How to drive a manual car: step-by-step guide for learner drivers

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What is the difference?
Gears
How to move off
How to slow down
Dos and don'ts
Licence
Pros and cons

Learning to drive a car can be daunting, especially if you’re a little unfamiliar with how a manual car works. But a little knowledge goes a long way and can help you feel much more relaxed if you’re a learner driver.

Here’s everything you need to know about how the gears and pedals work, and how a manual car differs from an automatic 👇

What is the difference between manual and automatic cars?

There are a lot of similarities between driving manual and automatic cars. Pressing down on the accelerator makes the car go faster, pressing the brake makes the car slow down, the key starts the ignition and so on.

But if you’re driving a manual car, it means you have to use the gear lever and clutch pedal to change and select a gear, which impacts how you move off, accelerate, slow down and brake.

While an automatic gearbox only has four modes (park, reverse, neutral, and drive), with only one gear for when you’re moving forward, a manual car has five or six gears for moving forward, plus neutral and reverse.

When driving an automatic car, you don’t need to worry about choosing the numbered gears - the car does that by itself - but with a manual car, you’ve got complete control.

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How do you use the gears in a manual car?

There are usually five or six different gears on a manual car, and the driver has to decide which gear they want the car to be in when driving.

The different gears determine the amount of power available from the engine. Lower gears offer less speed and more torque, whereas higher gears offer more speed and less torque.

When it comes to changing gears, the general rule of thumb is “brakes to slow, gears to go!” As the car increases speed, you increase the gear from one to two and so on, and when you want to slow down, you use the brake, moving back down through the gears if necessary (it’s not great form and you risk stalling if you try to slow down and brake completely in a high gear).

Manual cars can be trickier to drive but offer more control than automatic cars />

<figcaption align = Manual cars can be trickier to drive but offer more control than automatic cars

How to move off in a manual car

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to moving off in a manual car.

1) To start driving, you first need to disengage the handbrake. Driving with your handbrake engaged can be dangerous, as it can generate friction between the brake pads and rotors. The heat generated from the friction can cause long term car damage.

2) To change from gear to gear, you’ll first need to press the clutch pedal down. Make sure the accelerator is not engaged.

3) You then remove your left hand from the steering wheel to change the gear, first moving from neutral to first, and then up through the shift pattern as you gain speed. You want to familiarise yourself with the gear locations, because they can vary from car to car - usually you have the shift pattern located at the top of the shifter to refer to.

4) Once that’s done, you can return your hand to the steering wheel and release the clutch pedal.

How to slow down and brake in a manual car

1) If you want to slow down gradually, you should first take your food off the accelerator.

2) Using the steps outlined above, you then need to switch gears - but this time, moving back down through the gear pattern, from five to four and so on. This will slow you down.

3) When you’re ready to stop the car, you can take your foot off the accelerator and wait until the car comes to a complete stop, or press the brakes.

4) You then press down the clutch, move the gear stick into neutral, and put on the handbrake.

How to drive an automatic 🚗
We've also got the ultimate guide to driving an automatic car. Read more.

Dos and don’ts of driving a manual car:

Do:

  • Choose the right gears for your speed - driving with the wrong gear at the wrong speed can cause long term damage for your car
  • Use the clutch pedal correctly - doing this will allow your manual transmission to shift smoothly without causing damage
  • Shift to neutral at a traffic light - keeping your transmission’s gears engaged while stopped can damage it.

Don’t:

  • Rest your hand on the gearstick - resting your hand on the gear stick might put pressure on the selector fork and internal parts, which can speed up wear and tear of gearbox components
  • Rest your foot on the clutch - this can lead to noise and failure of the clutch, which is expensive to fix
  • Coast downhill - even if this saves fuel, as you can lose control of the car
Driving test cheat sheet 👀
Everything the instructor is looking out for. Read more.

Do I need a manual driving licence?

The short answer is yes. Because you need to know your way around the gearbox and clutch, you can’t drive a manual car with an automatic licence.

While you don’t need to retake your theory if you’ve already got an automatic licence, you will need to take another driving test if you want to drive a manual. This will cost £62 on weekdays, and £75 on weekends.

The good news is that you can continue using your automatic licence on automatic cars even if you fail your manual driving test.

(PS - we’ve written a lot more about the driving test here 🚗)

Getting your manual licence feels great
Getting your manual licence feels great

Manual car pros and cons

Driving a manual car comes with different benefits and some disadvantages to driving an automatic car.

Advantages:

  • Fuel efficiency - automatic cars tend to guzzle more petrol than manual cars, so you save a little money
  • Cheaper - manual cars also tend to be cheaper to buy than automatic cars
  • More control - the ability to move between gears manually means you can control the vehicle's speed

Disadvantages:

  • Learning curve - it takes a bit more practice to drive a manual car, and new drivers can expect a lot of jerking and stalling
  • Leg ache - your left leg will be in constant use while driving a manual, which can cause some pain
  • Driving on hills - manual cars require precise control on hills to avoid stalling or rolling back

And there it is, a complete breakdown of driving a manual car!

If you’re all prepped and ready to take your test, have a read of our driving test checklist. And once you’ve finally passed our test, don’t forget to insure your car before celebrating your freedom!

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Updated on 3rd April 2023