How to Drive a Manual Car: The Complete Guide

man shifting the gear on car manual gearbox

In today’s age, the manual car is rarer than it used to be. For a lot of car lovers, this is deeply depressing news. Driving a stick is one of the most fun and liberating experiences you can have behind the wheel. For that reason, we want to spread information about manual cars and teach everyone how to drive one.

In this complete guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know — you don’t need any previous experience. We’ll answer some frequently asked questions, give you a step-by-step guide, and explain how the car works so you can get the best results. We’re going to take things slow so a complete beginner can pick things up and finish the article with the ability to drive a manual car on their own.

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Different Components Between Auto and Manual Cars

The fact that there needs to be a driving guide for manuals should be a good hint that there are some major differences. Since this is a different transmission style, it can be contrasted against a standard automatic transmission.

Different Pedals

You’ll notice the difference between an auto and manual car the second you sit in the driver’s seat and look down. The floor will have three pedals instead of the two you’re used to.

The pedal on the right is the gas pedal. The one in the middle is the brake. The pedal on the left is the clutch.

Manual-transmission-pedals
Manual Transmission – Accelerator, Brake, and Clutch Pedals

Pushing the clutch all the way down will release the assembly’s grip in your transmission. It mimics putting your car in neutral, essentially.

The standard driving position is to have your right foot responsible for the accelerator and gas (just like in a normal car), and have your left foot responsible for operating the clutch. The pedal will be used every time you change gears.

Automatic-transmission-pedals
Automatic Transmission – Brake and Accelerator Pedals

Different Shifter

In addition, you’ll notice a stick with a knob where your gear shifter used to be. Instead of seeing “PRNDL” posted by the shifter, you’ll see “123456R” or some variation.

These numbers correspond with the gear number in your gearbox. The first gear is the smallest gear and the sixth is the largest.

A traditional shifter will be laid out like:

5-speed-manual-transmission
5-speed manual transmission will usually have ‘R’ on the bottom right (typically pre-2000 cars have this)

A “dog-leg” gearbox will have R in the top-left position and every other gear shifted one down the previous list. Your shifter might have 4, 5, 6, or 7 gears but it will typically follow the same pattern.

6-speed-manual-transmission
Most modern manual cars 2000 and up have a 6-speed manual shift knob with ‘R’ on the top left

Small gears take less energy to spin but also provide less torque. In other words, they can easily spin really fast, but their max speed is pretty low. For that reason, first gear is the smallest so it can quickly start your car from a complete stop.

In a lot of cars, you can start from a stop using second or third gear, but you’ll notice that the acceleration is significantly slower. This is entirely due to the size and ratio of the gears being used.

As you speed up to the car’s max speed, you will sequentially step through every gear on that shifter — from 1 to 2, and so on until you’re at the highest number.

While a driver can use both hands on their steering wheel, their right hand will have to be used to shift gears when the time is right (more on this, later).

No “Park” or “Neutral”

There’s no way to “throw your car in “park” if it’s a stick shift. The same is true for neutral in the sense that there’s no designated “N” on your shifter knob.

Of course, your car can still go into neutral and park, or else it wouldn’t be a very good car. There are two ways to get to neutral:

Manual-Shift-knob-neutral
Neutral on any manual car is the horizontal line in ‘Red’ – If you can move the shift knob from left to right, you’re in neutral

Getting to “park” just takes one additional step, deploying the handbrake. In the case of parking, only the first method of getting to neutral will work (disengaging the gearbox). Once in neutral, pull up on your parking brake and you’re good to go.

Keep in mind, a manual car does not have an automatic parking brake when it’s turned off like a lot of automatic cars do. If you turn off your car in neutral, it will roll down whatever slope you’re parked on. Always deploy the parking brake before leaving the vehicle.

You Need to Watch Your Tachometer

The tachometer, also called a rec-counter, revolution-counter, RPM gauge, tach, or tacho, is a very important gauge. It appears on your dashboard near your speedometer.

The sole purpose of a tachometer is to show you how fast your engine is rotating, denoted in the unit “revolutions per minute” or RPMs.

Instrument-Cluster-Tachometer
Highlighted in ‘Red’ is the Tachometer – This will show you when it’s good to shift to the next gear up or down. I usually shift between 2k RPM – 4k RPM. Shifting lower than that range will make your car accelerate slower. Shifting higher will speed you up really quick to the next gear and you’ll hear the engine roar.

