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!
  • Cliff

    Sounds good, but wouldn’t it cause more 3rd gear synchromesh wear if you habitually change from 1st to 3rd? I suppose you could fix this by double clutching when the gear lever is in the neutral position. Just curious…

    • Robert

      Makes no difference Cliff. In fact, you’re reducing wear all round, including on the syncrhomesh by avoiding gearchanges. There is no need to double-declutch on roadcars at all, it just wastes time and fuel. Non-synchromesh trucks are another matter.

      • Cliff

        Makes sense. I will give it a go with my 6 speed. Been driving for 31 years, still learning new things. Thank you.

        • Robert

          Let us know how you get on Cliff! Feels strange at first, but gets easier. You won’t have a muscle memory from 3-5, 2-4 and so on, but you’ll quickly develop the habit.

  • Doug Mullett

    I have an XC Barina (2003) and because of injury, could only use 1st, 3rd and 5th. I found I had to over rev the engine and labour it as the torque band is quite peaked. In my auto VZ, hanging in a higher gear on an incline results in very increased fuel consumption during that time.
    More gears are needed the more peaky the torque curve – flatter torque curves were the preserve of “three on the tree”.

    • Robert

      Doug, not too surprising – the skip shift technique is more applicable to newer cars with stronger engines and six not five speeds. Back in the days of four-speeders skip shifting was almost not, as they say today, “a thing”.

  • Steve

    3rd gear for round about’s WTF, I have a 2011 Ranger and 2011 SS commodore both manuals and in both cars 3rd gear is to high a gear for that low speed.

    • Robert

      So what sort of revs did you have exiting the roundabout in third? Surprised the Commodore needed a flick down into second in order to pull away

      • darnhard .

        my ve ss will pull third from walking pace.

  • Greg Lee

    One of the biggest problem I see is, that people are taught to pass a test. Kids being taught by parent are picking up parent bad habits. Most drivers today don’t drive their vehicle they steer it and think ahead. Getting people to think about gear their changes is wishful thinking Robert as most put their brain into neutral when they jump into the car

    • Robert

      That is true Greg will be covering some of that later.

  • Adam Howley

    Thank you Robert! I have a dual logic (read auto- manual) fiat and I use the manual element all the time like when I drove a manual. 1st gear is short, so on any type of decent I start in second and double tap my paddles and drive even at 50km h on 5. It’s a far more efficient gear, has reasonable pull, and is a smoother albeit slower increase in speed. I have always double down shifted too as it would always change itself anyway but at the wrong time. I have tried teaching my partner but the old school way of racing through the gears hasn’t been changed yet!!!! 🙁

    • Robert

      The SL400 I recently tested would default to pulling away in second unless it was in sports mode.

  • 1250

    yep you are so right ,me l drive a trident 3.2. De. “‘ l can pull away in sec gear” and up into fifth ,but towing is a different set up !!!, have a safe week end you lot

  • Steve

    How is this news to anyone? Surely anyone who has driven has changed from 5th to 3rd before taking s corner, for example. Skipping gears can’t be new to people.

    • Robert

      Steve you would be amazed what’s new to people…

  • maya

    Great article! I was taught to always go into 2nd gear when turning and on roundabouts, no matter what. In my car though, 2nd gear feels like most cars 1st. It’s just way too slow. I figure it’s just a really low-geared car. But it’s good to know I’m not doing any damage to be turning in 3rd! Wish someone told me that sooner. Was also always told to go up 1 gear at a time. In my car you can get 4 gear changes done before you cross an intersection and still be miles behind the other cars. I’m going to try going from 1st to 3rd next time, I think it’d be better on the clutch to.
    Thanks for the fantastic tips!

  • Neil

    Interesting idea, but I’d love to see a car that’s lighter than it was in the 80’s or 90’s.

  • David

    Good to know I’m not doing anything wrong . Got a 2006 Tiida which is a great little 6 speed town car . Never heard of skip shifting as a thing but the Tiidas’ gears are realistically a tad too close in their ratios so I started doing it all the time . It just made sense to me . Good ratios at speeds up to 90 but there is no true overdrive in my opinion so pulls 3k revs on the highway at 110 . They could have done better . Consistently good articles . Thanks for sharing .

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: www.l2sfbc.com