If it goes to the redline, immediately shift back into neutral and let the car and engine slow before going back into the lower gear.
Use the technique only when shifting into one of the middle gears, into third or fourth (or fifth if your car is a six-speed). Avoid shifting at high RPM into second, and don’t ever do it into first.
When To Shift in a Manual Transmission Car
Once you’re comfortable getting up and down through the gears, you can refine your understanding of when you should shift.
When you first start shifting through the gears, there will be times when the engine over revs. You’ve waited too long to shift to a higher gear or shifted too soon to the lower one.
There might be times when the car seems to lack power or even hesitates. You’ve upshifted too soon or slowed too much without downshifting.
Here are some guidelines for when to shift as you’re bringing the car up to speed. Note that these are general guidelines that apply to most cars but not all. Also, go to a little higher speed in each gear if you need to accelerate more quickly.
- Shift from first to second almost immediately. It should be rare to drive in first. The exception is extremely slow traffic or stop and go traffic. In these cases you’ll usually be using the clutch control you’ve learned.
- Second gear is suitable for speeds up to 15-20 MPH, and there are a few situations where you might drive in second gear, such as parking lots, school zones and streets where children are playing. Second is the preferred gear for making slow turns such as 90 degree turns in city driving.
- At 15-20 MPH, shift into third. You can drive up to about 30 MPH in third. You might do some town and city driving in third gear, especially when there isn’t much distance between stop signs or stop lights.
- At about 30 MPH shift into fourth. Fourth gear is often a good choice for driving in business or residential districts.
- Once you get up to about 40 MPH shift into fifth gear. If fifth is your high gear, you’ll be in fifth most of the time, not only on freeways and highways but also on through streets in cities and towns where you can maintain a speed of about 40 or higher.
- If your car has a sixth gear, it’s an overdrive gear meant for highway speeds. Shift to sixth if you’re driving 55-60 MPH and expect to be at least at that speed for a while.
Use the same MPH guidelines when coming back down through the gears. Shift from sixth (if you have it) to fifth when you’re no longer going to be driving at highway speeds. Downshift to fourth around 40 MPH and to third around 30 MPH and second around 15-20. Be cautious of shifting into first. Normally you go to first only when you’re coming to a stop.
It bears saying one more time that these speeds are guidelines and your car may be a little different.
How To Shift Through Turns in a Manual Transmission Car
Often you have to come to a complete stop when making a turn. In those cases you need to put the transmission in first gear. However, turns where you don’t have to stop can be done in a second.
- Be in second gear before you go into the turn. You can get there by shifting down through the gears until you reach second.
- Alternatively, you can brake toward the turn with the clutch disengaged, that is, with the shifter in neutral or the clutch pedal depressed. In this case, just before you reach the turn, shift into second.
- Softer turns may be made in third gear. Examples are turns of less than 90 degrees, and turns from one major highway to another where traffic is moving through briskly.
- Try to do all your slowing and braking before you reach the turn. It’s best to have your foot on the gas pedal, giving just a bit of throttle, as you actually turn. Accelerate out of the turn and then go up through the gears the way you normally would.
It’s also possible in some cases to leave the clutch disengaged all the way through the turn, but you have much less control when you do this. You lose the traction of the engine applying power to the wheels.
How To Shift Through the Gears in Inclement Weather in a Manual Transmission Car
Just as with an automatic transmission car, driving a manual car in bad conditions requires more caution. You need to drive slower and be prepared to slow even more or stop at any time. Rain and snow mean low visibility and water, snow or ice on the road, making traction more difficult. Fog is more dangerous than you might think. Not only are there visibility issues, but remember that fog is made of water droplets. Surfaces are likely to be wet.
In addition to the common sense advice to drive slower and leave plenty of room, several principles of gear selection apply in bad weather conditions.
- Tend to use a lower gear. Wait longer to shift when upshifting and shift sooner when downshifting. The higher RPM gives you better traction and control.
- Keep the clutch engaged as much as possible, especially when downshifting. In dry conditions it’s OK to slow down by braking with the stick shift in neutral or the clutch pedal depressed. If roads are wet, however, it’s better to keep the extra traction you get when the engine is connected to the wheels.
- Slow even more than normal through curves and turns, and use the lower gears to maintain control.
With effective downshifting, driving a stick shift car in challenging weather can be safer and easier than driving an automatic.