Most tachs will denote a single integer and go up by one with a ton of lines between the two. For instance, you’ll see a tacho that reads 1 through 8 and a ton of dashes along the way.

Each of these numbers is multiplied by 1,000 to denote the RPM. If your tachometer is pointing halfway between 3 and 4, your engine is turning 3,500 revolutions per minute.

The tach will rotate clockwise as you drive. It starts from the bottom left and rotates around to the right-hand side.

As a good rule of thumb:

  • 1st gear – up to 10mph
  • 2nd gear – 20 mph
  • 3rd gear – 30 mph
  • 4th gear – 40 mph
  • 5th gear – 50 mph
  • 6th gear (if you have this) – 60 mph

Keep an Eye on the Red Line

On the far right of your tachometer, there will be a red arc. This is called the red line, or redline. It denotes the danger zone of operating your engine.

If your engine revs in the redline for too long, you’ll experience some serious mechanical issues. Essentially, your engine is spinning faster than it can control itself.

Perfectly engineered cars can have a higher redline. For example, a Porsche 918 Spyder redlines at 9,000, RPM and a Ferrari F50 GT doesn’t redline until 11,000 RPM. On average, a consumer car will redline between 5,500 and 7,000 RPM.

Understanding Why Manual Cars Stall (So You Can Drive Them Better)

There’s a fun quirk that shows up in stick shifts — the ability to stall your car. It’s a quick way to spot a rookie on the road, and it’s an immediate way to get every car behind you to start honking at you.

In first gear, you need to use a little finesse to get the car rolling. The engine is rotating even when the clutch is disengaged. The clutch needs to be carefully and slowly released or else the engine will stall.

Popping the clutch is a term that means you quickly release it while you’re in gear. If you pop the clutch in first without giving the car additional gas, the engine will see a large load that it isn’t prepared for.

Manual-transmission-clutch-pedal
When shifting to the next gear – It’s a dance between the accelerator pedal and the clutch. Slowly let your foot off the accelerator and engage the cluster pedal to shift gears. When you’ve shifted to the next gear, slowly ease off the cluster and simultaneously engage the gas (accelerator pedal)

This startling load will cause a mechanical fault in the engine, causing your car to automatically shut off — also called stalling.

In almost every case, stalling occurs from a complete stop into first or reverse gear. Some cars will require you to feather the gas while you slowly release the clutch, and others are okay with just a delicate release of the clutch without gas.

You can also stall by doing the opposite operation. If you come to a complete stop in second gear without depressing the clutch, your engine can stall once you stop.

Stalling at a red light or stop sign is very common, especially for new drivers. When it happens, you need to be prepared and act fast.

What Happens When You Stall?

Stalling is dangerous. You lose engine power and your steering wheel won’t do anything. If a car is about to hit you, this is a recipe for disaster.

Stalling isn’t the end of the world for you or your car. Simply depress your clutch, turn the key in the ignition, wait for the car to fire up, and get back to driving. This time, be slower with your clutch release or give it a little gas.

Why Bother Learning Stick?

There are skeptics out there. A lot of people don’t see why they should bother learning stick shift. After all, their long-living Honda Civic has an automatic transmission and they have no plans in replacing it.

Even for these drivers, we highly suggest learning how to drive stick.

Manual-transmission-woman-shifting

The Purest Driving Experience

As hokey as it might sound, manual cars are the only way to have a true, pure, driving experience. You’re in complete control over every part of the car.

It also unlocks a form of communication between you and the car. As the engine keeps revving, you’ll hear and feel the car asking you to shift to a higher gear. There are subtle cues that tell you to shift without even looking at the tacho.

There’s a reason why most F1, NASCAR, and WRC vehicles don’t use fully automatic transmissions. The level of control you get from a manual is impossible to replicate.

Professional-shifting-gears

Can Drive a Drunk Buddy’s Car in a Pinch

Simply learning how to drive a manual doesn’t mean you’re legally obligated to only own and operate sticks in the future. Like riding a bike, it’s something you can learn, not use for a while, then pick back up when you need to.

For a lot of people, being able to drive a stick is invaluable in a pinch. If someone can’t operate their car for one reason or another, you can step in and save the day. You can drive your buddy’s manual car back from the airport, bar, or their secret second girlfriend’s house easily.

Some Cars Are Only Offered with Manual Transmission

Have you heard of cars like the Porsche Boxster Spyder, Shelby Mustang GT350R, Subie WRX STI, Dodge Viper, or Honda Civic Type R? All of these are gorgeous creations that are incredible cars to look at, drool over, and drive.

