When to change gears on a manual car?

Knowing how and when to change gears on a manual car is pretty important for nailing the whole driving thing. Whether you’re learning to drive or haven’t driven for a while, this blog will help you get to grips with the basics.

If you’re preparing yourself for your driving test, you can check out our blog ‘What happens on your driving test?

Don’t worry if things seem complicated at first, these things just take practice. After a while, your gear changes will be smoother than any of the hooligans in a Fast and Furious movie.

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Why does a car need gears?

Before we get started, it’s important to note what the gears in a manual car actually do. Basically, the insides of an engine spin at anything between 1,000 and 7,000 revolutions per minute (most people call them revs), whilst your car is running. If you connected these spinning parts to your wheels directly, you’d be going at 75 mph without even hitting the accelerator. This is why you need a gearbox!

A gearbox slows down the spinning in between the engine and the wheels so that you can actually control the speed of the car. The lowest gears reduce this speed the most and have the most ‘pulling power’, which is why you always select first gear to pull off and generally use low gears to drive up steep hills.

The clutch is the connection point between the engine and the wheels. When everything’s connected, the engine powers the wheels. But you can’t change gear whilst everything’s connected or it’ll break. Like really badly. So, when you press down on the clutch pedal, you disconnect the engine from the wheels so that you can change gear safely.

Most cars these days have 6 or 7 gears: 5 or 6 forward gears and a reverse gear. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the gear positions in your car, as some can have the reverse in a different position.

Whilst you’re familiarising yourself with how a car works, why not check out our blog ‘When to use headlights

How to change gears in a manual car

The actual act of changing gear in a manual car is pretty straightforward. There’s basically 4 key actions to remember:

  • Lift off the accelerator
  • Push the clutch pedal all the way down
  • Use the gear stick to select your gear
  • Slowly release the clutch whilst gently pushing down on the accelerator to maintain speed

When to change gears in a manual car

Changing gear is all about timing and power. Lower gears are going to give you more power, but going too fast will burn out your engine. Higher gears are more efficient, but if you go too slow you’ll stall.

When you change gear you should be trying to balance your revs and your speed. Every gear has a boundary of revs and speed you should stay in before changing gear. Generally, these are the boundaries on speed for each gear:

  • 1st gear: 0-10 mph
  • 2nd gear: 10-20 mph
  • 3rd gear: 20-35 mph
  • 4th gear: 35-50 mph
  • 5th gear: 50+ mph

When to change up gears

You should change up through the gears as you accelerate. By pushing down on the accelerator, you are telling the engine to spin faster, and you need a higher gear to turn that power into speed. The faster you accelerate, the smaller the gaps between gear changes, as you’ll keep hitting high revs as you push down on the accelerator. Remember that you should also keep your eyes on the road whilst driving, so over time it’s best to learn to listen to your engine. Higher revs make the engine a higher pitch, so you can listen for the sweet spot to change up.

When to change down gears

This works in reverse, as you slow down you’ll want to move down through the gears. This will allow you to maintain power to the wheels without stalling. If your speed is decreasing significantly, for example, if you’re coming up to a corner, you can actually press down on the clutch for a longer period and change down more than one gear at once. This is called block changing, and we’ll explain it in just a second.

How to change gears smoothly in a manual car

Skipping gears

You can sometimes skip gears, either when changing up or down. This is called block changing. For example, if you are driving in 4th and coming to a slow corner, you’ll brake, then press the clutch pedal as you become too slow to be in 4th. You can then continue to brake with the clutch down, changing into 2nd gear when you are at the right speed and ready to use the accelerator again.

The same works for accelerating. If you’re accelerating very quickly and using a lot of revs, you can skip from 2nd to 4th or 3rd to 5th without causing a big issue. The only thing to know is that you really need to make sure you’re going fast enough before you change gear.


Palming is a technique for changing gear recommended by most driving instructors nowadays. Basically, you change gear by pushing the stick with the palm of your hand instead of gripping it. This works because your gear stick always wants to come back into a neutral position at the centre of the gears. You don’t have to bother looking down to see where the stick is, because you always allow the gear stick to come back into the middle before changing gear.

Clutch control

Releasing the clutch pedal smoothly and at the right moment is key for a smooth gear change. It’s all about listening to the revs to find the perfect moment to change gear, then releasing the clutch at the perfect speed so that you don’t stall or grind the gears. This just takes practice over time, but once you get it right it’s incredibly satisfying.

If you’re looking for more tips on taking care of your car, you can check out our blog ‘How long should a car battery last in the UK?’.

A few final tips…

Here’s the last few things to think about when changing gear in a manual car to make things as smooth and effortless as possible:

  • Hills - Changing into a lower gear for going up hills makes sure you’re using enough power to maintain speed as you go up
  • Corners - Generally you’ll want to be in 2nd gear for slower corners, as you’ll need to maintain speed whilst also being slow and careful
  • Get to know your car - You shouldn’t really look at your gear stick or rev counter whilst driving, so make sure you know where your gears are and what your engine sounds like

Urban Jungle is not a financial advisor and information in this article should not be taken as advice or recommendation.