Introduction: How to Drive a Manual Vehicle With Down Shifting - Beginners Guide

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Video tutorial on how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. For this, I am using a 2007 Volvo C30 with a 6 speed as an example. Knowing how to drive a manual is certainly a great skill to have, it gives the driver more control over the vehicle, and it can enhance the driving experience.

First let me start by saying, not all manuals are the same. While this car is a 6 speed and it’s becoming more popular in newer vehicles, the amount of gears really depends on the vehicle. Positions of where the reverse is on the shift pattern also varies as well, so always pay attention to your shifters diagram if you’re new to the vehicle. Picking the wrong direction could result in an accident. I’ve owned a lot of manuals over the years, have driven a lot more when I worked at a car lot, some are easier to drive than compared to others. You’ll find a difference in feel and weight with clutches, easy of use with the shifter, power, and smoothness. The easiest to drive manual I’ve ever owned I would say is my 2007 Volvo C30 T5 and next up would have been my 2004 VW Golf TDI. Usually, the best spot learning to drive a manual vehicle is in an empty parking lot, however side roads with next to no traffic is a great spot too.

Step 1: Setting Up the Driver's Position

First is picking the appropriate seat position, make sure you’re in a comfortable position where you can push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor. Typically I set my seat where the tip of my shoe can touch the floor behind the pedal. Then adjust the steering wheel as need, make sure your knee doesn’t hit it. If you’re learning, I’d recommend running shoes as you’re able to get a better feel with the clutch vs shoes with a heavier or stiff sole. Also, make sure your shoes aren’t too wide where they may catch on the brake pedal. Pedal spacing my vary with vehicles.

Starting out, front left to right. First if the clutch, next is the brake which typically has a narrower pad vs what you may find on an automatic to account for the extra pedal, and finally the gas or throttle pedal. The information in this video will be based on some requirements which you may encounter in a government-regulated driving test, I’m in Canada so some of these principles may vary depending on where you’re located. When driving a manual, your left foot should only be used to operate the clutch and that’s it. Your right foot is used to control the throttle and brake pedals.

When starting the vehicle, make sure the parking brake is applied, it can be pulled into neutral before or after the vehicle is running. Neutral will have the most side to side movement with the shifter. Neutral means your vehicle isn’t engaged in gear, it’s the same as your automatic being in neutral. However, the vehicle can roll away, which is why as properly functioning parking brake is needed. Parking brake locations and styles vary on vehicles too.

Step 2: Getting a Feel of the Clutch

You may consider opening the window and turning off the radio so you’re able to hear the engine. This also helps if your vehicle is equipped with a tachometer. Before moving, apply the brake using your foot so the vehicle doesn’t roll and then release the parking brake. Push in the clutch, select first gear or reverse, depending on which way you need to exit the vehicle’s parked spot. I would recommend letting the clutch out without touching the throttle pedal, this will give you a feel when the clutch starts to grab and the vehicle wants to move. You should feel and see the engine rpm drop, then push the clutch back in. Do this a few times just to understand where that spot is. Some vehicles may allow you to take off without touching the throttle pedal, this car is one of them.

Once you get that spot, then you can add throttle, touching that pedal lightly. Here you’re basically synchronizing your left and right foot movements. While your left foot is allowing the clutch pedal to rise, follow with your right by lightly pushing on the throttle. Watching, feeling, or hearing the rpm of the engine, you’re basically trying to maintain an above idle speed. There is no need to rev the engine up to 2000 rpm. While it’s harder to stall at a higher rpm, there’s a higher chance of burning out the clutch quicker, less control, spinning the tires, and you won’t get a smooth take-off. As you get more comfortable with the movements, you should be able to bring that take off rpm down to around 1000. And don’t rev up the engine and then let the clutch out, again that would just promote slippage with the clutch, jeopardizing its life expectancy.

When you want to stop, pushing in the clutch and apply the brake at the same time. The clutch is used to engage and disengage the transmission. If you let the clutch out too fast and don’t apply enough throttle, the vehicle will stall. And don’t be discouraged by stalling the vehicle, it does take practice. Take offs will most likely be the hardest part of learning how to drive a manual.

Step 3: Increasing Your Speed With Shifting

Once you’re moving, as you increase speed, so will your rpm as the vehicle is in a fixed gear. To move to the next gear, let your foot off the throttle, push in the clutch fully, pull the shifter into second, let the clutch out, and then apply the throttle. When to shift to second can depend on the vehicle, for economical, this would be at a lower rpm, say at 2000. For regular commuting, I normally shift between around 3000 rpm. If this were a diesel, they’re not normally a high revving engine than compared to a gasoline, therefore the power band is lower, so the shift points would be lower. Again this depends on the vehicle and you may find recommended shift points in the owner’s manual. If you were to shift at a lower rpm, such as 1000rpm, the rpm will drop in second and you may find a massive lack of power. The engine is at its optimal power band, therefore it’s working harder to keep the vehicle moving and this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more economical.

As you get to a higher rpm again, you can then move to the next gear, this being third. Again let your foot off the throttle, push down the clutch pedal, while second was pulling straight back, for third the shifter goes into neutral, push it over to the right slight, and then up into third. Let the clutch out and apply the throttle again. Then eventually you can go into forth, fifth, and then sixth. Your highest gear is intended for highway speed and will have the least amount of acceleration when you want to pass which I’ll cover in a moment.

