Downshifting To Slow Down: Should You, Or Shouldn't You?

Driving a car or truck with a manual transmission has many benefits. Manual transmissions typically offer better gas mileage, require less maintenance and fewer transmission repairs and give you greater control over the vehicle. Most stick-shift drivers can agree upon those things. Surprisingly, one hotly debated topic among those with manual vehicles is downshifting, also known as engine braking. Does it do more harm than good? Should you avoid downshifting whenever possible? Find out below.

Braking, Downshifting and Coasting in Neutral

People who drive stick shifts often recommend going downhill in neutral, only applying the brakes if you absolutely have to. Allegedly, this saves on gas mileage and slows down the wearing of the brakes.

However, being able to accelerate and decelerate (or stop) at a moment's notice is essential to safe driving. When the car is in neutral, you will be unable to accelerate immediately if you need to get out of another driver's way or pull off the road for an emergency vehicle. That can put you and others in a dangerous situation. For the safety of everyone involved, always keep your vehicle in gear. Use your brake to slow down or stop, and only downshift to a lower gear if you have to.

That said, are there instances in which it's helpful to downshift to slow your vehicle down instead of applying the brakes? Yes. If you're going downhill for a long time at slow speeds (on a mountain road, for instance), downshift to avoid riding the brakes. Otherwise, you risk getting your brakes too hot. You can also downshift to reduce your braking distance in inclement weather conditions.

In general, do the following to slow or stop your manual transmission vehicle:

  • Apply the brakes
  • Step on the clutch when the engine speed is near idle
  • Put the car in neutral
  • Let the clutch out

When you need to get moving again, step on the clutch, put the vehicle in first gear and upshift from there as you drive.

Looking at Replacement Costs for the Clutch Versus the Brakes

Speaking of braking and downshifting, you'll eventually have to replace both the brakes and the clutch. The clutch, of course, is engaged anytime you put the vehicle in gear or change gears. Primarily, you should use your brakes to slow down when driving. They're more cost efficient to replace, and that's the purpose of the brakes, anyway.

How much more affordable is it to replace the brakes? That depends. Clutch replacement can cost as little as $400 and as much as $3,000, depending on the type of vehicle you drive. The average is $1,085. Even if you do it yourself, you'll likely spend hundreds of dollars on parts. And typically, this is not a repair that most novices want to undertake. Brakes, on the other hand, are easy to replace yourself. Even if you're not the DIY type, the average cost of replacing your brakes is $150 to $1,000 if you have it done in a shop, but it's much more affordable if you do it yourself.

Replacing brakes is inevitable. The clutch's life expectancy is about 50,000 to 100,000 miles before it needs to be replaced. The less work the clutch has to do the longer it will last.

So, as it turns out, downshifting isn't always a bad thing. In unusual driving conditions, it's acceptable to downshift to reduce braking distance and give you greater control of the vehicle. However, the wear and tear on your clutch is not worth using downshifting as a primary means of slowing down your vehicle. That's what the brakes are for—use them.