Before you start to drive stick, we suggest you ride around with someone who knows how to drive a manual transmission vehicle. Pay attention. Watch to see when he or she up-shifts and downshifts. Ask questions. Watch what happens when she starts the car, stops at a light, starts up from a stop, and starts after being stopped at a light on a hill. You'll be that much better prepared when your time comes.
Learn to Drive on an Automatic First
If you learn to drive on a car with an automatic transmission before learning to drive stick, you'll be at a tremendous advantage. You'll have eliminated or reduced all those other sources of stress that only add to the anxiety, such as mastering the rules of the road, dealing with other drivers, changing weather conditions, and how to text your sister while unwrapping the Chinese take-out you just ordered.
Don't be intimidated when you're stalled at a traffic light, and some obnoxious blowhard is honking his horn at you. Take your time. Relax. Despite the horns and rude hand gestures, unless there's an ambulance behind you, there's no hurry whatsoever.
Watch the Tach
Here's a broad rule of thumb. As a general rule, if your vehicle has a tachometer, you should find yourself shifting into the next higher gear when the engine RPMs get between 2,000 and 3,000
If There's No Tach to Watch
If your car doesn't have a tachometer, and you're wondering whether to shift, we have two rules of thumb:
1. When in doubt, shift up. You'll do less damage to your car, if you're accidently in a higher gear than a lower one, since the engine won't be revving. And if you realize you've made a mistake, you can always downshift.
2. The steeper the hill, or the heavier the load in our car, the longer you should stay in a low gear. This, too, will keep you from revving your car's engine. Not quite sure what we mean? Try it out—you'll get the hang of it.
Don't Fight with Your Engine
If you shift too early, you'll notice your car starting to fight you. The engine will shudder, buck and it might stall. If you find this happening, shift into a lower gear. If that solves the problem, you probably shifted up a gear too soon.
When you're driving a manual transmission vehicle, you'll eventually notice yourself listening to the sound of your engine. From the sound alone, you can tell when to up-shift. If the engine is revving excessively, you probably should have shifted to a higher gear already.
How do you know if your engine is revving? Well, it shouldn't be making more noise than when it's running at highway speed. If you're unsure, get someone who knows what to listen for and ask him or her to point out the sound.
Put Your Transmission in Gear and Turn Your Wheels When You're Parked on a Hill
Most people are taught to put a manual transmission into first gear or reverse to park it—first gear if you're pointed uphill, and reverse if you're pointed downhill. Will this make it less likely that your car will roll down the hill? Definitely. Will it guarantee it? Absolutely not.
Why does putting your vehicle in gear help? By putting the vehicle in gear, you're making a direct mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. You're making it so the wheels can't turn unless they force the engine to turn. And the engine is very hard to turn—especially in first and reverse gears. In other words, you're making a bet. You're betting that the force needed to get the engine to turn is greater than the gravitational force that's pulling the car down hill.
But you could lose the bet, for any one of several reasons, including low engine compression, a slipping clutch or if there's ice on the ground. So always apply the parking brake. And, as a final safety measure, turn the front wheels so that if your car does roll, it will roll into the sidewalk curb. If you're pointed downhill and parking on the right, your wheels should point right. If you're pointed uphill and you're parking on the right, your wheels should point left. You get the idea.
Tips for Stopping Briefly, Then Starting, on a Hill
If you're driving a stick shift and need to stop on a steep hill, here's a useful tip for holding the car on a hill without burning up the clutch: Use the parking brake. The parking brake can keep you from drifting backwards when you start up.
Here's how it works. When you're stopped on a hill with the transmission in neutral, apply the parking brake. When the light turns green, step on the clutch. Put the transmission into first gear. Now, slowly let out the clutch. When the clutch starts to engage, you can release the parking brake. At this point, you'll need to give the engine a little more gas than usual, to avoid rolling backwards. With a little practice, you can accomplish this maneuver without drifting back into the ornery trucker who's right behind your bumper.