Driving an automatic car

How to drive an automatic car

If you’re considering buying an automatic car and haven’t driven one before, you may wonder how different it is to driving a manual car. Our guide explains everything.

Graham King Cazoo

By Graham King

Published: 13 June 2023

Driving a car with an automatic gearbox (also known as an automatic transmission) is as simple as putting it in ‘Drive’ and pulling away, right? Well, yes and no. If you haven’t driven an automatic car before, you might want to know if there are any specific features to be aware of and just how different it is to driving a manual car. We’ve got those questions – and more – covered here.

What’s different about driving an automatic car compared with a manual car?

The most obvious difference between a car with a manual gearbox and a car with an automatic is the clutch pedal – in an automatic car, there isn’t one. Oh, and you don’t have to change gears yourself, because the car does it for you.

Without going into great technical detail, pushing the clutch pedal down in a manual car disconnects the engine from the gearbox. You then move the gear lever, which engages the gear you want. Then you lift the clutch and the whole system reconnects, using the gear you selected.

In an automatic, that whole process happens, well, automatically. When the car’s computer software decides a different gear is needed, a combination of mechanical and electronic parts takes care of it, without needing any input from you. 

There are different types of automatic gearbox, but with each one you can simply select ‘Drive’ using the gear selector (more on that in a moment) and away you go.

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What do the letters on an automatic gearbox selector mean?

Every automatic car has some kind of gear selector, whether it’s a lever, a rotary dial or simply a button. But generally speaking, they’re labelled with different letters for different functions. Usually, these letters are P, R, N and D. Sometimes they might also have L, or a couple of numbers, usually 1, 2 and/or 3. 

P stands for Park – select it when the car is stationary and you want to take your foot off the brake pedal. R stands for Reverse when you want to back up and N for Neutral, when you want to disengage any gears, for example if your car is being towed. D stands for Drive, which lets the car move forwards.

L stands for Lock and it restricts the gearbox to the lowest two or three gears, which could be useful when driving up a very steep hill. Some gearboxes let you specify a particular gear and these are labelled 1, 2, 3 and so on.

To select any of the gears, simply move the gear selector towards the relevant letter. In most modern automatic cars, an LED will light up next to each letter and you’ll often see a corresponding letter on the driver display behind the steering wheel.

In some automatic cars with a gear lever, you have to press a button on the handle before you can move it, just to stop the car from being accidentally knocked into gear.

What does an automatic gear lever look like?

In modern automatic cars, the gear selector is essentially just an electronic switch. It’s not mechanically connected to the gearbox and simply sends a signal to the car’s electronic ‘brain’.

That means car designers have the freedom to create all manner of different designs for gear selectors. While some cars have a traditional-looking gear ‘stick’, others use a circular dial, a ‘stalk’ on the steering column or even just a straightforward switch or button.

Do all automatic cars have gears?

We’re getting quite technical here but, generally, yes. 

All cars need some kind of mechanical device to transmit the power developed by the engine or electric motor to the wheels (that’s why a gearbox is sometimes known as a transmission). 

Most automatic cars still use physical cogs (gears) to do this. Most have at least five forward gears, while more powerful models can have up to 10. All have a reverse gear, too, of course.

There are some exceptions. For example, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) uses a belt that runs between two cones, rather than a set of cogs, so it has no ‘set’ of forward gears as such.

Electric cars don’t actually have an automatic gearbox, but they function in the same way as an automatic: you simply select Drive to go forward or Reverse to go backwards and the car does the rest. There are a couple of things to note, which we’ll cover in a bit.

Can you change gear manually with an automatic gearbox?

Most automatic cars allow you some control over which gear is being used. In some cars you'll see M (for manual) on the gear selector, with + and – signs to let you know which way to move the selector to move up or down a gear. In other cars you simply push the selector to the side and then move it backwards or forwards. There may also be paddles or buttons on the steering wheel, clearly marked with a + or – which can be used to change gear. 

