Tips for Rookie Stick Shift Driver

Hey everyone! I think this site and community are awesome, and I foresee frequent visits as I learn more and more about cars. Maybe one day, I’ll even be able to help some of you with your problems.

I’m a pretty inexperienced driver overall, and a rookie stick shift driver. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been trying to teach myself how to drive stick in a 1990 Mazda Miata MX-5 which I got in used condition. I’ve read Click & Clack’s How To on this very site, as well as an article over at, to reinforce the basics. But it makes me nervous when I read the C&C tutorial and notice that people can destroy a clutch after covering only 20 miles of road.

I’m sore afraid that I’m tearing up the clutch/engine/transmission/anything at all as I’m learning the ropes. I have a few questions, and I intend to post more concerns throughout the thread as they come to me. I still haven’t quite mastered getting the car started from a dead stop on a flat surface, especially when I need to do it quickly. One thing that I’m pretty sure I’m good at is keeping my foot off the clutch when it’s not needed.

But anyway, here goes:

1.) I often jerk the car a little when upshifting - I’d say most of the time, but especially when I’m starting from a stop, trying to get the car from 0 mph to the 45-60 mph range. I’ll move from say 1st to 2nd, or 2nd to 3rd, and the car will softly shake as it settles into the higher gear. How bad is this for the car? How can I correct it? Is it just a timing thing?

2.) I’ve read that I should upshift when the car is at about 3000 RPM. Is it ok to upshift sooner? Like in the 2k or 2.5k range? Even earlier?

3.) How many RPMs is too many? I rarely go higher than 3.5 before upshifting. Is that too high? And if I accidentally rev the engine up to say 4k or 5k (I’ve done this only a few times) when I’m trying to accelerate quickly, how badly can that mess up the engine?

3.) Can the clutch’s engagement point tell me anything about when to upshift? Today, I noticed that when I start from a stop using the clutch only, the tach goes to something like 1 - 1.5, and about the same from 1st to 2nd. Does this mean that I only need to apply the gas up until 1 or 1.5 to smoothly upshift?

Thanks anyone and everyone for your time and assistance. Let the hazing begin!

  1. It’s timing. You are letting the clutch out too fast for the RPM level. Give it a little more gas. and keep practicing.

  2. You won’t damage the car unless you exceed the red line, and I’m sure that is much higher than 3000 RPM.

  3. See 2.

3 again. No, your right foot controls the RPMs and your left foot controls the clutch.

Whoops, messed up my list numbers. jt, as far as #1, do you know what kind of negative effects my bad timing can have on the engine/clutch/transmission, if the only noticeable result is more or less a mild shudder?

The clutch material can be damaged very fast, that part is true, but only if your driving method causes the clutch material to overheat and melt. And it will only overheat if the two surfaces are rubbing against each other at high speed and for quite some time. It is like trying to start a fire with sticks. You have to rub the sticks together fast and hard for some time before you’ll get a fire. As long as you don’t do that (by riding the clutch for extended perioed or popping it out while the engine is reving fast) then at most you’ll wear away some of the clutch lining a little more than an experienced driver would, but that’s not much of a problem. Just don’t melt the clutch lining is all. Start the learning process in an empty parking lot and learn to go from a stop to a start in 1st gear in a smooth fashion, repeat it time and again until you can easily do it 10 times in a row, before taking to the roads for the higher gears.

Over time you will learn to shift by the engine sound and the way the engine responds when you press on the gas pedal. If you don’t get much of a response, then you need to upshift. If you get an unexpectedly fast response in car speed, you don’t need to upshift yet. Most drivers never pay att’n to the rpm to decide when to shift.

Clutch wear occurs when it is not engaged fully, when it is slipping. When moving off from a dead stop, it must slip to a certain degree, but by keeping the engagement period brief and the slippage to a minimum, it will last a long time…When changing gears, up or down, work on developing a shifting technique that results in smooth, seamless shifts, the gear changes almost undetectable to other passengers…A couple of advanced driving lessons with an expert driver can be money well spent…


I think the thing to master FIRST is getting your foot to feel the “friction point”. That means the place in the travel of the clutch pedal where the clutch begins to engage and the car starts to roll. As you lift your foot, your foot pauses right there briefly. BRIEFLY.

Most people will tell you to begin applying gas when you reach the friction point of the clutch. I disagree vigorously with that. Why? Because the faster the engine is spinning at this point, the more wear inflicted on the clutch disc.

Others here may disagree, but my advice is to find a quiet parking lot where you can practice letting your foot off the clutch without touching the gas pedal at all. Yes, it can be done, and it’s not as hard as you may think, especially in a small lightweight car like yours. The result is that you’ll minimize wear on the clutch disc. If the road is level, you’ll have no problem getting the car rolling without touching the gas pedal.

With the car stopped, foot off the gas, slowly release the clutch to the friction point, which is where you feel the car begin rolling, then let the clutch up the rest of the way. Once you are rolling, just step on the brake and repeat. NO GAS. You’ll have it in a few tries.

