Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission


  • Karl Brauer and Julie Sun

    Karl Brauer and Julie Sun

    After having to pay $2,000 for a new clutch and flywheel, Edmunds employee Julie Sun turned to Editor in Chief Karl Brauer for some guidance on the correct way to drive stick. | March 18, 2010

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Nowadays, driving a stick shift has become a lost art form as more and more people opt for the convenience and ease of an automatic. Unfortunate, considering how fun driving a manual transmission car is; you really get a sense of man-and-machine symbiosis when you master the manual transmission. And there's nothing like some good heel-toe action.

But the few who do learn manual shifting usually don't pick up the skills from a driving school; rather, they got schooled by their bored Uncle Joe or their theoretically more experienced best friend — who started driving a manual transmission just last summer. This gets you by, but if performed incorrectly you can still cause costly damage to your car over time.

Case in point: Julie Sun, an Edmunds employee, who owns a 2002 Audi A4 and who has been driving a stick-shift car for ages. She recently discovered that, because of incorrect clutch and shift habits, she now has to pay $2,000 for a new clutch and flywheel.

Fortunately, Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer was kind enough to take young Julie out in his Ford GT and teach her the myths of the stick shift to avoid future grief and service payments.

Myth #1: It's OK to constantly "ride" the clutch. If there's a philosophical way to think about how to treat your clutch, this could be it: Whenever the clutch pedal isn't all the way up or all the way down, you're putting wear on your clutch. Picture a big red light mounted on your dashboard. Whenever the clutch pedal isn't fully depressed or fully released the light is on, and your goal is to keep the light off.

That's a general way you might think about how to drive a manual transmission vehicle. In truth it's OK to spend a second or two in the process of pressing or releasing the clutch pedal (you certainly don't want to treat it like a light switch), but in general the less time spent in this transitional period the better.

Myth #2: Use the clutch to hold your car in place on steep hills. If you're stopped on a slight incline you must use the brake to keep the car from rolling backward. If you're worried about rolling back between the time you release the brake pedal and engage the clutch you can "cheat" by pulling the emergency brake. Don't fully apply the E-brake unless you're on a really steep hill. Instead, just use enough E-brake to keep the car from rolling backward. Then engage the clutch when traffic allows and pull away from the stop, being sure to release the E-brake as soon as you start moving forward. The most important rule, however, is never use the clutch to hold your car in place while waiting on an incline. Doing this will burn out that imaginary red light on the dash — as well as really burn out the clutch.

Myth #3: Use the clutch to save your brakes. The clutch can theoretically be used as a braking device when slowing down, but this is more trouble than it's worth. First, if you're using the clutch to slow a car to "save your brakes" you better be really good with the clutch. If you're not smooth in your downshifting you'll be putting extra wear on the clutch.

Anyone want to guess which components cost more to replace — brake pads or a clutch plate? You're better off just pushing the clutch pedal in and leaving it in, and/or shifting to neutral, when slowing down in a manual-shift vehicle — especially if you aren't extremely smooth at downshifting. If you are smooth at downshifting and you feel like going through the trouble, you can constantly downshift and release the clutch as you slow down. But even doing that action smoothly won't make your brakes last appreciably longer.

Myth #4: It's impossible to be perfectly smooth when engaging the clutch. Always try to learn exactly where the clutch pedal is when the clutch starts to engage. You can practice this in a parking lot, and once you are familiar with it you can use this knowledge to make every shift smoother. This will add confidence to your ability to stop and start on an incline, and it will make downshifting easier, because you can quickly let the clutch pedal go from the floor to the area in the pedal travel where the clutch actually starts to engage (it's different on every car). Once you get to that point quickly you can then modulate the speed at which the pedal is released to achieve a smooth engagement. This is how you can keep from rolling back on an incline without using the E-brake.

Myth #5: It's normal for the car to lurch when downshifting. When you do downshift (without coming to a complete stop) it's important to "rev-match." This means raising the engine's rpm as you release the clutch to more closely match your vehicle's engine speed to the rear-wheel speed. Again, this is only important on downshifting. As you accelerate and upshift you don't have to worry about rev-matching. By giving the engine just a bit of throttle when you downshift you can make the clutch engagement smoother, which reduces clutch wear and head bobbing on downshifts.

