When you’re driving an automatic transmission vehicle and you need to stop, there’s not much to think about. Depress the brake pedal smoothly and the car will stop smoothly. A car with a stick shift can come to a smooth stop as well, but it takes a little more attention.
Stopping a Manual Car VS. Stopping an Automatic Car
If you’re stopping a manual car, and you use only the brakes, the way you do with an automatic, you’re going to be disappointed in the results. As soon as your speed drops too low for your gear, the engine will hesitate and the car may jerk. Eventually it will stall. Even if you make it all the way to the intersection, you’ll stall when you come to a stop.
To stop a stick shift car, you have to use the shifter and the clutch in addition to the brake pedal.
The Similarities Between Stopping a Manual Car and an Automatic Car
Manual or automatic, the same precautions and safety principles apply: brake gradually, don’t stop suddenly unless you have to, allow plenty of room between you and the car ahead, expect to take longer in wet or icy conditions, use extra caution on a downhill.
After all, the braking systems are the same. Manual or automatic, you release the accelerator pedal and depress the brake pedal, and the brake calipers stop the rotors with the brake pads. Both types have an emergency brake, although there’s sometimes a handbrake in a different position on a manual transmission vehicle.
Expect stopping distance to be the same. A nitpicker might say a manual transmission car stops a few feet shorter because it weighs slightly less. But you don’t notice a difference in stopping time if you’re driving with an extra passenger or two, and you won’t notice the manual vs. automatic difference either.
How Stopping Manual and Automatic Transmission Are Different
When you brake an automatic transmission car, it automatically helps you (pun intended). It shifts to lower gears as you slow down by letting up on the gas pedal or applying the brake. Most significantly, when you come to a complete stop, the engine keeps running, whether you take any action or not.
A manual car will stay in the gear you started braking in. If you want to be driving in a lower gear, you have to do the shifting yourself. If you push the brake pedal but leave the clutch engaged by keeping your foot off the clutch pedal, eventually the car will be going too slow for the gear, and your manual car will stall. This is especially bad if you’re at higher speeds. Stalling out when in 4th or 5th gear on the highway could be catastrophic.
An automatic car is unlikely to stall when you stop (unless there’s something wrong with the vehicle). Unless you do something to prevent stalling out, a manual transmission vehicle will stall.
To keep from stalling when stopping in a manual transmission, you have a few options to pick from. You can disengage the clutch, either by pushing in the pedal or shifting to neutral, or you have to take the shift lever through the gears to match the gear to the engine speed. An automatic does this gear matching for you.
An advantage of manual transmission is that you can better take advantage of engine braking. This is when you slow the engine to slow down the car, often by shifting to a lower gear. With engine braking there’s less force to the wheels and less work and less wear for the brakes. With practice, you can slow the car considerably before you touch the brake pedal. It’s true that you can also move to a lower gear in an automatic, but it’s a less natural action and not all automatics make it easy to drop just one gear.
Common Problems When Learning to Stop a Manual Transmission Car
When you’re starting out as a manual transmission driver, it can be difficult to remember everything you need to do to stop your vehicle. There are several mistakes common to beginners.
- Forgetting to depress the clutch pedal. If you slow down without pressing the clutch, the engine will eventually reach a low enough speed that it will hesitate and stall.
- Forgetting to release the clutch pedal. If you’re in neutral, the clutch is already disengaged and pushing the pedal creates wear for no reason. If you’ve just shifted from a higher gear to a lower gear, you don’t get the braking benefit of that lower gear until you release the clutch pedal.
- Not completely releasing the clutch pedal. The pedal should be either all the down or not touched at all. Partially pressing the pedal is known as “riding the clutch” and causes needless wear.
- Not using the clutch pedal when shifting. Usually you can get away with pushing the driving stick without clutching, but it’s hard on the clutch and can even lead to transmission repair.
- Getting distracted. There’s more to think about with a manual transmission. You’re moving a hand from the steering wheel to the manual gearbox and possibly moving your eyes as well. You still need to pay attention to what’s happening on the road around you. That’s why it’s important to practice until stick shift braking doesn’t take all your attention but becomes as natural and comfortable as stopping an automatic.