Shifting the Gears Going Uphill in a Manual Transmission Car
It’s easier to climb a hill when the car is in a lower gear. There's more power to the wheels. Sometimes an automatic transmission car will downshift for you once you’re on the hill. However, it rarely does exactly when you’d like. With a manual transmission you choose when to downshift.
Keep your manual transmission car in its cruising gear as you approach the hill. If you can safely do so, increase the speed a little.
If you maintain the same gear and the same accelerator pressure, you’ll feel the car lose power as you begin to climb. At that point, dropping to the next lower gear will increase your RPM and give you the power to maintain your climb.
If it’s a long or steep hill, and you feel yourself losing speed in this lower gear, it’s OK to drop down one more gear. Be sure not to drop to such a low gear that the tachometer redlines.
Don’t go down to second unless your speed drops down to around 20-25 MPH, and don’t shift into first unless you have to come to a stop or near stop.
Shifting the Gears Going Downhill in a Manual Transmission Car
Signs on mountain downhills advise truckers to use lower gears, and that’s good advice for anyone on a downhill. Also, it’s easier advice to follow in a manual transmission car than in an automatic car.
If you maintain your cruising gear or other higher gear on a downhill, you may find yourself “riding the brakes.” On one long downhill or repeated shorter downhills the brakes can overheat and lose their stopping ability.
You can preserve your brakes by using your manual transmission to shift to lower gearing. You can use engine braking to give your hydraulic braking system some help.
Use both types of braking, but use the foot brake lightly and sparingly. If you find you’re pushing hard on the brake pedal, it’s time to move to a lower gear. Press the clutch pedal and shift. As you release the clutch, you can give the gas pedal a little “blip” to bring up the RPM, but that’s not critical. You also can keep your right foot on or above the brake pedal.
Long descents often have curves. It’s good to downshift before you actually reach the curve. Normally you want to keep giving the car a little gas going into the curve and start accelerating as you get about halfway through, but if you’re going down a severe enough hill that may not be possible.
There’s a temptation to leave the clutch disengaged and let the car coast downhill, but that deprives you of traction and requires you to shift back into a gear when you need to accelerate. Besides, this kind of downhill coasting is illegal in many states.
How To Shift a Manual Transmission Car Through Curves
The basic principles of driving through curves are the same whether you’re operating a manual car or an automatic car. Slow down before you go into the curve, use your accelerator to maintain your speed early in the curve and increase the throttle about halfway through to accelerate out of the curve. A stick shift makes it easier to do these things.
On a highway curve that’s severe enough to make you slow your car, drop down one gear before you come into the curve. If you have to brake, do so while you’re still on the straightaway. Time your shift so that it’s complete and your right foot is on the accelerator pedal before you actually start to turn.
For maximum control, continue to apply some throttle going into the turn. A little more throttle will take you to the outside of the curve and a little less will keep you on the inside.
At about the halfway point, as you’re unwinding the steering wheel, increase your acceleration. Shift back to the higher gear as you return to your straightaway speed.
How To Shift Gears in a Manual Transmission Car While Passing
Most of the time, when you need to pass, you’re driving in your highest gear. Sometimes it’s best to stay in that gear to pass, while other times it’s better to shift down one gear.
The lower gear will increase your RPM and give you quicker acceleration, which may or may not be necessary.
If you’re passing on a multi-lane freeway such as an interstate, it will less often be necessary to downshift. If you’re on a two-lane road, there’s likely to be more urgency to downshift, accelerate quickly and get around expeditiously.
If your RPM is toward the low end of the range, around 2,000, consider a lower gear. If you’re cruising in high gear in a six-speed, be more inclined to downshift than if you’re driving a five-speed.
If you do shift, shift to the lower gear before or as you pull out to pass. When you reach the point where you’re no longer accelerating, shift back to the higher gear.
Takeaways: Shifting Through the Gears in a Manual Transmission Car
Now that you understand how and when to shift, you’re ready to go out and start driving in all situations. Here are a few points to remember.
- Aim for a brisk yet smooth transition between gears.
- If the engine is loud and the tachometer is nearing redline you may be in too high a gear.
- If the car is slow to react when you add throttle, you may be in too low a gar.
- Tend toward a lower gear for uphills, downhills, wet roads and situations where you need to accelerate quickly.
With practice, driving a stick shift becomes as natural as driving automatic. With the opportunities for better traction and easier engine braking, you may even find you prefer it.