Once you feel confident in releasing the clutch without the gas and you are doing that without lurching, then, when the clutch pedal is fully up, begin stepping on the gas.

Then all you have to do is synchronize that motion, friction point/start rolling/pedal up/give it gas, until it’s one smooth motion.

It’s the same between gears, don’t give it gas until your foot is off the clutch. Doing otherwise will wear out your clutch.

It’s easier than most people make it sound.

Good luck!

I think the OP is doing fine and just needs more time and experience. A bit of a “bump” when you upshift and downshift won’t hurt anything - smoothness is nice but you don’t have to be perfect.

The way to kill a clutch is to use the clutch motion point to hold the car on a hill, say at a stoplight. Just never do it. The other most common way to kill the clutch is to “rest” your foot on the clutch between gears, and when cruising in top gear. Resting reduces the spring pressure on the clutch plates and can make the clutch slip and slipping the clutch is what wears the clutch. If you don’t do either of these things the clutch will tolerate lots of other mistakes.

As far as rpm’s. Your tach has a redline on it. Likely around 7000 rpm. You can run the motor all the way up to the redline and not hurt the motor. Running at 7000 all day, say at a race track, could be rough on a motor, but with good oil in it won’t do major harm or damage. As a motor ages, it can get a bit loose so perhaps not going up to 7000, or doing it rarely would be good advice for the older engine. Currently you are way short of these numbers. You need to use the higher rpm range to get really good performance from a Miata. Don’t be too afraid to take her up to about 500 rpm short of the redline mark on the tach. You’ll love the power and sound that you’ll get between 3000 and 5500 rpm which is essentially the sweet spot for power on your car.

When you upshift you don’t need to fully release the gas petal. Just pull up a bit on the gas, so the rpm’s drop about 1000 to 800 rpm between gears. Then you’ll be close to the right motor speed for the wheel speed and the clutch engagement will be smoother. When downshifting apply a bit more gas to boost the motor speed up the same 1000-800 rpm just before you release the clutch. You can do this by ear, but watching the tach helps match the motor speed to the wheel speed in the next gear, either up or down. Just keep driving and have fun.

Learn to use the parking brake to assist you on starting on a steep uphill. You’ll need to use more gas in this instance. Find a nice big hill and practice this skill. Then you’ll be ready for anything you’ll encounter in your everyday driving.

Thanks everyone for all the responses.

@UncleTurbo, when you say:

“The way to kill a clutch is to use the clutch motion point to hold the car on a hill, say at a stoplight. Just never do it.”

is the clutch motion point the same thing as the engagement point?


“The other most common way to kill the clutch is to “rest” your foot on the clutch between gears, and when cruising in top gear.”

This is riding the clutch right? But I’m a little confused, don’t you need your foot on the clutch between gears? Do you mean letting off the clutch too early before shifting?

I realized that I was unclear about one of my original questions. I meant my RPM question in the context of upshifting. There have been a handful of times when I’ve accidentally revved the engine up to 4k-5k while upshifting. @GeorgeSanJose, this is what you’re referring to when you write: “As long as you don’t do that (by riding the clutch for extended period or popping it out while the engine is reving fast) then at most you’ll wear away some of the clutch lining a little more than an experienced driver would, but that’s not much of a problem.” Correct? So I better try and cut that out, huh…

There is no better way to get a feel for starting off then letting your car sit on level ground in first gear with the clutch engaged. Slowly let out until you feel the car move forward enough to travel on it’s on without stalling. Stop, and repeat. It is essential you not use the accelerator during this drill. Remember, the accelerator is not there to keep the car from stalking but to accelerate the car once moving. Have that as a mindset on level ground.
Starting on hills you need to be slightly more aggressive but using the parking brake to moderate roll back helps maintain this idea.

Keep in mind there re two positions for a clutch, fully engaged and fully released with a gradual transition between.
Often, not thinking too much but relying on feel works best.

IMO, a Miata would have a more abrupt clutch to begin with and not be good to practice on. Corollas are great with their soft forgiving clutches. Try to practice on a compact instead of a sports car.

@dagosa +1. That’s exactly how I recently taught my gf son to drive a stick. It’s all about the friction point and the most encouraging point is when the student realizes you don’t even require the gas pedal if you are doing it properly. The smoothness just comes from practice and all cars have a learning curve. Don’t do anything silly and you won’t damage the clutch.

Motion point - friction point - engagement point; all the same thing.

By “resting” your foot on the clutch petal between gears; I mean just what it says. Some driver’s use the clutch petal as a foot rest because they will be shifting gears in a couple of seconds anyway. What happens is the resting foot takes some of the spring loading pressure off the clutch plate and that can make the clutch slip. Driver’s that do this can get in the bad habit of leaving their foot on the clutch while cruising along in top gear.

A lot of good advice. I will only restate that as uncle turbo said, the Miata engine’s power band is significantly higher than most automobiles. It’s been quite a while since driving one but I do recall that to accelerate into freeway traffic required shifting at 5,500+ rpms and when driving red light to red light 3,000+ rpms was good. And it’s much easier to master using a clutch on a deserted parking lot.

