How To Drive a Stick Shift
The Manual Route to Fun Cars and Some Good Deals
The way we see it, there are two types of drivers: those who can drive a car equipped with a manual transmission and those who cannot.
Some might think it's a generational thing with the olde-timey folks and their "standard" transmission abilities on one side and the post-manual crowd on the other. And in fact, Edmunds data shows that 93 percent of cars bought in the U.S. to date in 2012 had automatic transmissions and just two pedals.
There's been a mini surge in stick-shift sales recently, however. It's true that only 7 percent of the cars sold so far this year had manual transmissions, but that's almost twice the 3.8 percent sold in 2011.
Ford has seen stick-shift sales perk up. The carmaker expected that 4.5 percent of its 2012 Focus models would be purchased with a stick. It turned out to be 6.7 percent, and the company anticipates even greater interest with the advent of the Focus Titanium trim level's five-speed manual option.
Maybe those Focus buyers are on to something. It turns out that there are a number of very good reasons to be among the 7-percenters who know how to drive a three-pedal car.
Why Learn To Drive With a Stick Shift?
It's a good skill to have, kind of like speaking a second language. If you get stuck somewhere or with somebody who needs your help or wants you to share driving duties on a long trip, you "Habla Manual." Secondly, there are some really sexy, cool cars that are available only with a manual transmission like the 2012 Fiat Abarth or, assuming your wallet can handle it, the $180,000 2012 Aston Martin V12 Vantage. Maybe your tastes run to a hard-core sports cars like the 2012 Porsche Cayman R or the 2012 Ford Shelby GT500. These can only be had with manual transmissions.
Besides new cars (and some trucks, of course), there are countless vintage or collectible cars that require DIY shifting. Meanwhile, budget-minded buyers will be happy to learn manual transmission cars can be less expensive in both the new- and used-car markets. Because fewer people know how to drive cars with stick shifts, the sellers could have a tougher time moving them. So — depending on the car — you could swoop in for a good buy.
Finally, with modern electronics providing distance-keeping cruise control, automatic emergency braking, active lane-keeping and automated parking, some new cars barely know we're here. They can practically drive themselves. Rowing your own gears enhances driving pleasure because it connects you to a car in a way that an automatic can't. A car with a manual transmission literally needs you in a way an automatic doesn't. Like the bond that a horse and its rider form when things are in sync, you, too, will feel the pleasure of the relationship that develops between you and your manual-transmission car.
As with so many other things in life, reading instructions about the way to do something and learning by doing are two parts of a whole. The best way to get started is to have an empty parking lot, an hour to learn and a trusted, patient instructor sitting alongside you. Reading this primer beforehand simply will give you some knowledge and the confidence to best approach your time behind the wheel — and beside the shifter. Let's get to work.
Just as you would with any car, you first should find a comfortable and effective seating position so that your distance to the pedals and steering wheel facilitates ease of use. You might need to adjust your seat to accommodate this new third pedal so you can depress it to the floor.
With the car not yet running — preferably on a level surface and with the parking brake engaged — first learn how the clutch feels. See how much effort it requires to move the pedal to the floor and how springy it is on return.
Besides the fact that you're using your neglected left leg to press it, the clutch pedal likely feels different from either the brake or throttle. Some clutch pedals have an action that feels light and uniform in both directions. Others might feel somewhat sticky — initially firm and then going soft as the pedal nears the end of its travel. The clutch might also spring back forcefully.
While you may always press the clutch pedal as quickly as you wish, letting it back up must be a smooth and steady affair, especially in 1st and 2nd gears. This is doubly true for getting the car rolling from a standstill in 1st gear. For now, before we turn the key and start the engine, practice letting the clutch pedal rise slowly.
Get to the Gears
Now it's time to learn where all the gears are — including reverse — and to get the feel of how to come back to neutral. You'll find neutral is the place where the lever will naturally return, more or less straight up, when no gear is selected. Push the lever to either side and allow it to spring back to center. (Later, you'll find the centering spring that makes this happen will also help you locate and shift gears.)
Most levers have the shift pattern illustrated on top of the knob. Some require an extra step to engage reverse. It might be an extra collar ring just below the shift knob that needs to be lifted. More often, there's an extra-firm detent — or catch-point — that requires exaggerated force to move the lever past it and into reverse. Repeat the shifter's path to reverse several times so it won't be a mystery when the time comes to back up.
