Car Advice

How to change gears the right way (part 1)

Very few drivers really know how use their manual gearboxes, because they were incorrectly taught to start with. Here’s how to change gears the right way.

MANY OF TODAY’S drivers learned on cars back in the 1970, 1980s and ’90s, in low-powered vehicles with four or five speeds.  Driving instructors focused for the most part on passing the test, not driving efficiently or safely, and the techniques of yesterday don’t always apply to the vehicles of today. Skip shifting is a case in point.
You were probably taught to start off in first gear, then move to second, third and fourth.  Ninety degree corners in suburbia would be in second gear, as were most roundabouts.
That rigid thinking was never right but is even more wrong now.  Today’s cars have powerful engines, pull strongly from low revs and you’ve now got six, not four or five ratios to choose from.  That means you can learn the art of skip shifting, which is simply the art of missing gears.  For example, going from second to fourth.  Or third to fifth or sixth.  Even first to fourth.  Sure, you don’t want to labour the engine as that’s just abuse but with modern vehicles, even humble ones like the i20 I’ve just been driving there’s no need to go through all the gears unless you want maximum acceleration or in some cases, fuel economy.   You’ll know you’re labouring the engine when the car refuses to accelerate and the engine sounds oddly strangled.
So let’s take a few common scenarios.  Away from the lights use first as usual.  If it’s on the flat and say a 50 or 60 zone hold it in first just a fraction longer than normal, and then slot it into third.  Most cars will pull away quite comfortably in third from as little as 1200rpm, and you’re not going very fast anyway.
1. Around suburbia try going from second to fourth, or even fifth.  Today, manual cars are comfortable in fifth gear at 60km/h and sometimes even below
2. When accelerating onto the freeway you can certainly hold fourth third gear all the way to 100km/h, maybe even third, and then flick directly into sixth.  Same goes up to 80km/h.
3. If you’re facing downhill on a steep slope and stopped, let off the brakes and bring the clutch up into second, skipping first.  
Basically, any time you’ve accelerated a bit harder in any given gear, consider a skip shift direct to the gear you’d normally use at that speed.  Skip shifting isn’t about going to redline in low gear, it’s about changing when you normally would or just after and then directly selecting your cruising gear without stressing either engine or transmission.
And it’s surprising how high a gear you can use around town.  Those suburban ninety-degree turns are often better taken in third gear, not second, as are tight roundabouts.
Like any driving technique, skip shifting is one you use depending on the situation – driving is about applying principles where appropriate, not blindly following dogma.  You need to get a feel for the car and the situation.  My Land Rover Defender TD5 was heavy, had five speeds and a weak engine so I rarely skipped gears.  But more modern roadcars are lighter, more powerful and have six gears so it’s easy to skip shift.
Your downshift technique might need updating too   When you shift down, just go directly to the gear you want.  If you were cruising in sixth and you need third, select it.  We’ll cover the art of downshifting another time, but there’s no need to change down through every gear in turn.  Today’s cars have excellent brakes and there’s no need to use the engine to help slow the car.  
So now you know how, why bother skip shift?  You’ll get a smoother and easier drive because there will be fewer gearchanges, less wear and tear on the car, and if you do it right, lower fuel consumption.  Then you’ll be properly driving a manual, like you should have been taught in the first place.  Let us know how you get on!

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is the editor of PM4x4, an offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: or follow him on Facebook