Changing Gear

Cars have gears for good reasons – it stops the engine from over heating and provides more control look up other reasons why – the gears work in much the same way as they do on a cycle so if you ride a bike you will already have encountered gears and hopefully have some idea of how to use them. You do not need to know a great deal about how and why gears work but it doesn’t hurt to know a little bit about what is happening and why you change gear. If nothing else you need to understand that if you use the gears well you will prolong the life of your car and have more control.

gear selection

Selecting a gear has two aspects – the first is that you need to decide which gear to select and the second is that there are physical actions required to change gear.

Gears are used to get the right ratio of power from the engine to the wheels. The gears that allow the most power are the lower gears, hence we move off in 1st gear. It is possible to start in 2nd gear when moving off downhill and it is advisable to use 2nd gear when moving off on snow and ice. This is because in first gear the wheels are likely to spin because they are trying to push off the ice/snow, in 2nd gear they will not be trying to push off/ grip as much because there is less torque being given to the wheels.

You may hear 1st, 2nd and 3rd gears being referred to as WORKING GEARS—you would use them when you are needing the car to work, e.g. moving off, climbing hills, cornering, etc. 4th and 5th and 6th are CRUISING GEARS, that is they are used to maintain a speed rather than accelerate, they use much less power from the engine and rely on the momentum the car already has.

Each car will have a different limit for its gears. In some gears like the Honda Jazz you can go below 20mph in 3rd gear without a significant loss of drive but in other vehicles—particularly diesels or bigger cars, this is not possible and you would need to be in 2nd gear when at 20mph. It will be up to you to get the clues from the car you are driving as to when it needs to change gear. 

choosing the correct gear

Each car will have a different limit for its gears. My KIA C’eed is capable of going 20mph in 3rd gear but it is not particularly comfortable doing so. It will be up to you to get the clues from the car you are driving as to when it needs to change gear. More than that you will want to be able to identify when you should change gear before the car starts to complain—it will be no good trying to join a roundabout only to realise the car isn’t responding because you are still in 5th gear.

As a rough guide: When below 10mph be in 1st gear,

When between 10-20mph go into 2nd gear, between 20-35mph use 3rd gear.

30mph-50mph use 4th gear. Over 40mph use 5th gear.

Over 55mph use 6th gear (if you have one!)

use of gears

Any time you change speed you need to consider changing the gear that you are using, the following situations are only examples of when this may need to happen:

Approaching junctions—T-junctions, roundabouts, cross roads etc.

Approaching traffic lights / pedestrian crossings / chicanes and narrowed roads Approaching parked cars or other obstructions at the side of the road.

Approaching traffic or a bus that has stopped.

However, you use the brakes to do the slowing down and then once you have an appropriate speed and you want to continue at that speed and/or accelerate you should change gear. You may hear this saying: BRAKES TO SLOW, GEARS TO GO!

Therefore, I would not be expecting you to change gear until the car is at the speed you wish to maintain and this requires that you have looked and made a judgement about what is happening and going to happen in the above situations. We want to avoid slowing down to 20mph—changing into 2nd—and then realising that we will need to stop. You should be able to tell on approach if it is likely that you will need to stop, and in that situation you would want to slow down almost to a stop and use 1st as you approach so that you have the option to stop or go without an unnecessary change of gear. That said it may be necessary to drop down 5th to 3rd to 1st rather than 5th to 1st!

In addition to these you will also need to change gear if you need the car to work harder, for example:

Going uphill,

Going round a tight corner

If you want the car to accelerate quickly.

There are other situations in which you may need you to consider a different gear choice from ‘normal’:

If on snow and ice you want to use the higher gears as much as possible, and use them earlier than you normally would. Going down very steep hills you would want to use a lower gear than normal to help hold the speed back.

physical actions

When you move the gear lever the clutch pedal must be pressed all the way down, after moving the gear lever the clutch must come all the way back up again. The only exception to this is in 1st gear when you will need to find and hold the biting point to make the transition smooth. Before you press the clutch all the way down you must take your foot off the accelerator. You need to be able to select a gear without looking at the gear lever!