Your Miata is 21 years old, your shuddering could be due to worn damper springs or worn flywheel if it is a dual mass flywheel. If you master a clutch with these problems, you will truly be a master of the clutch. Anyone can learn to shift a new clutch smoothly. BTW, I would not change the clutch just for these problem, just learn to work with them.

Next, do not get in the habit or gripping the stick shift knob. Use the palm of your hand to move the stick. Point your palm in the direction you want the stick to move, then push or pull the stick with an open palm. You won’t miss a shift if you do it this way.

Upshifting at 3000 rpm sounds high to me. You can upshift at lower rpms for sure, and as long as the engine isn’t lugging you are good to go.

@Barkydog That generation of Miata redlines at 6500 and fuel-cuts at 7000. You aren’t even in the good part of the powerband at 3k.

Yep agree with all, especially Roadtripper. Seems like the hardest part is getting a feel for when the clutch starts to engage. Either too little and it slips to much, or too much engagement and it chugs. If you can get the engagement part down and know the shift pattern, that’s 90% of it. Practicing on a lawn mower would help though.

So @shadowfax and @Rod Knox - shifting at those higher RPMs (3500-5500 or so) is in fact preferable? Is there any specific drawback or risk of doing so? What’s up with the power band?

Man this thread is awesome. I feel like I’ve gained as much experience from reading this as I have from driving the thing. Thanks a million to all contributors.

Well, look, you can’t ever say that shifting at one RPM is always preferable. It depends on how you’re driving. If you’re accelerating like my grandma, shifting at 3000 isn’t going to hurt anything and it will slightly reduce wear on the engine, as you won’t be spending an inordinate amount of time at very high RPMs. The guy behind you might want to punch you, and that would hurt, but other than that… :wink:

If you’re trying to squeeze as much speed out of the car as you can, shifting at redline would probably be preferable (though this can vary - I shift about 800 before redline in my MR2 because the way that engine is designed, its power falls off sharply before you get to redline), because that would put your RPMs in the powerband after the shift rather than having to wait for them to climb to where the engine is producing good power.

Day to day driving is probably going to be somewhere in between. I haven’t actually driven your car, but I would guess I’d be shifting somewhere around 4500 or so if I was just tooling around.

As for what a powerband is, all engines have an optimum RPM at which they produce the most power. Anything above or below that is going to be less power. If you draw the power/rpm out on a chart, it will look like a bell curve (though often it will look like only the left half of the bell curve because the engine’s redline cuts the power curve off before it can start dropping again). That’s the power band. When most people say “in the power band” what they really mean is “in the range of that bell curve where the engine is producing it’s best power output.”

Most high-revving Japanimport motors do not produce very much power (here I’m using horsepower and torque together as “power” for simplicity, because I doubt you want to read a whole treatise on this :wink: ) at low RPM’s. So shifting at low RPMs means you have turned a decently quick car into a very slow car.

Regarding drawbacks/risks, as long as you don’t go above redline, or keep it at redline for extended periods of time (don’t do 70 in 2nd gear for 20 miles), you aren’t going to hurt the engine by operating it within the RPM range it was designed to operate in.

Most power curves that are graphed are for WOT (wide open throttle). The curve is actually different for each possible throttle position and the peak of this curve varies with the throttle position. The peak is lower as the throttle is less open.

For performance driving (racing), you put the pedal to the metal and shift at the redline. For more mundane driving (street), you don’t give it as much throttle and you shift at lower RPMs. You will find that when going up hill, you need to use a little more gas and shift at higher revs while down hill, you can upshift at very low RPMs.

Now for improved fuel economy, you can use more throttle, up to 50% in the lower gears and 75% in 3rd and higher, and shift at around 2000-2200 RPMs. This will load up the engine, but if you load it up to the point that is starts hesitating, skipping or bucking, that is lugging and you don’t want to do that. You may have to rev up to 2500 when going uphill.

You will find that you are not accelerating any faster than the other cars around you because you will be below the power band for your throttle position, but the engine will be more efficient and you will see much better gas mileage. I do this with my Saturn and I average 38 mpg, the car has an EPA rating of 28 city/36 Highway.

One last thing, when you upshift, the RPM in the next gear should always be at least 1100 RPM or you shifted too soon, except when going down a steep hill.

To drive a manual transmission you need practice, especially if you are not having tuition. In England you can’t just switch from an automatic gearbox to a manual one, you need to have passed a driving test on a manual to get a full licence, so that’s what 99% of drivers do to start with.
It sounds like you have the basics pretty well sorted. Don’t be afraid of the clutch or the gearbox. Go out and drive, slow and fast, up and down shift. Change gear a lot, up and down all the way, get used to the biting point, try double de-clutching, then when you get the hang of that, try driving without the clutch at all. It can be done, you just need to get the feel of the engine and gearbox, get the revs right and clutchless changes are easy.
A properly used clutch can last well over 100,000 miles, just don’t slip it, or ride the pedal. Using it normally won’t hurt the car, a little judder is normal for beginners, and some who should know better!
Remember, 90% of the cars in France are manual transmission, so if the French can master it, so can you.