If you get really good at rev-matching you can even try heel-and-toe downshifting, which is what racers use to get the smoothest downshifts, and the best lap times, around a road course. Heel-and-toe shifting is actually a whole other article, but in short you must apply both the brake pedal and the gas pedal simultaneously, thus slowing the car down and rev-matching the engine to rear-wheel speed — all at the same time. This can be accomplished by carefully placing your right foot on the brake pedal and the gas pedal.

But for the sake of your clutch, and the safety of your fellow drivers, please don't try heel-and-toe shifting until you've fully mastered the basics mentioned above!

Comments

  • This stuff I never knew, but passed on the downshift method to three kids so far, damn! I sent them this site's URL and hope it helps.

  • marlon96 marlon96 Posts:

    I have a remark on your third point: There are other reasons for downshifting, other than saving your brakes. While I agree that one that can't properly downshift will kill the clutch, I think you shouldn't be driving a MT if you can't downshift properly, period. Apart from that, unclutching to brake lenghtens your braking distance, and lessens your control over your vehicle, which can be quite important for young drivers. And, before tarting about costs, you may want to think about this: A car with a busted clutch will not start. A car with busted brakes will not stop. In what situation are you most likely to walk away unharmed? (I didn't count the handbrake here, while it's certainly a decent safety measure, I think that, when present with broken brakes, few people would react in time, myself included) That said, I think that people that want to use a MT, need to pass a test for it. Those people will not bust their clutch so easily, and it will cause less conflicts with car dealers claiming you broke the clutch because you can't use it.

  • I've been an automatic driver for a long time. Looking forward to the 'fun' of a manual, just bought a 2012 . I had no problems shifting gears 2-5 and reverse. My car really likes to shift at 2000 rpm. Rev it up past that, then clutch until back to 2000 and release. Easy. What I did not immediately realize was that the car also liked 2000 rpm when shifting from neutral to 1st. That little tactic has eliminated the stalls at stoplights. In my car, no accelerator is required for reverse, just let the clutch out and it goes. I had to learn to give the stick a little shake in neutral when shifting from reverse to first. That makes a smoother transition and that the reverse collar is fully released. Coast to a stop with the clutch in, braking when necessary. My car stalls at 0 mph when I apply the brakes to a full stop without using the clutch. The car can restart while in still in 1st. 'Park' is the hand brake. I've had the car for a week and learning to drive it has been like playing with a new toy. The magic number for my car is 2000 rpm. That probably varies with different models.

  • RE: Myth #3- Using the clutch (actually the engine) for braking also puts tremendous stress on the connecting rods & the rest of the reciprocating assembly. You think replacing the clutch is expensive? Try rebuilding/replacing the engine!

  • If you have trouble starting from a standstill on steep hills and/or live in an area where there are a lot of hills, a roll control device (aka: line lock) utilizing an electric solenoid actuated hydraulic valve, can be installed to lock the brakes at the touch of a (momentary release) button. When engaged, the brakes are locked until the button is released. Line locks have been used for several decades on drag-racing vehicles to lock the non-driven wheels to facilitate a power "burn-out" to heat the driven wheel tires.

  • acorneli acorneli Posts:

    I learned to drive a m/t as a teenager and have not owned one for many years . However my husband recently purchased a brand new car with a m/t and its like riding a bike , once you learn it stays with you. Fun to drive however I still prefer the ease of an automatic.

  • truthsmiles truthsmiles Posts:

    Actually, keeping the clutch pushed all the way in does wear the clutch - but just a different parts called the throwout bearing and clutch fingers. I would amend the advice slightly to say that, yes, when you need the clutch, make sure it's pushed all the way in or completely released. However, if you won't need the clutch in the next 2-3 seconds, shift to neutral and release the clutch.

