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Get Up to Speed: Understanding the Gear Shift

Gear Shift

Top Gear

One of the initial steps in learning how to drive a manual car is to understand how and when to shift gears. Selecting the appropriate gear for your speed, acceleration, and the specific characteristics of the road you are on is crucial to maintaining control of your vehicle and driving safely. 


Choosing the wrong gear can lead to stalling, unsafe manoeuvres, and excessive engine revving. Even though many modern cars have automatic gear-shifting features, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of manual gear-shifting through sound, feel, and speed. 


This will ensure you are able to drive safely in any vehicle and especially in older, cheaper cars that you may purchase after passing your driving test.


How do I change gears?

Let’s begin with the fundamental concepts of gear shifting. Most cars have either 6 or 7 gears, including 5 or 6 forward gears and 1 reverse gear. These gears are typically controlled by a lever, known as the gear stick, located between the driver and front passenger seats.


To change gears, you must press down on the clutch pedal and move the gear stick to the desired gear. After shifting gears, gradually release the clutch pedal while pressing on the accelerator. When starting from a stopped position, finding the biting point of the clutch is important to avoid stalling.


As you gain more experience with gear shifting, the actions will likely become intuitive. However, when starting out, you may make mistakes such as partially depressing the clutch while shifting gears, which can result in a grinding noise, known as grinding gears, which can cause damage to your car.


Tips for changing gear

It may take some time to become familiar with the location of the gear stick for each individual gear without having to look down. A helpful tip is to hold the gear stick on one side, with your hand cupping the lever, and pushing it away from your hand. This ensures that you are making a deliberate action and prevents accidentally slipping into the wrong gear. The more practice you have driving, the easier it will become to master skills like this. 


If you don’t have access to a car in between lessons, you can practice gear shifting in the air and simulate the use of the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals. This will help you build confidence and transition to real-life driving. 

It is important to remember that effectively changing gears also depends on proper clutch control. The gear stick should not be moved unless the clutch pedal is pressed down, which disengages the engine from the wheels.


When do I change gears?

The general principle is to shift up to higher gears as the vehicle’s speed increases and downshift to lower gears when more power is needed from the engine. For instance, when ascending a hill or accelerating from a standstill at a low speed, it is appropriate to shift down to a lower gear.


Generally, the first gear is suitable for a limited range of speeds. Typically, it is necessary to shift from 1st to 2nd gear at around 10mph. However, in some vehicles and under certain conditions, it is possible to start the car in 2nd or 3rd gear, such as when going downhill or with a high engine RPM. It is important to note that this is not a standard practice and is not recommended, particularly during a driving test.


Furthermore, ​​​​The gears determine the amount of power available from the engine.


What happens if I skip gears?

It is acceptable to skip gears when shifting up or down, but it’s important to ensure that your engine’s RPM and speed are compatible with the new gear, otherwise, it can result in a rough or loud ride and potentially damage your vehicle. 


When coming to a stop, it is common to brake and go directly into a lower gear, for example, if approaching a red traffic light while in 4th gear, instead of shifting down through all the gears, you can put on the brake, clutch and come to a stop then shift into 1st gear. 


The same applies when shifting up. However, it’s important to note that skipping too many gears at once is not recommended as it can result in either a lack of power or high engine RPM which will not be beneficial.


Driving in icy conditions

It is not recommended to drive on ice, but if it is unavoidable, shift to a higher gear to reduce revs and improve traction.


What will my driving examiner be looking for?

During the practical driving test, the examiner will evaluate your ability to appropriately gear shift based on speed and road conditions, as well as your smoothness in gear changes and avoiding clutch riding.

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