Now, move the lever from 1st to 2nd gear and use some slight pressure from your palm to the left to help keep the lever aligned into the gate for 2nd gear. Make note of how far the lever has to travel to be fully in gear. Some cars have "long throws" while others (like sports cars) have shorter ones. For the 2nd-to-3rd shift, again use only your open hand. With your palm, slowly push the knob forward. Notice that once out of 2nd gear, the centering spring pops the lever back to neutral — precisely in line for 3rd gear. Convenient, right?
Continue straight forward with pressure from only your palm and you'll naturally find 3rd without a need for your guidance to the left or right. It's best to palm the shift knob because when we grab, squeeze or white-knuckle the knob and forcibly attempt to aim or channel the shifter from one gear to the next, it will often miss. Let the centering spring do its job.
Third-to-4th is a straight pull, so no side-to-side pressure is needed. Pushing ahead, 4th-to-5th will require some diagonal pressure to the right, but not much. Remember that you still don't need to grip the knob as if it is some sort of antique agricultural machinery. Just use your palm and some deliberate pressure, plus movement. If your car has a 6th gear, it's much like the 3rd-to-4th shift, but with a modicum of pressure to the right — perhaps even with your hand inverted with the thumb pointing at the floor.
Finally, practice pressing the clutch pedal and moving the shifter at the same time in one synchronized action. This should not be a three-step operation, as in: press clutch, move shifter, release clutch. You will, of course, let the clutch pedal rise after each gear is selected. Now practice: Clutch/shift, then release the clutch, in two steps. Don't worry about the gas pedal for now. It will come in later and it will be natural to you when it does.
Now that we've got a feel for things, let's get moving.
Getting to First
The biggest, most intimidating barrier to learning to drive a car with a stick shift is getting the car moving from a standstill. The good news is that once the car is in motion, shifting gears is a much easier, less finicky variation on that first, sometimes frustrating hurdle. We know you're worried that you're going to forget to do something or you're going to get the pedal efforts mixed up. In any case, you're going to stall the car. Just accept that right now.
You're going to say "I'm sorry," and if your teacher is a good one, you'll be hearing "That's OK." This is why an empty parking lot is such a time-honored tradition in stick-shift initiation. You don't have the added distractions of real-world traffic or the pressure of having impatient drivers around you.
It's finally time to start the car! Because the parking brake is still engaged, you don't really need to press the brake pedal while twisting the key or pressing the ignition button, but it's a good habit to maintain. You will, however, need to press the clutch pedal to the floor — regardless of the brakes or the shifter's location. With both the brake and the clutch pedals depressed, select 1st gear and release the parking brake. Move your right foot off the brake and over the throttle.
Assuming the car has a tachometer, use the throttle to rev the engine to about 1,500-2,000 revolutions-per-minute (rpm). Fewer revs than that and you'll likely stall the car. More revs and you're going to wear out the clutch prematurely. While hovering the revs around 1,500 rpm, slowly allow your left leg to rise. Notice when the clutch actually begins to "bite" or take hold of the spinning engine. If you stall the car, don't panic. Simply engage the parking brake, press the clutch and brake pedals to the floor and start the car again.
If, on the other hand, all goes well, you'll be rolling slowly with the clutch pedal completely up and ready to accelerate in 1st gear. But, instead of going to 2nd gear, press the clutch to the floor and gently press the brake and come to a stop in 1st gear. Do this a few times to practice coming to a stop and getting rolling again. You might even pick a spot in the parking lot where you can imagine a stop sign or two.
After a number of stops and starts, proceed from 1st to 2nd gear. While accelerating in 1st gear and as the revs climb to about 3,000 rpm, do all three of the following at the same time: release the throttle, press the clutch pedal and move the shifter to 2nd gear. Then slowly let the clutch pedal up and when you feel the clutch biting, go back to the gas gently. Then fully release the clutch pedal. Voilà.
If there's enough room in the abandoned parking lot, pick up some speed and try 3rd gear. Remember, you can always come to a safe stop by depressing the clutch to the floor and pressing the brake pedal.
You might have stalled a few times, but you've taken the first steps toward joining the elite ranks of drivers who know the rewards of driving with a stick shift. It's fun, right? Now, go forth and seize the sports car you've always wanted to buy or make an offer on that economical hatchback that's been off-limits because it doesn't have an automatic transmission.
Before you call up your pal and make an early Saturday morning appointment, watch the video to see how quick and fun it is to learn. Good luck and laugh a lot. That's an order.