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What Is a Gear Shift?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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A gear shift is a fixture in a vehicle which allows the driver to select the gear ratio most appropriate for the speed and conditions. Also known as a gear selector, gear lever, or simply shifter, the gear shift interfaces with the gear box in the vehicle's drivetrain. The design of the shifter can vary widely, depending on what type of vehicle is involved, and whether the transmission is manual or automatic.

In a manual transmission car, drivers have the option of selecting between a number of preset gear ratios with the gear shift. This design allows drivers to save wear on the engine by selecting the appropriate gearing. For example, fifth gear is an excellent choice for high speeds, but it is not a good choice when starting a car. The shifter also allows drivers to select a reverse gear for times when they need to back up. In automatic transmission vehicles, drivers can usually select between a basic drive gear, a park gear, a neutral gear, and a reverse gear. Some automatic transmissions also have an overdrive gear for high speeds, and one to two lower gears for low speeds and unique driving conditions.

A classic place for the gear shift to be mounted is in the center console of the vehicle. The car will usually have a map of the gears so that drivers know which way to move the shifter to access a particular gear. Some cars also have light up displays which indicate which gear is currently selected. Cars may also have shifters on the steering column of the vehicle, a popular choice historically when automobile manufacturers wanted to be able to create front bench seats. Some cars use paddle shifters mounted on either side of the wheel which allow people to pace up or down through the gears.

Operation of the gear shift depends, again, on the vehicle involved. With some manual transmission vehicles, drivers need to activate a clutch pedal to disengage the gear box while they change gears. Other types of vehicles may allow drivers to push a button for the same effect, and with some vehicles, using the clutch is not necessary. In automatic transmission cars, the car will do much of the shifting work for the driver, and sometimes all of it, depending on the car.

When learning to drive, the gear shift is one of the first things drivers are familiarized with, as they need to know how to operate it to drive a car safely. As drivers become familiar with driving and specific cars, they can refine their use of the shifter, and learn to identify problems with the car's gearing or transmission which might require the attention of a mechanic.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Sporkasia — On Mar 05, 2014

I find it unacceptable that a person can take his driver's test while driving an automatic gear shift vehicle and then once he passes and gets his license he can go out and drive a manual gear shift vehicle. There should be two separate tests or everyone should have to test on a manual transmission vehicle.

By Animandel — On Mar 05, 2014

As a young driver, gear shifts scared me. I thought it was cool watching someone else who knew how to drive a manual transmission change the gears, but I wanted no part of it--still don't.

What frightened me most was stopping on a hill with a car behind me and having to start moving forward without rolling back into the car behind me. Grinding the gears and riding the clutch also frightened me. I was sure I would ruin a manual transmission. To this day, I stick with the automatic gear shift.

By Sporkasia — On Mar 04, 2014

I owned a car before I passed the driver's test for my license. My father taught me to drive on a 5-speed manual transmission hatchback. It was a cute little car with great gas mileage and more power than you would expect.

Though changing gears and driving a vehicle with a manual transmission was more challenging than driving a car with an automatic transmission, I wouldn't have wanted to learn to drive in any other way.

Once I learned to drive and handle the manual gear shift on my car, I felt comfortable driving most any vehicle.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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