Also known as a manual gearbox or manual transmission.

The vast majority of cars built for use in Europe use manual gearboxes (stick shifts) and almost all drivers in Europe are trained to use them as routine. A stick shift is normal in Europe. In North America, by contrast, most cars are built with automatic transmission.

Although a conventional automatic transmission offers great convenience and is very easy to use, a stick shift allows more control over vehicle handling and speed, generally means lower fuel consumption and almost always, better reliability.

However, recent developments in electronics and control are gradually eliminating the benefits of the manual gearbox. Car makers are starting to offer systems—at a price—in which the driver selects the gear and the moment at which the gear will change, but electronics and control technology govern the detailed mechanics of the gear change. These systems, developed originally for racing teams give all the benefits of a stick shift, with the convenience of an auto box. More on these later.

For those used to an automatic box, successful use of a stick shift will require the use and coordination of three controls: accelerator (gas) pedal, clutch pedal and gear lever. When starting from standstill uphill, a fourth control, the handbrake, adds an extra dimension to the experience.

While a car with an automatic box has just two pedals (gas and brake), and a single drive control stick used infrequently, the manual gearbox requires three pedals, gas, clutch and brake. The clutch pedal is usually positioned to the left of the other two, and slightly apart from them. It is operated with the left foot, leaving the right foot free to operate gas and brake. A manual transmission car also has a gear lever in place of the drive control. The gear lever is used frequently during urban driving, changing up and down among the lower gears.

The clutch pedal is designed to disconnect the drive chain between the engine and drive wheels. This allows the driver to change gear ratios while there is no load on the engine, and the car is coasting along the road, which saves wear and tear on the gear wheels. It is possible to change gears without the clutch, but that needs expert control of engine speed and road speed, if the gears are to survive the experience.

Typical gear layout

When changing up or down, the gear lever must be moved to the position corresponding to that gear, these positions are marked on the gear stick, and the following pattern is very typical of many modern cars, which have five forward gears and one reverse.

                   1  3  5  
                   |  |  |
                   2  4  Reverse

Gear 1 is used only for starting up from standstill, or, very occasionally, in very slow-moving traffic, or when pulling a heavy load up a steep hill. Gear 2 is used at speeds from walking pace up to about 10 or 15 mph. Gear 3 is used between about 10 and 30 to 50 mph. Gear 4 is used from 20 mph up to 70 or 80 mph, and gear 5 can be used from 30 to 40 mph upwards. The road speed in each gear is defined by the engine speed and the gear ratio, so the engine has a range of speeds within which it can deliver power to the wheels. The lower engine speed limit (and hence road speed in any given gear) is given by the speed at which the engine starts to deliver useful torque (usually around 1000 to 1200 rpm), while the upper limit is the maximum speed of the engine (usually around 6000 rpm)

As the engine speed increases, it produces more and more torque and power, which means the car can accelerate faster when the engine speed is high. So when driving steadily along at40 mph in 4th gear, and there is a need to accelerate quickly, for example to overtake another car, the advice is not to press the gas pedal to the floor in 4th, but to change down to 3rd, then press the foot to the floor, to make use of the extra torque available at the top end of the engine revs. When up to speed, the driver changes up once more to 4th gear to complete the manouvre. This is the manual equivalent of the kickdown on automatic gearboxes.

If you drive aggressively, and want rapid acceleration, then you will be driving with the engine revs high, and leaving change-ups very late. This uses a lot of fuel and sounds noisy, but is the way racing drivers use their cars. If you are driving for maximum fuel economy, then you change up as early as possible and tend to use the highest possible gear, keeping engine revs low. It is slower and quieter, but most passengers feel more comfortable with this style of driving. This is an example of the increased control that a manual gearbox offers

Changing up

For a change up, from say gear 2 to gear 3 at around 20 mph/30 kph, the process is as follows:

  1. The driver is accelerating in gear 2, with foot on the gas.
  2. As the engine speed increases, the driver lifts the foot off the gas, and with the other foot, depresses the clutch pedal
  3. With the clutch pedal fully depressed, the driver removes one hand from the steering wheel and moves the gear lever from position 2 to position 3.
  4. The driver releases the clutch pedal in a steady movement (but not too quickly)
  5. The driver can then step on the gas once more, now in gear 3.

The critical thing is that the clutch must be depressed whenever the gearstick is moved

Changing down

For a change down, from say gear 4 to gear 3 at around 30 mph/45 kph, the process is as follows:

  1. The driver is slowing down, or anticipating a slow-down, with foot off the gas, and perhaps on the brake.
  2. The driver depresses the clutch pedal
  3. With the clutch pedal fully depressed, the driver removes one hand from the steering wheel and moves the gear lever from position 4 to position 3.
  4. Some purists advise a very brief tap on the gas at this point, to match the engine speed to the new gear ratio
  5. The driver releases the clutch pedal in a steady movement (but not too quickly)
  6. The driver can then carry on once more, now in gear 3.

Again, it is critical to ensure that the clutch pedal is depressed whenever the gearstick is moved.

Tiptronic and other innovations

Because many new drivers find the stick shift difficult to master, car makers have started to develop systems which give the driver the same control over the vehicle, without the difficulties of coordinating pedals, sticks and wheels. Originally designed for racing drivers, these systems take advantage of modern developments in control and electronics to automate the gear change. They tend to be fitted to high performance vehicles destined for the US market, and are an expensive option, which European drivers regard as unnecessary. One such system, called Tiptronic has been jointly developed by Volkswagen AG and Bosch AG.

These systems are controlled by buttons, usually positioned on the steering wheel. One button to change up, another to change down, and in some systems, an actuation button. When the driver wants to change gear, he or she simply presses the appropriate button, and the car takes care of all the details of the gear change. If there is an actuation button, then the driver pushes one button to tell the system which gear is likely to be desired, and then at the precise moment, hits the actuator, and the gears change instantly.

This piece written, formatted and edited in Dann's E2 offline scratchpad