Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission
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Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission


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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!


To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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