  • ncrider ncrider Posts:

    OK, I have major issues with this article. I've been driving both sticks and automatics for years, and while both have their pros and cons, I've almost always obtained better gas mileage than the sticker estimates, especially with manual transmissions. Case in point, I own a 2011 Kia Sorento base with the I4 engine 6-speed manual. Sticker estimates are 20 city, 27 highway mpg. On the highway I almost always average between 31 and 33mpg. City driving around 24. Contrast that to the gas mileage estimates for the automatic which are 21/29. I drove a Kia Sorento I4 automatic for 1 week and never got over 28mpg. City driving was about the same as the stick at around 23-24mpg. I've always done better than the sticker estimates with manual transmission car, but only occasionally with automatics, and that's after owning and driving over 50 cars to date. Regarding greater wear on the engine rotating parts due to downshifting that was made by one commenter, I say hogwash! Sure if you downshift at too high of RPMs and cause the engine to rev too high, than sure it could be a problem, but normal downshifting does not cause greater engine wear. I've had several manual transmission cars that had well in excess of 100,000 miles and had no tell-tale signs of wear (knocks, ticks, or other engine noises). In fact, the only 2 cars that ever developed engine issues (bad rod bearing in one, bad wrist pin in the other) were both automatics. So in my driving experience of 38 years, I'd have to say manual transmissions have done well be me. I do enjoy the convenience of an automatic sometimes, and I certainly prefer them for pulling a trailer, but overall manuals have provided better gas mileage, not to mention have done better by me in snowy or icy road conditions.

  • jeah6 jeah6 Posts:

    Now if they'd only stop phasing out MT cars we MT fans would have something to drive!

  • roto2 roto2 Posts:

    Yeah, I'm no longer a manual fan. But I drove many cars for many years with one. At least for me, the truth is that today's automatics are more efficient, faster, and particularly comfortable in urban driving (which is much the norm nowdays). Performance automatics are also getting much more engaging with very well behaved sport shift patterns and rev matching. Ferrari for one no longer sells manuals. And for a reason. They get beat by the Ferrari automatics. Also, automatics are a real preference for off-roaders nowdays because of the smooth control of torque. Anyway, there are those that will always prefer manuals. They should certainly buy them in that case.

  • _james _james Posts:

    Myth 0: It's fun to drive stick. If you live in the city or the suburbs then it really isn't. If you get on a freeway you put it in fifth and forget about it. If you drive in rush-hour traffic then you are constantly working the clutch. It's bad when you've known nothing else but if you're used to an auto, forget about it. Occasionly if you get on a twisty country/mountain road you can get some pleasure from the man/machine interface, but realistically when does that happen? Myth 1: Actually I don't know anyone who thinks it's a good idea to constantly ride the clutch. It's more of a bad habit you can get into, if you don't make a conscious effort to take your foot off the pedal when you finish shifting. Myth 2: About hill starts: this is so important it has its own part in the British driving test. When you drive stick the 'emergency' brake is the handbrake. You use it all the time. When you are stationary on a hill you put the handbrake on. Then when you want to move, press the clutch, shift into first, apply some gas, gently raise the clutch to find the 'biting point'. This is where you can feel the car is trying to move forward. You have to balance the gas and the clutch to get it right. When you feel this start to release the handbrake. If the car starts to roll back, use the handbrake; you haven't got the biting point quite right. If the car stays still you have got it right. Fully release the handbrake, give it more gas and a little less clutch, and start to move forward. "If you're worried about rolling back between the time you release the brake pedal and engage the clutch" Everyone rolls back between releasing the brake pedal and engaging the clutch. it's not physically possible to do otherwise. That's why you use the handbrake! Myth 4: What some experienced drivers do if the know they will only be stopped for a short while going up a hill (such as in slow moving trafiic), is not use the brake as they stop but allow gravity to be the brake while they are finding the biting point. Then because they have not used the brake there is no moment for the car to roll back when they go forward again. I've never seen a clutch burn out doing this. Myth 3: Use the clutch to slow down. Not in an emergency. (and don't use the 'emergency brake' either! haha!). But if you see the lights change in the distance start changing down through the gears. It's good practice if you're inexperienced and it means you're in the right gear if the lights go green again sooner than you expected. Myth 5: The advice about heel-and-toe is BS. This has no place outside a racetrack. If you do it on the road you are a f***ing idiot. And racers don't do it to be smooth, they do it because it allows them to keep the revs up (on their gutless highly tuned engines) while they're braking so they won't have dropped out of the power-band as they exit the curve. What would be more useful to learn is how to double-declutch. This is useful for any older car without a synchromesh gearbox or a newer car where the synchromesh is starting to fail.