What Are the Techniques for Stopping a Manual Transmission Vehicle?
There are three situations in which you'll have to stop your manual transmission car, depending on which gear you are in.
How To Stop a Manual Transmission Car
When stopping your manual car, your choices are:
- Brake in your current gear.
- Brake in neutral.
- Downshift while braking.
There are variations within these, and you might even use some combination of the three.
A lot of experts give advice on which to use. They’ll tell you that their way is the only right way and the others are wrong. Take this sort of advice with a grain of salt. The best way to brake is the one that safely stops your vehicle. All of them do this.
The first two, the ones that don’t involve downshifting, are easier for beginners.
How To Brake in the Current Gear
To do this, move your right foot from the accelerator pedal to the brake pedal and gently depress that pedal until the car comes to a stop. With an automatic transmission, some people brake with the left foot, but you’ll need that foot free to work the clutch pedal.
If you have plenty of room to brake, you may remove your foot from the gas pedal and let the car slow before pushing the brake. This allows the slowing engine to slow the car, using engine braking, before the brakes take over.
At some point you’ll need to press the clutch pedal so the car doesn’t stall. One variation is to press the clutch pedal the same time you step on the brake or immediately thereafter. The other is to let the car slow until your speed drops to where you’re going too slow for the gear you’re in.
How do you know when that is? If the engine starts to hesitate, it’s a little past the best time, and you must press the clutch now. Another way to know is to keep an eye on the tachometer. When it gets close to 1,000 RPM, it’s time to either shift or press in the clutch pedal. The drawback of this, of course, is that watching the tachometer takes your eyes off the road. The good news is, after doing this enough times, you’ll have a feel for the right time to disengage the clutch.
Advantages of Shifting in Current Gear
The advantages of shifting in current gear are:
- Most beginners find it easy. There’s not much new to think about. The only difference between this and an automatic is that at some point you have to depress the clutch pedal.
- Wear on the clutch is low, especially if you let the car slow before you press the clutch pedal. While keeping the pedal down for long periods (e.g., while waiting for a red light to change) wears a part called the throw-out bearing, there’s less wear than with multiple shifts. (This advantage is true only if you press the pedal all the way in and don’t leave the clutch partially engaged.)
Disadvantages of Shifting in Current Gear
There are a few disadvantages to shifting in current gear.
- It doesn’t take full advantage of engine braking and increases wear on the breaks. When you slow the car or shift to a lower gear, the reduced speed of the motor reduces the amount of work the brakes have to do.
- While clutch throw-out bearing wear is low, there is some when compared to the next method, which is braking in neutral.
- Once you disengage the clutch, you have less control of the car. When you depress the clutch pedal, you lose some of your traction. You won’t feel as much in command if you’re rounding a curve as you stop. If the light changes and you want to accelerate, you’ll have to find the right gear to do so.
How To Brake in Neutral
With this technique, you shift into the neutral position and then brake the same way you would an automatic. When you see it’s time to slow down, depress the clutch pedal, move the gear shifter to neutral, and then move your right foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal. Once you’re in neutral gear, take your foot off the clutch and keep it off.
Brake smoothly and slow to a stop. In a way, it’s the same as the first method: you’re disengaging the clutch and using only the brakes to stop the car. The difference is that you get to rest your left foot.
Some people brake an automatic transmission car using their left foot. It’s certainly possible to do this with a manual transmission once you’re in neutral. However, it’s awkward because of the closeness of the pedals, and it’s a movement that contradicts what you’re training your feet to do as you learn stick shifting. And you don’t get to rest your clutching foot.
You can shift into the neutral position just before you brake, as you are braking, or after you’ve starting applying pressure to the brake pedal.
Be aware that coasting to an intersection in neutral is illegal in some states.
Advantages of Braking in Neutral
Some advantages of braking in neutral include:
- Most beginners find it easy. You have to depress the clutch pedal and put the gearshift in neutral, but once you’ve done that, it’s the same process as stopping an automatic.
- There’s virtually no wear on the clutch. You have only one shift, into neutral, and after that the clutch gets no more use.
Disadvantages of Braking in Neutral
Some disadvantages of braking in neutral are:
- It’s illegal in some states.
