Is Stalling a Car Bad? The Facts Explained

Man shifting the gear on a manual gearbox driving a car behind the steering wheel

Picture this: you’re at a light in your new manual transmission car, and you want to impress the people next to you. The light turns green, they drive away, and you’re just sitting there with a car that randomly turned off. This is called stalling, and it can definitely be embarrassing and annoying, but is it bad for your car? You’ll find out in this quick expert guide.

Stalling a manual car at very low speeds is common and not dangerous for your car. It’s a safeguard that protects your engine from taking too large of a load. If a manual car stalls randomly at a higher speed or an automatic car stalls, then there’s a huge problem. The stalling itself doesn’t hurt the car, but it’s a symptom of a big issue.

What Is Stalling?

If you’re learning how to drive manual, then you might have stalled a dozen times by now. This is part of the learning experience, and it’s an annoying experience that all manual drivers can share.

You can refer to my complete guide for learning to drive manual if you’re confused or need some pointers. Regardless, you need to know what’s happening every time your car stalls.

By definition, stalling is when your car turns off while you’re driving.

Close up of a man driving a car shifting the gears on a manual transmission

Almost every time, stalling a car refers to driving a manual car. It happens at low speeds when the driver releases the clutch too quickly or without enough gas. If your automatic car stalls, there’s a much bigger problem that will be discussed later. For now, I’ll just talk to my friends driving manual cars who are stalling it.

When you stall, your car will act like you just turned the key to the “off” position and took out the key. Power steering will stop, your pedals will do nothing, and your lights will go out. The big difference is that your key is not removed from the car, and your gear selector is in first or second.

How Stalling Happens

A manual transmission works like a claw machine at your local arcade. The claw selects the gear from the transmission, then you need to ease off the clutch pedal so the two mesh together nicely. The difference is that it’s not a “claw”, it’s another gear.

The clutch pedal works like the arm of that claw. The smoothness that you apply and disengage the clutch pedal directly translates to how smoothly the arm moves.

Manual-transmission - shifting pedals
Shifting pedals on a manual-transmission

By moving the pedal very quickly, you’re mashing the gears together with a lot of force. If you pop the clutch without any gas, you are slamming the selector into the gear. Your car has a safeguard that protects your engine.

If the car notices that the revolutions per minute (RPM) of the engine is too low for the car to be safely moved forward, the whole car will turn off. Without this safeguard, you can do some serious damage to your engine. When the RPMs are low and the car moves forward, parts can jam and get damaged.

For a typical car, the stalling RPM is somewhere between 300 and 600. In my experience, it’s been around 500 RPM.

When Your Car Might Stall

Now that you know how your car stalls, you can probably guess the common times your car stalls. It’s when you’re either accelerating from a stop or decelerating to a stop (though the first scenario is way more common).

Let’s say you’re at a stop. You engage the clutch, put it in first, and don’t touch the gas pedal. You then release the clutch pedal quickly. Your car will buck for a second and then just turn off. This is stalling. The same will happen if you’re going 15 mph and have your foot on the brake with your car in first gear. If you don’t touch the clutch, your car will stall when you get to a few mph.

What to Do After Stalling

As I was learning how to drive a manual, I must have stalled 50 times, so I know exactly what to do after stalling.

The first thing to do is realize that it’s normal and no big deal. If you stall on the road, as long as you know what to do next you can do it and if you need more time, you can turn on the emergency flasher so no one starts honking like crazy behind you.

A person pressing the hazard light button inside the car

Push down the brake and fully depress the clutch. Turn your key to the “off” position, then start your car again by turning and holding your key to the “on” position. Make sure the car is in 1st gear, release the brake, give it a little gas, then slowly let off the clutch. When the vehicle starts moving you can let off the clutch until it’s time to shift gears again.

If you want to, just pretend like you’re starting your car first thing in the morning. The operation is exactly the same, the only difference is that you have to turn your key from “on” to “off” before you can begin.

Is Stalling a Car Bad?