  • jeffdewitt jeffdewitt Posts:

    I've been driving a clutch almost as long as I've been driving and have never actually worn one out... on my Jeep Cherokee the throwout bearing started squalling at 300,000 miles but the clutch still worked perfectly... and that's also about the time one of the rod bearings started getting noisy so it was time for a new engine and clutch (first major work on the car). The point the connecting rods and crankshaft are DESIGNED for high loads... if you think using the engine for breaking puts a load on them imagine how much of a load they get from hard acceleration! In a car generally using the engine as a brake is more trouble than it's worth, and I rarely do it, however when driving downhill in the mountains downshifting and letting the engine help keep your speed down is the smart thing to do.

  • chazzzer chazzzer Posts:

    Why do you repeatedly say that you need to match the engine revs to the rear-wheel speed? A) Most cars are front-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive. B) it doesn't matter whether the car is front or rear wheel drive, because all four wheels are rotating at the same speed. Well, unless you're burning out...in which case you wouldn't be downshifting.

  • santaclaus santaclaus Posts:

    The biggest problem with owning a manual transmission car is that manufacturers like Honda will use that as an excuse to not honor the vehicle's warranty. I had a 2010 V6 Accord with the manual transmission, it had major engine issues every six months and when it finally had major damages as a result of poor manufacturing...Honda decided to deny repairs claiming "user abuse" (which was never observed - previously or at the time of final break down). They just decided not to repair it and bet that I couldn't afford to fight it. State Lemon Law Board eventually ordered Honda (unanimously) to buy it back, but the process takes six months on average.

  • srbird srbird Posts:

    How on earth did you come up with these so-called "Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission"? Every one is totally wrong! Do people actually believe in these "myths"? You'd have to get your clutch redone every year if you drove like that.

  • yessuh yessuh Posts:

    if you really know how to drive a m/t you only use the clutch to start from stopped. you can upshift and downshift without touching the clutch

  • Don't know what this guy's been driving, but his emergency brake advice is bizarre since a great many cars emergency brakes are operated with the left foot. Trying to push it and the clutch simultaneously is going to be a bit difficult. If a process can't be used all the in every vehicle it sholdn't be used in any vehicle. Neither does he discuss shifting at speed without using the clutch which creates the least wear of all, and is a method used by most of the 7 million truck drivers in the US.

  • ray175 ray175 Posts:

    This article takes all the fun out of a manuel transmission. Manipulating the clutch is one way to enjoy driving and getting the mosty out of your car. A clutch is not a delicate daisey, it takes a lot to burn one out. Have some fun!

  • texan1357 texan1357 Posts:

    Re: Myth #3: Use the clutch to save your brakes. -- Another important reason to use the brakes instead of the clutch is that using the brakes engages your brake lights, which are an important communication tool to alert other drivers that you are slowing down. Other drivers can notice and react to the lights faster than they can perceive the decrease in your speed. If you don't want to be rear-ended, or inadvertently cause that sort of collision behind you, use your brakes to tell the other drivers what is going on ahead of you.

  • nocell nocell Posts:

    Had a friend of mine who said his driving coach mentioned only use the brakes to slow down, and that downshifting wears your clutch out quicker......I hate to say but I have discovered that since being in Houston I need to downshift and utilize my brakes at the same time...allllll the time....sometimes immediate braking is not always the best course of action, I have downshifted and lurched out of the way of an accident many times since I have been here. Everytime I see someone in an automatic always try to "emergency" stop to keep from hitting someone, they can't control their vehicle very well......Its give and take I suppose...but I'll stick with my manual transmission..........anyone can drive an automatic......or so I thought....I'm not perfect by no means, but people just don't know what they are missing by not driving a manual....

  • molesnicki molesnicki Posts:

    Ref #3: Never depress and leave the clutch down to coast at over 20 mph. I learned the hard way that this wears out the "throwout bearing". For normal stops, let up on the gas in the higher gear you are driving in, then depress the clutch as you go below 20, or shift to neutral to coast. Also #1: riding the clutch wears out the throwout bearing prematurely, as well as the clutch surface.

  • beansrer beansrer Posts:

    Regardfing #3, the main reason that I have been driving a MT is to use the engine to brake while going down a mountain and also, I believe that it is much safer on snow or ice covered road when you come up to a stop light or sign.