So the process for changing gears is:

Remove foot from accelerator pedal completely.   What happens if you do not do this? Why?

Press the clutch pedal all the way down completely.     What happens of you don’t? Why?

Move the gear lever (without looking at it) to the new gear.   What might happen if you take your eyes off the road?

Smoothly bring the clutch pedal all the way up (unless you are in first).    What happens if you move off the clutch too quickly?

Gently press the accelerator again (unless road conditions determine otherwise).

Why Worry?

Many of my pupils have, at the start, been very worried about gears and have focused / worried about them too much. They are an aspect of driving that requires thought and co-ordination but unless you are very harsh with the controls you will have plenty of time to deal with the gears. For example, my KIA is very forgiving with the gears and you will get feedback (sound and feel) from the car that warns you of the need to change gear – this gives you time to choose which gear and change it. The gear change does not need to happen quickly and if you rush the movement of the gear lever you are more likely to select the “wrong” gear and have to do it all over again! The “wrong” gear is not the way I would think of it since any gear is right if you are at the right speed! That is, your job as the driver is to match the speed and gear so that you can achieve a certain task (go slower, maintain speed, accelerate gently or quickly). Therefore sometimes it is not the gear that is “wrong” but the “speed”. Gears are also reasonably predictable – that is, you will repeat the same action over and over again in similar situations and hence you will develop repeatable patterns that simplify the whole process.

Top tips for selecting gear

– In the early stages Be guided by your accompanying driver as to which gear is appropriate
– take your time to look at the speedometer and think about which gear is appropriate before changing gear
– Put the clutch all the way down when you hear the car struggling
– Once the clutch is down take your time in selecting the gear you want
The difficulty in changing gears is normally in reacting to the need to change gear early enough or in the re-engagement of the gears. So when you take it out of one gear and go into another you are once again reconnecting the engine and the wheels (click here if you need a reminder of what happens when you change gear) but at a different speed/power ratio. If you do not control this re-engagement, just like when you are first moving off, you can find that it is a little rough.

The key to a smooth and successful gear change is to smoothly bring the clutch up whilst being sensitive to the response of the car. Aim to be able to feel / notice the point at which the engine is once again driving the wheels and be prepared to hold the clutch or bring it up more slowly if the car requires it (most likely if you have not matched the speed and the gear very accurately).

Let me give you an example,

If I go into 2nd gear whilst my car is travelling at 20mph I need to bring the clutch up more slowly than if I go into 2nd gear at 14mph. That is because 2nd gear can be used anywhere between 9mph and 25mph in my car – it has quite a range of speed that 2nd gear is possible – but I wouldn’t drive for very long in 2nd gear at 9mph and I wouldn’t stay in 2nd gear if I was maintaining 25mph. Those upper and lower limits are possible but not desirable. The optimum speed for 2nd gear in my car is 12-18mph. Hence 14mph is within that comfort range for 2nd gear and 20mph is not. I therefore need to help the car transition smoothly into 2nd gear when outside of 12-18mph.

So either aim to change gear at the optimum speeds for that gear or learn to get a feel for the car as you bring the clutch back up. Most people get to this stage by virtue of practice, if you want to get better quickly then take you time to think about your speed before changing gear and ask your accompanying driver for advice.

Automatic vehicles

Vehicles with automatic transmission have no clutch and you will not need to change gears – the choice is made automatically. You can get semi-automatic vehicles whereby you can choose the gear but you do not need to change gear through the use of a clutch.

Automatic vehicles are necessary for some people and desirable for others but no matter which type of vehicle you drive it is useful to have an understanding of how gears are used and how they might affect your drive.

One of the things you are expected to know for your theory is about “kickdown”. Automatic vehicles choose the best gear based on the speed and the load of the vehicle but if you want to accelerate quickly then you need the car to change gear. In automatic vehicles pressing the accelerator all the way down will result in “kickdown” – the automatic transmission will choose a lower gear enabling greater acceleration.