Updated: Jan 18
Driving an automatic car is often seen easier than a manual car, but how do you drive one? We've put together this handy guide to explain how automatic transmission works.
1) Forget about the clutch pedal.
Automatics do have gears, but the car handles most gear changes itself. That’s why there’s no clutch pedal – just the brake and the accelerator.
Any car, manual or automatic, will be upset if you hit those two pedals at the same time. So a lot of ‘manual’ drivers actually tuck their left foot behind their right foot while they’re getting used to an automatic. Just in case their left foot forgets that it's not a clutch on the left-hand side.
2) Get used to the gearstick
To start most automatic, you'll need to press and hold the brake pedal, then press the engine start button. Some autos have a key ignition - but all will only start when the brake is depressed.
You'll see a series of letters and possibly numbers on the gearbox. But almost all gearboxes will bear the following letters:
There are four basic gears:
P – Park
Park is just Neutral with the gears locked so the wheels can’t turn. It’s always good to make sure you’re in Park before you start the car – and back in Park before you turn the engine off.
R – Reverse
For going backwards, of course.
N – Neutral
Stopping at lights or in traffic (for more than a couple of seconds)? Lots of automatic drivers will put the car in Neutral. As with a manual car, it’s best to use the brake/handbrake to make sure you don’t roll.
D – Drive
For going forwards. When you’re moving fast enough, the car will automatically switch to second gear, then third, and so on.
Some automatics have other settings on the gearstick as well. For example, you might see:
1: Stay in first gear (good for hills) 2: Stay in second gear (good for hills) L: Stay in low gear (1 or 2) S: Sport (better acceleration)
3) Be prepared to ‘creep’
An automatic will move slowly forwards if you’re in Drive or any other forward gear. If you’re in Reverse, it’ll slowly go backwards. This is called ‘creeping’ (or ‘idle speed’) and it makes it easy to simply keep your right foot over or on the brake when you’re parking or in slow-moving traffic. You can select Neutral and/or use the brake (or handbrake) to make sure you don’t move when you don’t want to.
4) Know what to expect in different conditions
Automatic cars are certainly easier to learn to drive in: there’s no need to think about gears, so learners are free to focus on mirrors, speed, other cars, pedestrians and all the rest.
But if you’re already used to a manual, you’ll notice some differences:
On motorways, there’s no real difference at all: staying in Drive is exactly the same as staying in top gear.
In traffic jams, automatics are great. It’s nice not to have to shift between first and neutral over and over.
When you’re parking, you might find the ‘creep’ feature useful. Or you might think it’s annoying.
While overtaking, or going up/down hills or towing, some people find an automatic car doesn’t give them as much control as a manual. However, most older automatics have an ‘O/D’ (Overdrive) button* on the gearstick that gives the engine a bit more ‘oomph’. And most newer models are smart enough to know when the driver wants a bit more power, so they don’t need this button.
* Overdrive is a feature that keeps the revs down so the car uses less fuel. An automatic car will start off with Overdrive on, so pushing the button turns it off – you’ll burn more fuel, but get more power/control.
Finally, it’s best to practise a bit somewhere out of the way before you hit any busy roads. It shouldn’t take long to get used to keeping your hand off the gearstick and your left foot out of the way.
And of course, renting an automatic is a great way to find out whether you like the way they handle, without actually buying one. Who knows? After a few days in an automatic, you might decide you never want to drive a manual car again.