Engine braking is the process of slowing down your car using, as the name suggests, your powertrain, rather than the braking system. The primary way of stopping or slowing down a vehicle is by using brakes. They are particularly advantageous when we have to do it abruptly, for example, in an emergency. What most drivers don't know, unfortunately, is that there is another way to do it. Even worse, some still use antiquated methods from the times of two-stroke engines, such as driving in neutral.

A lot of drivers do that when going downhill or approaching a red light. Putting a car in neutral in those situations is not a very good idea for two reasons:

  • less engine lubrication, which might lead to pistons damage,
  • significant fuel consumption, as opposed to none when engine braking.

It is much better to use your vehicle's powertrain to slow the car down.

What is engine braking?

an engine with anti lock braking system

It is slowing a car down with its engine, rather than brakes, as the name suggests. The process is simple, although it takes a lot of practise if you want to do it smoothly, without the irritating jerking effect on your car.

The best option here is to go for the lower wheel when the revs are around 1500 per minute. You can repeat this process until you are in the second gear. In most situations, you shouldn't, however, reduce further into the first. You should only use the first gear when accelerating your car from a complete stop.

If, however, you want to engine brake at higher crankshaft speeds, you must remember to release the clutch slowly to avoid unpleasant jerking. It is a demanding process and no one is born with this skill. Even experienced professional drivers fail sometimes, so don't worry if it's not smooth the first time. With trial and error, you will eventually master the art of controlling the clutch.

Why should you use engine braking?

braking marks on a straight road

The list of engine braking benefits start with less wear and tear on your brake discs and calipers. Those parts can be expensive, and you will be saving yourself a lot of money by looking after them. Speaking of savings, you should also know that engine braking stops fuel consumption in all direct injection engines. It means a free ride until you press down on the accelerator pedal to increase the speed again.

So, first of all, engine braking extends the life of friction brakes. But it also allows for better control of the car when driving down a steep hill or long slope. In Europe, drivers can find road signs advising them to engine brake, often in mountainous areas, especially on large roads and expressways.

It is also easy to overheat the brake fluid when we use the brake system constantly. In a regular car, brakes tend to underperform when we persistently put them to work. Regardless of whether we have discs or drums, they generate immense amounts of heat that affect hydraulic lines too. When the temperature of the braking fluid increases, it affects the overall effectiveness of the system. To put it simply, the more we brake, the less effective the whole process gets. A common problem here is also one of braking fluid water contamination. It lowers the boiling point making older and not well-maintained cars more prone to ineffective braking and significantly less safe on the roads.

So, how can you use your vehicle's engine to control your speed?

Engine braking is the most effective when you use the lowest gear possible. However, you also need to adjust the gear to the current speed of the vehicle. Otherwise, the car will jerk back and forth, which is unpleasant to the driver and the passengers and can lead to dangerous situations on the road.

The trick is to be gentle with the clutch. When you release it slowly, the car slows down gradually, without any abrupt shaking. That is the whole trick behind the process. If you go easy on your clutch, you will be happy with the results. And this way, your vehicle will gradually slow down without having any negative effect on the brake system.

Are there any downsides to engine braking?

Yes, there are some things all drivers need to keep in their minds:

  • Engine braking doesn't flash the brake lights. It means the drivers behind might not notice that your vehicle is slowing down.
  • Rapid release of the clutch might lead to its excessive wear. It also puts strain on the transmission.
  • In some states of the USA, engine braking is prohibited, mainly in residential areas. It applies to trucks with powerful diesel engines. In their case, "Jake brake", as it is called, causes loud noise, comparable to that of firing a gun.

Be a seasoned driver, learn how to engine brake

a young man is taking driving lessons in the UK

Despite a few disadvantages, engine braking is a useful skill that every driver should be familiar with. In this case, however, expertise comes with time. It is a good idea to take a few moments to practise engine braking, but do it only in situations when you feel confident.

An empty road will be a perfect place to do it as, whatever happens, there will be no danger from or to other vehicles. With time and a little effort, you will master engine braking in all sorts of situations. That, in turn, will give you substantial savings on the cost of brake disc and calipers replacement, as well as better fuel economy. Not to mention a lot of satisfaction from being a pro driver.