  • Mar-55 Mar-55 Posts:

    I disagree with most of this, Oh bye the way I am a professional driver with more then 30 years behind me. The one that bothers me the most is myth #3, if you don't down shift, the light changes and you are stuck looking for the right gear, so you either grind the gears till you find the right one, or bring it to a stop.

  • Re: Myth #3: USE THE CLUTCH TO SAVE YOUR LIFE! What you fail to mention is that even short descents under braking without your car in gear can lead to brakes overheating and them becoming useless. Remember that people drive stick shift cars that last had their brake fluid changed a decade ago or they're running discs/drums, etc. The correct, perfect world method for driving any operated by a manual transmission is to keep it in gear. When you are going around a corner you should be in gear. When you are descending a hill you should be in gear. When you are coming off the highway you should be in gear. Why? ****Because your inability to accelerate away from danger may cause you more harm than your repair bill***. Because going downhill using your engine to help brake your car will make sure your regular brakes have enough left in them to help you stop***Because when something gets in your way your hands should be on the wheel, NOT ON THE GEARSHIFT!!** This article is completely irresponsible and should be reviewed by your legal staff. Seriously, how could you post such poor advice?

  • vinojai vinojai Posts:

    Great article, all very true. One more thing .. a Myth 6 "Its ok to sit at a stoplight with the car in gear and the clutch pushed in" The throwout bearing is dry with no active lubrication. If you keep it under load and spinning at stoplights it will wear out much sooner. Replacing this bearing is the same labor cost as replacing the entire clutch. I leave the car in neutral at stoplights, when I see that the light is about to turn green, I press the clutch and put it in gear to prepare for takeoff.

  • kz1000st kz1000st Posts:

    I agree with most of the points expressed by everyone. A good driver with an MT will have endless miles of life out of his gearbox, something that can't be said for an automatic. Used properly it saves wear and tear on the engine, better fuel mileage and creates a link between the driver and his machine.

  • hijk hijk Posts:

    Comment on Myth #3: Use the clutch to save your brakes. I have driven a MT and only a MT for over 30 years. I have never owned an automatic. I down shift extremely smoothly, and I routinely use my engine to slow the vehicle. In fact I have avoided collisions doing so. To the best of my knowledge, I have never had to repair my engine or replace a clutch (never replaced a clutch period) as a result of using the engine to slow the vehicle, and I have owned some vehicles for 150,000 miles +. If down shifting to slow the vehicle damages the clutch and/or engine it must be very slightly OR the cars I have driven over the past 30 years were built so well they could handle my so-called abuse. In short until today I've never had a mechanic advise against the practice.

  • etaggart etaggart Posts:

    Downshifting to save brakes is not a bright idea.. Brake pads and components are cheap and quick to replace. There are exceptions though, if you find yourself waring the pads down to metal, downshifting can help you make it to the repair shop. Or on steep grades, downshifting is vital to avoid overheating your brakes.

  • daveca daveca Posts:

    ANOTHER BS article full of opinions ... This is absolutely FALSE: "Whenever the clutch pedal isn't all the way up or all the way down, you're putting wear on your clutch" Lie. Any time the clutch is depressed sufficiently to cause plate slippage under a significant load, yes, but that unqualified statement is FALSE> next lie: " it's important to "rev-match." " FALSE> Only in a non synchronized transmission Lets see what other lies are passed off as "I know it all" ........ next false statement: "The most important rule, however, is never use the clutch to hold your car in place while waiting on an incline. Doing this will burn out that imaginary red light on the dash — as well as really burn out the clutch." FALSE. Again, another highly conditional situation where an idiotic Author wishes to play know it all and make a false, grand, sweeping overgeneralization. What about a very shallow hill where the clutch is just slightly engaged for a few seconds? that will not "burn it out" Folks, when you see huge sweeping overgeneralizations like this, just assume the Author is an idiot, this one is. Signed, AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEER.

  • mbuckley52 mbuckley52 Posts:

    I learned to drive a standard on a 1962 Ford falcon (parents 2nd car) love a manual. heaven forbid someone couldn't talk on a cell phone and have to shift gears at the same time. wish I had another one, better on gas too. used the clutch to hold it on hills (takes practice) and always used the transmission to downshift to slow down along with the cars weight. (old truck driving trick). besides automatics were always a lot more in the cost of the car. Do they even put manuals in cars anymore?

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