Best way to drive a stick-shift?

I would like you guys (or gals)’ opinion on this: I have a friend who is a motorhead, restores cars, etc. He certainly is familiar with cars and has been driving for 40 years. I have too, including stick shifts, and thought I knew how to drive one pretty well. Until – I saw the way he drove his 5-speed sports car:

He starts out in 1st, goes to 2nd, then goes directly to 5th even though he’s only driving normally around town and probably is still at around 35-40 mph. I thought 5th was for highway speeds…? My way is to stay in 4th unless I’m going to be cruising at 55 or more. Which way is correct?

Still in 5th, he’ll start going up a hill, til the engine is dragging so badly that he finally has to downshift. As I mentioned, I never would’ve been in 5th to begin with, but definitely would downshift going up a hill. Who’s correct?

When approaching a stop or slowing down, he doesn’t downshift. I did read in one of the advice columns here that that is the preferred way now, in order to save wear on the clutch? I used to downshift through the gears.

OK, I’d just like some of your expert opinions. I’ve never criticized because supposedly he knows what he’s doing, being the motorhead he is. (But I feel like screaming when I hear that engine chugging…) Thanks!

I have a 6 spd but at 35 to 40 I’ll be in 4th. I usually go by engine sound and RPM’s. 40 seems to be the cutoff between 4th and 5th for me - if I’m cruising at 40 or above, sometimes I WILL use 5th. I never downshift coming to a stop. Just put it in neutral and brake to a stop - why put the extra wear on the tranny? I am not an expert but have had only one auto trans car in 28 yrs.

Motor heads tend to think they know more about cars than anyone and that they want to do things different as an expression of that “I know more than you do” thing.

That said, it may be OK what he is doing, at least for his/her car. Few cars are designed for that kind of driving, but one heavily modified or some specialty cars might do fine with that kind of shifting. Most cars will not.

It is likely costing him or her mileage and additional wear on the engine.

Skipping gears may be to sound powerful, but it likely is burning more fuel and adding some wear. Driving 35-40 in 5th should be fine in many cars as long as he is not trying to accelerate quickly. I often drive that way and it can save fuel. Frankly waiting until 55 to shift into high is likely costing you a little mileage and may be adding a little wear. In the old days 5th gear (even older it was 4th) was an overdrive and intended for highway only. That is not true of today’s cars.

In any case I suggest letting each drive as they wish.

This kind of driving may be perfectly acceptable for certain engines – those powerful V8s or V6s that have high low-end torque and flat power curves. As long he he doesn’t drive your little 4-banger with that method he is doing just fine.

Your way is correct. The benefit of all of those gears is that you can synchronize the engine speed with the wheel speed. That you hear the engine dragging tells me that it is being driven outside its optimal RPM range. Whether or not this causes damage is debateable. Either way, I don’t think this is how the car was designed to be driven. You won’t be able to convince your friend to change though, so don’t bother.

As cars have become more complicated and labor rates have increased, clutches have gotten more expensive to repair and replace. So you might consider downshifting less to decrease wear. After all, getting a brake job every few years isn’t that expensive. I try to limit downshifting to times when I am going down long steep hills to control my speed and corners where I would be shifting to the next lowest gear anyway. If you are already going to be shifting to a lower gear anyway, you might as well use the engine to slow the vehicle. With my current car that downshifting doesn’t slow me down fast enough to do it in normal stopping conditions like you can with some older cars. Each car is different and your friend’s car might be that way.

The gears are there to provide mechanical advantage to the engine under different conditions. When I was taught to drive with the 3 speed manual transmissions, the procedure was to get into the highest gear as soon as possible without lugging the engine. On level ground, I would start in first gear and then shift directly to high gear around 10 miles an hour. If I was going uphill or needed extra acceleration, I would shift from first to second gear. On downhill slopes, I would start in second gear. The 1954 Buick I owned had enough torque that I often started from a stop in second gear. I never downshifted when coming to a stop, but would downshift to second gear when going down a steep hill. I owned a 1950 Chevrolet 1 ton pick-up truck with a 4-speed transmission. I always started in second gear–first gear was way too low. First gear was very useful, however, when I used the truck to stretch fence.

I used to wonder why some manufacturers used the Borg-Warner automatic overdrive as opposed to building an overdrive gear into the transmission. With the Borg-Warner overdrive, the overdrive wouldn’t engage until the car speed was above 30 mph. One then released the accelerator and the overdrive would shift in. It later dawned on me that this BW automatic overdrive prevented people from lugging the engine as they might if the overdrive were another gear in the transmission.

Corvette used to have a “skip shift” feature. If you accelerated leisurely from a stop the shift lever would be guided from 1st to 4th gear. You had to get on it hard in order to be able to shift 1,2,3,4. I don’t know if this “feature” is still on new Corvettes. I assume its intent was to save fuel. I know I’d be livid if I paid a lot of money for a sports car and it had such a “feature”.

