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What Is Engine Braking? Everything You Need to Know!

mechanic repairing car engine

If you’ve recently gotten into cars, you may have run across a term called engine braking. Engine braking can sound confusing because it seems unintuitive to slow the car using the engine, but it’s simpler than you think! Once you learn how engine braking works, you’ll find it’s very useful to minimize brake wear on manual cars. Let’s delve a bit more into how engine braking works and why you might want to do it.

car and road divider

How Does Engine Braking Work?

Engine braking is a process that slows your car by letting off the gas pedal and downshifting to a lower gear, which effectively sucks fuel out of the engine. The resulting vacuum transfers braking force to the wheels through the drivetrain, plus it prevents fuel from getting to the cylinders. This creates a strong brake function that provides additional control.

On hills, for example, you can engine brake to minimize the wear and tear on your caliper brakes. Shifting to lower gears after disengaging the clutch will make you engine brake faster, but it requires some practice to get used to. Your first attempts may feel clumsy or awkward, but after a few tries, you’ll be able to quickly and smoothly use engine braking regularly. Used properly, engine braking can help save money on maintenance costs as well as reduce the chance of accidents.

man checking car engine
Image By: Me dia, Shutterstock

Types of Engine Braking

The main type of engine braking is used in manual transmission cars, but a variant called Jacob brakes is used in diesel-powered engines, like those used in semi-trucks These brakes used a hydraulic air pump to engine brake much like manual cars. The main use is to prolong the life of vehicles that travel long distances by reducing friction on conventional braking systems.

As you might expect, these brakes are typically only used by commercial vehicles. However, aftermarket “jake brakes” can be installed on regular cars. In many residential areas, using one of these brakes can cost you a fine because of the loud, disruptive noise it produces.

What Uses Engine Braking?

Engine braking is exclusively used in cars with manual gearboxes and has grown less common since automatic gearboxes have become popular. Rather than bother with managing your regular brakes and engine braking at the same time, automatics let you release the gas pedal and coast. This contrasts with engine braking, which is a more forceful type of braking action.

While it’s become less common, engine braking is far from a dead technique. Virtually any modern car with a manual gearbox can engine brake, from older used manuals to newer performance-based models.

driver starting the car engine
Image By: lzf, Shutterstock

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Advantages of Engine Braking

Engine braking has several main advantages that make it worth using in your day-to-day life. Namely, preserving your caliper brakes, navigating icy roads, and traversing hills.

Reduces Caliper Brake Wear

By letting off the brake pedal and not relying on it for all of your braking needs, you can greatly extend the effective life span of your brake pads. If you drive a lot, engine braking can quickly save you a lot of time and money on brake maintenance and repairs.

More Control Going Downhill

By shifting to a lower gear before you start to descend a steep hill, you can control your speed through both engine braking and your brake pedal. This helps provide more control while going downhill, and just as importantly, reduces the chances of damage to your caliper brakes.

red car in snow
Image By: Piqsels

Safely Drive on Icy Roads

Regular brakes are risky when driving on slick and icy roads, potentially locking up your wheels and causing a serious accident. Engine braking is particularly useful in cold climates where roadways get iced up in the winter. You can engine brake to safely reduce your speed without the risk of locking your wheels up.

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Disadvantages of Engine Braking

Engine braking has some major downsides you should be aware of before attempting to do it. The main disadvantages are engine braking not flashing your brake lights, potential damage to your gearbox when done improperly, and engine braking being illegal in many areas.

car engine
Image By: BruceEmmerling, Pixabay

Doesn’t Flash Brake Lights

Your regular brakes are connected to your taillights, but engine braking slows you down without signaling this to other drivers. If you engine brake a lot, it could be a safety hazard to you and others on the roadway.

Potential Gearbox Damage

Although it doesn’t harm your engine when done correctly, engine braking improperly can seriously damage your gears and even destroy your clutch. It’s important to get familiar with the proper technique so you don’t mess up your car.

dusty engine of an old car
Image By: emkanicepic, Pixabay

Engine Braking is Illegal in Some Areas

In most cases, this is referring to “Jake brakes” on diesel vehicles, but powerful manual cars can produce just as loud of a noise when engine braking. Bans on engine braking are mainly in residential areas, where it can disturb people in their homes.

divider 1 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Can automatic cars engine brake?: The ability to engine brake is pretty rare in automatic cars because there’s typically no option to choose your gear. However, some automatics have a Low (L) and High (H) option on the shifter. By shifting to the low setting, you can force the car to shift lower and engine brake.
  • When should I use engine braking?: Your brake pedal should be your primary method of slowing down, while sparingly engine braking to reduce wear on the calipers and brake pads. However, you’ll want to rely more on engine braking when you’re driving downhill and on icy roads. Engine braking helps keep you safe and keeps your brakes in good condition.
  • How do I know where engine braking is prohibited?: You’ll mainly see signs prohibiting engine braking on highways that come near residential areas. These bans are primarily because engine braking produces a loud noise similar to a gunshot. While it’s mainly to tell semi-drivers to not engine brake for that stretch of road, it also applies to manual cars.

car and road divider


Engine braking is mainly a way to prolong the life of your regular brakes, but it can help keep you safe in certain driving conditions. It takes some practice to learn how to engine brake without harming your gears, but it’s a valuable skill to learn if you like manual cars.

Featured Image Credit: A_stockphoto, Shutterstock


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