- This takes no advantage of engine braking. Once you shift to neutral, the engine is disconnected from the axle and you’re coasting. All the work is done by the brakes.
- Once you disengage the clutch, you have less traction and less control of the car. You won’t feel as much in command if you’re rounding a curve as you stop. If the light changes and you want to accelerate, you’ll have to find the right gear to do so.
- There can be a tendency to mentally disengage when all you’re doing is pressing the brake pedal. One of the advantages of stick shifting is that is helps keep your concentration on what you’re doing.
How To Downshift While Braking
With this method, you go back down through the gears in the opposite direction from when you accelerated. As an example, say you’re driving a 5-speed and you’re in fifth gear at highway speeds.
- Take your foot from the accelerator. As with the other methods, you may brake immediately or let the car slow before applying the brake.
- As you brake, use the feel of the car or the tachometer to decide when you’re going too slow for fifth gear. Then depress the clutch pedal, move the stick shift to fourth, and release the pedal.
- Repeat the process going to third and then second gear. There’s no need to go all the way from second gear to 1st gear. As you come to your complete stop, push the clutch pedal to avoid stalling.
Here are things to remember as you go down through the gears.
- Don’t rest your hand on the gear shift lever. The weight of your hand can put pressure on the shifter and even wear the transmission.
- Take your foot completely off the clutch pedal whenever you release it. Partially engaging, or “riding,” the clutch causes needless wear. Best to rest your foot next to the pedal between shifts.
- With most cars today it’s okay to drop two gears, e.g., to go from fourth gear to second gear. Make sure that’s okay for your car before you do it.
- The method generally isn’t worth the effort for low-speed stops. If you’re driving at town speeds in third gear, use one of the other methods.
- Just because you start with this downshifting method, you’re not committed to it. For example, you can downshift from fifth to fourth then slow to a stop with another method rather than dropping all the way to second gear.
While this involves more skill than the other methods, there’s a level of satisfaction in braking this way. You’re more in control, and you feel more in control. It’s good practice and will increase your overall proficiency as a stick shifter.
Advantages of Downshifting While Braking
You may choose to downshift while braking because it:
- Takes maximum advantage of engine braking and minimizes wear on brakes. As you move the car to a lower gear, the engine slows, and the brakes have less force to overcome.
- Allows the most control. There’s maximum traction when the car is in gear. If you have to steer, shift or do any other maneuver you’re ready to do so.
- Provides a level of satisfaction. Not only are you in control, but there’s also a feeling of mastery. As you get better at changing gears to the point where you can do it without much concentration, you’ll feel good about yourself. You may even impress your passengers.
Disadvantages of Downshifting While Braking
Some disadvantages of downshifting while braking include:
- Takes more skill and practice than the other techniques. If you shift down too soon you’ll race the engine (not a pleasant sound or feeling), and if you shift too late you risk stalling.
- Produces wear on the clutch. When done properly, that’s normal and acceptable wear and tear. But when you clutch too long or release the clutch too slowly, that’s wear that can shorten the life of your clutch.
Which Stick Shift Braking Technique Is Best?
In conclusion, there really isn’t a right or wrong way when it comes to braking in a manual car. As you become more experienced with driving your manual transmission, you may find yourself varying techniques depending on the situation. The downshifting method, shifting gears downward as you slow, is more suited for gradual stops from moderate to high speed, and it puts you more in control. But if you’re not going fast, downshifting may not be worth the bother.
The extra control of the downshifting method can come in handy on wet or slippery roads. Also, the more accustomed you become to downshifting, the more naturally you’ll downshift to get that extra traction in bad weather, whether you plan to come to a complete stop or not.
Which costs less? The downshifting method, where you shift back down through the gears as the car slows, produces more wear on the clutch. The other techniques wear more on the brakes. Brake pads are cheaper and easier to replace than clutches, but you do brake jobs on a regular basis, and clutch replacements are much less frequent. It’s worth noting that no method of stopping, practiced properly, is abusive to clutches or brakes. These parts are doing what they’re made for. It’s not as if you’re repeatedly slamming the brakes or riding the clutch.
The important thing is to stop. If you know more than one way to stop, you’ll be a better manual transmission driver.