Step 4: Downshifting and Slowing Down

Now when the speed is being reduced, as mentioned earlier, the rpm can drop very low where the vehicle will have no power and you can risk stalling.

As a generic value, there is about 1000 rpm between gears. This may vary between vehicles and gears. If I were driving around 40km or 25mph in third gear at about 1500rpm, going down to second gear would put the engine at about 2800rpm. If you were in a high speed and rpm in fifth and accidentally pulling the shifter into second, yes you can over-rev the engine and there is a chance this can cause damage. For downshifting, let the current gear get anywhere between 1000 to 1500 rpm, then shift to the next lowest gear.

For slowing down, you would continue shifting down each gear. On each downshift, your foot should be off the throttle pedal, it mmay beused to depress the brake pedal, push the clutch in, shift into the next lowest gear, then let the clutch out.

Step 5: Rev Matching

You can get into rev matching which does make the downshifts smoother, this is where the throttle pedal is tapped briefly to kick up the rpm for a second, bring the rpm range closer. When you’re ready to downshift, let your foot off the gas, push the clutch in, tap the throttle briefly to kick the rpm up about 1000 rpm while shifting into the next lowest gear, then left the clutch out. This can be used for passing when you want increased acceleration without slowing down the vehicle, then follow up with more throttle. This can even be used for engine braking, for that just naturally let the engine decrease rpm while in gear.

Step 6: Coming to a Stop

When you get to second gear, this is the gear that typically isn’t intended to be used for downshifting due to how the transmission is designed. Again this does depend on the vehicle, first gear may not be synchronized. The transmission may not allow you to shift into first or if it does, it’ll be at an extremely low speed. Leave your foot on the clutch and come to a complete stop. Always leave your foot on the brake until you’re ready to take off, otherwise you risk the vehicle rolling forward or backward. This is also important in an accident if your rear-ended, a vehicle may push you forward into more danger. When doing a driving test, you may be required to show your downshifting skills as well.

Step 7: Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’re ready to take off, make sure you’re in first gear, let your foot off the brake, then let your foot off the clutch while applying the throttle and you’re off again. This does take practice, this will be especially hard on hill take-offs, preventing the vehicle from rolling back. With lots of practice, you’ll be able to take off from a hill without excessively revving the engine, minimal slippage of the clutch and not rolling back.

Driving a manual has a lot to do with muscle memory, both with your feet and hand movements. It does seem intimidating at the start but with time you’ll eventually get better and everyone’s learning curve is different. As a kid, my parents owned quite a few manuals so I knew the basic principle behind it. However, when I get my license, my parents didn’t own a manual so I learned by myself while working at a car lot. At 16 I had a motorcycle, that did help to some extent, however, the shifter operation is different as it’s controlled with your foot and the clutch is by hand.

Step 8: Random Tips and Commonly Asked Questions

Now covering some commonly asked questions and tips. While it may look like I’m resting my foot on the clutch pedal, I’m not. There’s about an inch between my shoe and clutch pedal face. You should never rest your foot on the clutch as this may slightly disengage the clutch promoting slipping and jeopardizing the life of the clutch.

Driving a manual can be a good workout for your left leg. Your first times driving, you may experience some discomfort and that’s perfectly normal. As you drive more, you’ll eventually get used to it, especially if you do quite a bit of stop and go city-type driving.

For winter driving, if you’re finding excessive wheel spin in a slippery condition. You can start in second gear. Some automatics even have this feature. With first gear being the shortest ratio, it has the highest amount of torque which makes it easier to spin the wheels. You can see my wheels are spinning as shown by the flashing traction control light on the left side of the gauge cluster. Second gear isn’t excessively hard on the vehicle, it still allows for takeoff, while reducing some torque. Spinning wheels in snow doesn’t necessarily help with moving as the heat makes the snow melt and creates ice on the tire's contact patch, removing all chance of traction.

Downshifting can be done at higher rpm points, this will promote engine braking and enable you to use your brakes less. Rev matching would certainly be recommended with something like this as hard downshifts without it can sometimes be harder on the clutch.

Shifting through intersections can be against driving test rules, so be mindful of that. It’s also recommended not to change gears, either up or down through corners as may cause the car to lose control depending on the situation. I have done a harder downshift before where there was sand on the road and it caused the back wheels to skid.

What happens if you let the clutch out too fast or too slow. Letting the clutch out too slow, this promotes slipping and it can wear the clutch out faster. Letting the clutch out too fast, well there’s a higher risk of stalling the engine. If the clutch is let out fast with a higher rpm, this can be hard on the driveline. The key is finding a balance between slow and fast.

Don’t rest your hand on the shifter either. This may put pressure on the linkage and gears, prematurely wearing out components. So it’s best to put your hand back on the steering wheel.

Is it bad to leave your foot on the clutch while at a stop? When the clutch is pushed in, this does activate the throwout bearing and it can cause extra wear. To avoid this, when stopped, you can shift the car into neutral, then let the clutch out. When you’re ready to go, push the clutch back in and put the transmission into gear. Life expectancies of a throwout bearing do vary, I’ve seen vehicles with well over 300,000km or 185000 miles without ever having any clutch work done.

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