If you don’t know how to drive a stick, then the closest you’ll get to any of these cars is a poster on your wall. That’s right, all of these vehicles are available exclusively as a manual.

The same is true for a lot of Classics. Your parents or grandparents probably learned to drive stick because those were the only options back then.

Today, you’ll find plenty of cars that are available as manual or automatic transmission. You’ll also notice a pretty big price difference between the two.

Dodge-Viper-SRT10
Dodge Viper SRT-10

Often, Manual Cars are Less Expensive

If you compare the exact same car in the two different transmission styles, you will probably see a different sticker price. In a lot of cases, it’s a difference of more than a thousand dollars. Why? The added mechanisms and parts in an automatic car come with a pretty big price tag.

Looking at the entry-level 2021 Kia Forte FE, you’ll see a $1,000 difference between their manual and automatic options. Beyond the transmission, they are the exact same car (literally).

It’s Super Fun (Especially in Tunnels or Parking Garages)

We wouldn’t be true car fans if we didn’t mention how fun it is to drive a manual. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to get a permanent smile glued to your face for as long as you’re driving.

Of course, we have to urge you to be responsible as you’re driving. We would also like to urge you to downshift in a tunnel or parking garage and listen to your car scream.

It’s almost like parking garages were built for a little manual car with an aftermarket muffler. Want to make some fun noise while damaging your transmission? While you’re rolling along the street, fully depress your clutch and give your gas pedal a few stomps. Your muffler will shriek without applying additional power to the tires.

Driving-in-the-tunnel.
Downshifting in the tunnel is – pure bliss

Manuals Offer Better Gas Mileage

When you’re done goofing around in the car, check the fuel level. You’ll notice that most manual cars offer better EPA-estimated gas mileage than their automatic counterparts.

The EPA said it’s not true for all cars, but many manuals offer better mileage. On top of that, there’s a quick way to save money on gas that you can’t do in an automatic:

When you’re approaching a stop, put your car in neutral and coast, using your brakes to finally stop. This doesn’t use any extra gas and it quickly adds up.

This of course is determined on you driving behavior. If you aggressively shift when the tachometer is past 4k RPM then you can expect worse gas mileage than what you’d get on an automatic transmission.

Avoid Distracted Driving

The great news for parents is that driving a stick shift dramatically cuts down on any ability for distracted driving. The driver needs to focus on their revs and shifting. All of their hands and feet are occupied at any given time.

This added level of required focus means that they can’t pick up the phone, search around their car for something, do their makeup, or otherwise distract themselves from the road. Even eating is a near impossibility when you’re driving a manual.

On paper, this might seem like a bad thing, but the truth is that it forces drivers to pay attention to the road.

Also Applicable to Riding ATVs or Motorcycles

The concepts used in driving a manual are also used in ATVs and motorcycles. Listening to the engine, using your left foot to shift, and knowing how gears work is imperative skills that are shared.

Simply learning how to drive a manual car also prepares you for driving other vehicles. Sort of like how learning American English prepares you to visit Australia or the UK. That’s a win-win-win in our book.

Motorcycle-manual-shifting
If you know how to drive a manual car, learning how to drive a manual motorcycle will be easier to learn

How to Drive a Manual Car: Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you have a better understanding of how manual cars work, it’s time to present our step-by-step guide. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about physically driving the car. We’ll take you from a turned-off car at point A, to a smiling driver who just arrived at point B.

We suggest trying this guide in a wide-open space. A local parking lot or large driveway is a great place to get started. You definitely want to make sure there are no obstacles in front of you while you’re learning.

Start Your Engines

We hinted at it earlier, but the first step is to start the car. It doesn’t start as an automatic car does.

With your left foot, fully depress the clutch. Use your right hand to make sure the shift knob is in neutral (by jiggling it left to right).

Take your right hand, place the key in the ignition, and turn it clockwise until the engine fully starts.

Manual-transmission-starting-the-car
Make sure your car’s emergency brake is on – proceed to press down on the clutch and turn the ignition on to start the car. Then you can ease off the clutch

Check the Parking Brake

The easiest way to stall and embarrass yourself is to have the parking brake engaged when you’re trying to start moving. With the car on, disengage the parking brake.

If you’re parked on an incline, use your right foot to press the brake pedal so you don’t start rolling away.

