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How to Downshift a Manual Transmission Vehicle

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Eric learned to drive a manual transmission when he bought a 2012 Mustang GT. He stalled over and over until mastering this technique.

How to downshift and work the clutch on a manual transmission car.

How to downshift and work the clutch on a manual transmission car.

Reasons for Downshifting

The technique of downshifting can be very useful for smoothly turning corners, negotiating traffic, navigating hazardous road conditions (like potholes, snow, or ice), or simply slowing down without using your brake.

Do you have to downshift a car?

Yes, it is possible to simply coast to a stop in neutral, but you lose some control of the vehicle when it's not in gear. If you know the stop is coming, it's always better to downshift as you slow. . . but you won't hurt the car if you don't.

3 Ways to Downshift a Manual Transmission

This guide assumes that you already know how to upshift a manual transmission, so at this point you should be somewhat familiar with the different gears and shifting between them for acceleration.

There are three ways to downshift, and all of them will be discussed in this guide:

  • Single-clutch downshift (the most common method)
  • Double-clutch downshift
  • Heel-toe downshift

How Do You Know When to Shift Down?

When the car is going too slow for the gear you are in, you will feel the engine lagging. It might shake, rattle, or emit a low rumble, and it may even feel like the car is about to stall. The tachometer will also tell you: If it reads about 1 (or 1,000) RPM, it's time to shift down.

How do you know when to shift without looking at the tachometer?

When you first start driving a manual transmission, you will probably check the tachometer often, but as you get better at it, you will learn how the vehicle feels when the gear is too low so you won't need to look. You will begin to recognize the low, rattling sound and stuttering feel of an engine that's lagging in a too-high gear.

When Is It Time to Shift?

The tachometer tells you when to shift. Shift down when the tachometer reads about 1 or 1,000 RPM (and up at 3 or 3,000 RPM).

The tachometer tells you when to shift. Shift down when the tachometer reads about 1 or 1,000 RPM (and up at 3 or 3,000 RPM).

Single-Clutch Downshift

This is the most common way to downshift your manual transmission car.

  1. Check your speed and your current RPM. When the tachometer reads 1 or 1,000 RPM, it's time to shift down.
  2. Push the clutch in and, at the same time, shift to the next lower gear. Don't shift into the wrong gear, and don't try to go more than one gear down!
  3. With the clutch still in, give the gas a little tap to rev-match the engine speed to the transmission speed. The tap should get you between 0.5 to 1 RPM more than your current RPM to rev-match. Make sure you don't give too little of a tap, or else the shift will be uneven. It is better to give a tap that is too big rather than too small.
  4. Slowly release the clutch and continue to add gas. Sometimes, you don't even have to add gas. You can just slowly release the clutch instead; however, only do this if your RPM are high enough.

That is how you do a single-clutch downshift. It is okay if you don't get it right at first. Practice makes perfect!

Double-Clutch Downshift

Why do you need to double clutch? Well, if you have an old car that doesn't have any synchronizers, double clutching is necessary. For most cars, double clutching will not be necessary, but it is good to understand the difference and how to perform this downshift.

  1. Check your speed and current RPM. Again, when the tachometer reads 1 or 1,000 RPM, it's time to shift.
  2. Push the clutch in and, at the same time, shift into neutral.
  3. Release the clutch and rev-match by giving the gas a little tap to match the engine speed to the transmission speed of the car.
  4. Now push the clutch in again while shifting into the lower gear. You will want to do this very quickly before the RPM go down (if they go too low, the shift will be jerky).
  5. Slowly release the clutch and continue to add gas.
In a car with manual transmission, you will use both feet to work the pedals: left foot works the clutch, right foot works the gas and brake.

In a car with manual transmission, you will use both feet to work the pedals: left foot works the clutch, right foot works the gas and brake.

Heel-Toe Downshift

The heel-toe downshift isn't necessary in daily driving. It is mostly used in race driving such as circuit racing around corners as it allows for turning a corner smoothly. This is one of the most difficult and advanced types of downshifting, so don't get frustrated if you don't get it your first time. Practice heel-toe shifting in an empty parking lot before trying it on the road.

The "heel-toe" part of the downshift comes when you put the toes of your right foot on the brakes and turn your foot to put the heel of your right foot on the gas to tap the throttle to rev-match. Another method of doing the heel-toe is to push the brakes with the toes of your right foot and use the side of your foot to tap the throttle. This method only works if your brake and gas pedals are close together. However, this method does seem easier to perform than rotating your whole foot to reach the gas.

  1. Check your speed and RPM. You need to predict at what speed to want to enter and exit the turn so you can downshift to the correct gear.
  2. Begin to brake as you enter the turn.
  3. As you start to turn, push the clutch in and tap the throttle with the heel-toe technique. At the same time, shift into the lower gear.
  4. Slowly release the clutch and continue to add gas.

What to Do With Your Feet: Clutch, Gas, and Brake

Downshifting vs. Braking: Which Is Better?

The main two reasons why drivers choose to downshift (aka engine brake) is because it's cool to drive like a smooth, professional race car driver and it saves money on brake wear and tear, since brakes, brake pads, discs, and rotors can be expensive.

On the other hand, you may spend more on gas and transmission using this method since downshifting does make both the engine and transmission work harder.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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