It seems that your friend drives the same way that GM intends the Corvette to be driven. I disagree, but who am I to refute GM?

I don’t want to get too specific here, but the car was not some souped-up powerhouse, it was a '97, 5-speed V-6 sporty-“looking” car. It didn’t seem like his habit of going from 2nd directly to 5th was a “power” thing because it didn’t make the car sound more powerful; he did not go up to a high RPM before shifting into 5th. It seemed more like just laziness; not feeling like going through all the gears. Just didn’t seem that he was enjoying the fun and coolness that is driving a stick-shift. I was just wondering if there was a legitimate technical reason for doing it that way. I may not be an expert, but I do know there’s a problem if the engine is dragging, such as starting up a hill at 35 mph in 5th gear. You’re right, though – I’d never convince him otherwise.

The problem that I see a lot is with people who learn to drive trucks when they are young and learn bad habits. With an empty tractor trailer or a trailerless tractor, it is perfectly okay to skip gears. The transmissions of these big trucks are really designed to be most effective when the truck is fully loaded. So when it is empty, it is easier to drive it if you skip gears. A lot of truck drivers learn to drive a truck and a car at the same time. Some even learn to drive a truck before they learn how to drive a car. Either way, the habits they develop in the truck get carried over to the car.

I am willing to bet that either your friend has worked as a truck driver or he was trained to drive by someone who has. These guys are notorious for being hard on cars because of habits that they learn while driving trucks. Some of them even shift, or float gears, without using the clutch. It’s crazy.

It sounds to me like your friend is just a lazy driver. That’s okay, none of us is perfect. The ultimate way is to use the gears to take best advantage of the power curves, whether the goal be to obtain optimum mileage or optimum acceleration, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Wow – Jeremy may be onto something with that truck driver thing. His father drove a truck for a living! Thanks for that insight – very helpful.

Lugging the engine is not good. The minimum necessary rpm varies according to the engine and to the load on it. A small, weak engine needs to run at higher rpm than a large, powerful one. A heavy load needs higher rpm than a light load. As long as you stay in the range between lugging and red line, it’s ok to skip gears. If your friend stays in a high gear until the car can no longer struggle on, he is waiting too long before downshifting.

He’s just messing with your head. Pretend you don’t notice. Miller used to leave his wipers on after the rain stopped. When you mentioned that the rain stopped, he had a line that started with They’re my wipers…" He had some good ones. When the blue lights started to flash it was “Roll up the windows and buckle the belts because I got his Daddy”. You really wanted to buckle the belts before the right rear tire blew out at 160 MPH.

He may have also lowered the axle ratio, so for leisurely driving he could easily skip gears. It may also be closely geared trany. with no OD; 5th is 1:1. Couple that with a lower axle ratio and I would probably skip gears too:)

The fact that he doesn’t down shift leads me to believe he knows what he’s doing.

His point was excellent. I had a friend (back in '68) with a 1968 Camaro SS396 with a humungo carb sitting on a high rise manifold with headers, glasspacks, custom rearend, tracbars, etc. etc. He’d often start in first and then slide into cruising gear (4th) in town. He had enough power and gearing that he didn’t really need 1st and 2nd to get to 40 mph, and he never really bogged down (lugged) at 40 unless we came to an incline. he’d just idle along. He liked that burbling sound.

On the roads I drive on in my old Honda, the speed limit is commonly 45mph so I will shift in the following manner: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, THEN fifth.

  1. Traveling 40-45 in fifth gear is ok if the car is under a light throttle load, i.e. cruising and not trying to accelerate. The idea is to downshift BEFORE the engine starts to labor. I use 1500 rpm as a general minimum rpm when in 4th or 5th.

  2. I think it’s pointless to downshift if you’re coming to a complete stop anyway. Why not just neutralize the clutch and step on the brakes? Brake pads are much cheaper than clutches.

Hope this helps.

I drive my stick stiff like Jeffmw05 - if I have the speed going, I will skip fourth and go from third to fifth. I also start out in second on slippery roads. And I usually never downshift when coming to a complete stop unless I want to play with the car a little.

Lugging is not good on any engine and if he knew what he was doing then he would not be putting the engine through this. Depending on the gear ratio, 5th gear at 40 MPH on the flat may not be too bad but pulling a hill in 5th at that speed is a bit iffy.

Everyone has their own method of stopping. When approaching a stop I always shift into neutral, coast until almost there, downshift into 4th or 3rd at a slower speed, and allow the engine braking to do a lot of the stopping. I’m not the type to run up on a stop sign or light abruptly though. JMHO anyway.