The reason that stalling isn’t bad is that it’s just a safeguard built into manual cars. They’re built to stall if the situation gets unsafe for the engine. The alternative would be much more dangerous — that is, if the car never stalls and just allows the engine to go to 100 RPM while trying to move the vehicle forward.

However, there’s a huge caveat to this “stalling is fine” claim. If you drive an automatic and your car stalls, something is seriously wrong. In addition, if your manual car stalls when you’re driving and accelerating above 10mph, there’s a big problem.

Car dashboard diagnostic lights on
When the car stalls all the diagnostic lights will pop-up

Wait a second — I just mentioned that I stalled around 50 times when I was first learning how to drive. Surely that means that I burnt through a few transmissions and clutches in that car, right? No. In fact, I never replaced the transmission or clutch on the car that I learned how to drive on. That same car taught at least 5 other people how to drive manual.

This is because stalling a manual car is not a bad thing in terms of damaging your car. The exception to this rule is a driver who stalls 10 times every day that they drive forever. That, unfortunately, can do some damage to your car.

Some Potential Issues with Stalling a Car

Even though stalling a manual is fine, there are some potential issues that you can run into.

Rolling Backwards

If you stall because you don’t give it enough gas going up a hill, then you might run into a problem. Unless you immediately press the brake or apply the e-brake, you’re going to start rolling backward until you restart your car.

For that reason, I would prioritize applying the brake over trying to restart your car if you stall on a hill.

If you take too long to press the brake, then you’ll hit whoever is behind you.

Getting Stuck in an Intersection

This exact problem happened to me a few times when I was first learning (a few of those scary memories have been burnt into my brain). If you stall, your car doesn’t go anywhere until you start it again. You’re stuck in the exact position you stalled in.

Heavy traffic in downtown San Francisco, CA with the red traffic light showing

For a lot of people, stalling from a complete stop is common. That means that you could be at a stop sign or red light, and stall as you start pulling out. Now, your car is in the middle of the intersection and stalled.

All it takes is a driver who isn’t paying attention to not see your stopped car in the intersection and hit you.

Panicking to Fix the Problem

Another common issue is a rookie driver who starts panicking. If you stall and then slam on the gas and pop the clutch to quickly fix the problem, you could be doing a lot of other damage to your car. Doing this won’t be doing any favors for your engine, transmission, clutch, tires, or drivetrain.

I understand the desire to get out of an embarrassing situation but try to stay calm while you’re restarting from a stall.

If an Automatic Stalls

If your automatic car stalls for any reason, there’s a big problem. This problem can be caused by a dying transmission, not enough transmission fluid, dead alternator and battery, blown fuse, stuffed air intake, hydro-locked car, faulty fuel system, and a dozen of smaller and less common problems.

Alternator
Engine alternator

Even if it’s just one random stall and then your car goes back to normal, go to a mechanic as soon as you can. Just one stall is too many for an automatic.

Unexpected Stalling

In addition, if your manual stalls when you’re taking a corner at 30 miles per hour, huge alarms need to go off in your head. It’s normal to stall at a stop, but not at cruising speeds. It could be any number of problems that cause it, and most of the issues cost big money to fix.

Just like a stalled automatic, you need to get towed right to a mechanic to troubleshoot a manual that stalls randomly.

Side Effects of Popping the Clutch

If you “ride” the clutch or “pop” the clutch, you will wear it down quicker. Riding the clutch is when you keep it slightly depressed as you’re driving. This can cause the gears to slip a little, and the transmission or clutch can burn out quicker.

Hand shifting a manual car in Slovakia

If you pop the clutch, you’re releasing the clutch very quickly. This creates a ton of extra force in the clutch and transmission, and it can also lead to required replacements of either of these assemblies.

Repairing either the clutch or transmission is a multi-thousand-dollar issue.

Conclusion

Now you’re an expert on cars and stalling. If your manual car stalls at a low speed, it’s not doing any damage to your car. If you want to learn more about cars, then take a look at my site. I also have a list of products that might interest you. Drop a comment below if this guide was helpful.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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