Driving an automatic car

Everything you need to know about driving an automatic car, including how they work, the different types and why to choose one

Sam Naylor
Aug 13, 2021

Most British drivers learn to drive in a car with a manual gearbox, so driving an automatic car for the first time can seem a bit daunting. There’s no need to worry, though - if you can drive a manual car, you can definitely drive an automatic. Furthermore, if you have a manual licence, you are permitted to drive an automatic car.

In this article, we’ll go through what we mean by automatic gearboxes, how they work, what the different types are and why you may want to choose a car with one fitted. More and more automatic cars are available in the UK as time goes on - with many new models not even including the option of a manual gearbox - so it’s more likely than ever that your next car will be an automatic.

This is especially true as electric cars are automatic only, so in the future when hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric models make up the majority of cars on the road, driving a manual car will be rare. You can read more about the differences between manual and automatic cars here.

What is an automatic gearbox?

There are loads of different kinds of automatic gearboxes, but it’s easy to group them together - any gearbox where you don’t need to use a clutch pedal and the car takes care of shifting gear for you can be considered as an automatic model.

Okay, there are some gearboxes called ‘automated manuals’ that don’t have a clutch pedal but are technically classed as a manual gearbox - but those are so rare that you can safely ignore them.

How to use an automatic gearbox

If you’ve never driven an automatic car before, here’s how to do it. The first thing you need to know is that there’s no clutch pedal and you don’t need to use your left foot at all - most drivers just rest this foot to the side of the pedals and use their right foot for braking and accelerating as you do in any manual car. Using the same leg for braking and accelerating reduces the chance of you pressing both pedals at the same time, which would put more strain on the engine and brakes.

The second thing to know is that most automatic cars ‘creep’ forward if you’re not touching the pedals at all. This means that when you gently lift off the brakes, the car will start to move slowly. This helps with pulling away smoothly, whether you're on a hill or a flat bit of road.

Automatic gearboxes usually have four main settings for you to select: Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive. Park is for when you’re stopped and don’t want the car to move even if you lift your foot off the brakes, as the wheels will not turn freely. Neutral is the same as in a manual car - the wheels can turn freely but are not driven by the engine. Meanwhile, Reverse is for going backwards and Drive is for accessing all the forward gears.

When you turn the car on, it will be in Park, so you need to shift to Reverse or Drive to move. You always need to have your foot firmly on the brake pedal in order to shift between the modes in an automatic, which you can do when stationary - and once you shift to Drive and lift off the brakes, the car will move away and accelerate faster the harder your press the throttle pedal.

From then on, it does what it says on the tin: everything is automatic. You don’t need to shift gears yourself, as the car does it all for you - changing up as you pick up speed and shifting down to lower gears at slower speeds. Just remember to put the car in Park again once you come to a stop and park up.

Some cars have a large lever where the manual gear stick would normally be that moves backwards and forwards, with a button to press when you want to shift from one setting to another, some have a little dial that goes around to select the modes, and some have a shifter where the windscreen wipers would be - it’s up to you to choose a car with a format that works for you.

Note that while most modern automatic cars use electronic handbrakes - where there is a switch to engage and release the handbrake rather than a traditional lever you have to pull up to engage and drop down to release - this is a separate mechanism to the gearbox itself.

You can have a car that features a manual handbrake with an automatic gearbox and vice versa. It’s the same with hill hold assist - which holds the brakes when you are stationary and releases as you go to pull off, to make hill starts simpler - these bits of tech are not related to the gearbox.

Types of automatic gearbox

Next, we’ll look at the different types of automatic gearboxes - as some let you change gear yourself, either by letting you move the gear lever backwards and forwards or by having paddles on the steering wheel, while others don't give you that degree of control.

Traditional automatics

There are lots of technical terms in the world of automatic gearboxes, but we’ll keep things simple here. The main type of auto gearbox is often called a 'torque converter' and it’s the most common - this type just has the four modes listed above, and shifts smoothly between gears while driving but not that quickly.

Sometimes these gearboxes have selectable gears via a ‘manual’ mode - usually accessed by pushing the stick over to the side and then back and forth to select the gear you want. This function can be useful for going up and down hills, for example, but isn’t necessary for more leisurely drivers who don't feel the need for additional control over changing gear.

Dual-clutch gearboxes

The next common type is the dual-clutch automatic or 'DCT', though brands have their own names (such as Volkswagen’s 'DSG'). Ignore the word clutch in the name - this is just a technical point that describes the internal mechanism. What it means for you, is that it’s often quicker to change gear than a traditional auto at the cost of some smoothness. This type of gearbox is often found in sports cars, as a result.

With this type of gearbox you can almost always change gears yourself by using paddles mounted on the back of the steering wheel - typically the left paddle changes down, and right goes up through the gears. Some dual-clutch gearboxes don’t creep forward - as is the case with a traditional automatic - unless you press the throttle gently, which takes a little getting used to.

CVT

'CVT' stands for Continuously Variable Transmission. These are often found in hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius but not all of them - the Kia Niro uses a DCT, for example. CVTs don’t actually have gears inside them, but they drive just like a traditional automatic - you just ease off the brake and go, since the computers inside do all the work for you.

The reason CVTs aren’t common is because they can make cars a bit noisy - they tend to drone, as they hold the engine at set speed and vary the length of the gear when accelerating, which can be an odd sensation; the engine stays at one speed while the car accelerates, rather than the engine speed going up as you go faster. This is why they work well in hybrids, since these models are typically quieter than traditional petrol and diesel alternatives as they have electric assistance, so the engine doesn't need to work as hard.

Electric cars

Electric cars use a single-speed gearbox in most cases. This is exactly how it sounds - there’s just one gear because the electric motor can handle both low and high speed without needing more than this. They drive exactly like traditional autos but without the option to change gear and with no sensation of shifts between gears - as the car is only using one gear. 

Electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids use technology to recharge their batteries when you slow down, so when you lift off the accelerator, it can often feel like the brakes have come on - but this is just the regeneration effect, which helps to transfer energy that would otherwise be wasted when slowing down back into the battery to maximise how far you can travel on electricity. This is separate from the gearbox but it can make driving an electric, plug-in hybrid or hybrid car feel a little different from an ordinary petrol or diesel car.

 

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