If there’s a manual function you’ll usually see a number in the driver’s display that lets you know which gear you’re currently in. If you’re using manual mode, the car will usually automatically select a different gear if the one you’ve chosen is likely to damage the car’s engine.

Should you put an automatic car in neutral at traffic lights?

Stopping at traffic lights generally requires little more than staying in D and putting your foot on the brake. This doesn’t put unnecessary strain on the gearbox and having your brake lights on is an indicator to cars approaching behind you that you’re stationary. It also allows for a quick manoeuvre if, for example, an emergency vehicle comes up behind you and you need to move.

There shouldn’t be any need to shift into neutral.

Don’t shift into P, because doing so often requires shifting past R, which can briefly engage your car’s reversing lights and confuse drivers behind you.

What are driving modes on an automatic gearbox?

Lots of automatic gearboxes have different modes, which you can select using a button or switch near the gear selector. These allow you to change the way the gearbox behaves, to suit different needs. Modes vary from car to car, but are usually a variation on Normal, Sport and Economy.

Normal is the car’s default mode, designed to give a balance between performance and fuel economy. In Sport, the engine is more responsive when you press the accelerator and revs higher before changing gear. It’s useful when overtaking or enjoying the car’s performance on an open road. Economy mode dials down the engine’s response and changes gear at lower revs to improve fuel efficiency.

How else is driving an automatic different?

There are two things that really stand out about driving an automatic car if you have little experience of them.

First is a feature known as creeping. In a manual car, you can balance the clutch and accelerator to move the car along slowly, for instance in stop-start traffic. Automatic cars also let you do that but in a different way. When you’re holding the car at a standstill with the brake pedal, simply lift up the pedal gently and the car will start to creep slowly forwards.

Secondly, if you’re holding the car at a standstill on a hill, when you lift off the brake pedal to press the accelerator, you don’t need to worry about balancing the clutch. With the handbrake on (to stop the car rolling backwards), press gently on the accelerator until you feel the car start to strain against the handbrake, then release the handbrake and the car will move forward.

Most modern cars also have a feature called Hill-Start Assist, which will stop the car rolling backwards for a short time when you move your foot from the brake to the accelerator.

Can I drive an automatic if I learned with a manual gearbox?

Yes. If your UK driving licence entitles you to drive a car with a manual gearbox, you can also drive an automatic. However, if your licence is for automatic cars, you can’t legally drive a manual under normal circumstances.

If you want to upgrade your licence, you can learn to drive a manual without having to apply for a new provisional licence, but you will have to display L plates as a Learner. Many driving instructors will offer a course to prepare you for the change.

When you’re ready, you’ll need to book a new driving test through the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). You don’t need to take another theory test.

Are all cars available as automatics?

Automatic gearboxes are increasingly popular and there are now many cars in which an automatic gearbox is your only option. That includes everything from small city cars to high-end sports cars. In some cars an automatic gearbox is only available with a certain engine, or as an extra-cost option. And there are still some which only come with a manual gearbox.

Are all hybrid cars automatic?

All cars with full-hybrid or plug-in hybrid systems use automatic gearboxes, largely because combining the two power sources (a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor) as efficiently as possible is a job best left to the car’s electronics. 

Mild-hybrid cars, however, are available with either a manual or automatic gearbox, since the electric motor in the vast majority of mild-hybrid systems is small, simple and can’t power the car using electricity alone.

Are all electric cars automatic?

Almost all electric cars available in the UK are automatic, in as much as they don’t have a clutch pedal and the driver doesn’t have to change gears, although they don’t have a gearbox as such. Virtually all electric cars lack multiple gears because the characteristics of an electric motor mean you don’t need more than that – they simply have ‘forward’ or ‘reverse’. A handful of high-end electric cars have two forward gears to improve efficiency at higher speeds, but these are few and far between.

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