Emergency-brake
When the car is started up, disengage the emergency brake

How to Put It “In Gear”

Now you can start moving. Engage the clutch and put the shift knob in either “1” or “R”. This corresponds to first or reverse gear, respectively. Make sure the knob is completely seated in the gear.

If the first gear is in the top-left slot, push the shift knob directly to the left until it goes to the end of its travel, then directly upwards. You should feel the knob seat into the slot and engage the gear.

Manual-shift-knob-1st-gear.

How to Start Moving

In either reverse or first, release the brake with your right foot and hover it over the accelerator — you might need it in a second.

At this point, your left foot should be fully depressing the clutch and your shift knob should be fully seated in 1 or R.

With your left foot, you’re going to do a very slow and controlled motion. You’re going to release the clutch. Your car wants you to release the clutch at a constant rate.

Any jerkiness with your pedal release can result in a stall or a really jerky start. If it was released correctly, you’ll be on your way. If you stall, no sweat — just go back to the “start your engines” section and work through it again.

For older and less powerful cars, you might need to push down on the accelerator a little as you release the clutch. This helps your engine rev a little higher so it’s prepared to accept the gear.

Manual-transmission-clutch-pedal-2

Keep Moving

So, now you’re moving. Pat yourself on the back, you just did the hardest part of driving stick. If you want to keep moving, it’s easy. As long as the clutch is untouched, your right foot is pressing the accelerator, and your shift knob is in gear, your car will move with no problem.

If you ignore the need to shift, this driving experience is no different than an automatic car.

Shift Up a Gear

As you keep accelerating, you’ll need to upshift, which is the term for shifting up a gear. It’s called “up” not because of the position of the shifter, but the number of the gear.

In a lot of cases, the shift knob will physically be moved in a downward direction, but the gear number will go from 1 to 2. With that confusing definition out of the way, let’s get to the fun details.

So, your car is moving and accelerating since you’re pressing the pedal. You can hear your engine get higher-pitched, you’ll notice a higher-frequency vibration through the steering wheel and accelerator pedal, and the tachometer will climb towards the redline.

Manual-transmission-shifting-gears.
Shift based on the speed you’re going. For ex. 20mph is 2nd gear, 3rd gear is 30mph, etc…

You’re getting near the shifting zone. The shifting zone tells you that it’s time to shift up or down a gear. It will differ depending on your car, how fast you’re accelerating, and what type of performance you’re looking for.

When your car hits 3,000 RPM, you’ll start by lifting your right foot off the accelerator. At the same time, use your left foot to fully depress the clutch. From there, grab the shift knob with your right hand and move to the next-highest gear.

Once you’re in gear, release the clutch with your left foot and continue on the accelerator with your right foot.

Your car will now be at a much lower RPM. As you accelerate, the pattern will continue and you’ll keep shifting up.

Gear Speed Cheat Sheet

Knowing when to change gears is really tricky. Here’s our quick cheat sheet. We’re using general figures, but you should do what’s right for your specific car (you’ll learn through trial and error while you drive).

Shifting Down a Gear

Downshifting is the same process, but the opposite way. As you slow down and approach 1,000 RPM, get ready to downshift.

Depress the clutch, you can continue holding the brake, use your right hand to navigate the knob from your gear to one lower gear, and release the clutch pedal slowly.

If you anticipate coming to a complete stop, you don’t need to shift down through every gear. Put the car in neutral and coast to a stop. Again, this can be done by depressing the clutch pedal and holding it or putting the shift knob in the center of the shifter and jiggling it left to right to ensure it’s disengaged.

Manual-transmission-downshifting
Reducing speed requires you to either downshift or put it in neutral and apply the brakes gradually

Driving in First is So Jerky

In lower gears, the car might jerk as you release the gas pedal. This all has to do with the ratio of the gear — in other words, you’re doing nothing wrong.

If you want to reduce the jerkiness, you have two options. Either shift into a higher gear or depress the clutch pedal whenever you release the accelerator. The second option will wear down your transmission quicker, but it’s typically a more comfortable option.

Conclusion

It takes time to get used to a manual transmission car and every car is different in terms of sensitivity when it comes to shifting. You’ll get the feel for it eventually. I usually say one month is sufficient before you get so good you don’t even think about it, and the whole process just happens naturally.

Now you’re an expert at driving a manual car. In our ultimate guide, we explained everything you need to know. Practice makes perfect, so it’s time to hit up an abandoned parking lot and get to work. If you want more car guides, explore our blog. Also, make sure you have the right tools and accessories to keep your manual car going strong forever.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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