Best automatic cars

Smooth shifting and more economical than a manual: the best automatic cars are worth searching for

BuyaCar team
Oct 3, 2017

With no clutch and no need to change gear manually, an automatic car can be a godsend in heavy traffic, and make every journey smoother.

The best seem to know what you’re about to do: they change down a gear to provide maximum power at the very instant you press the accelerator, and they’ll change up the gears so swiftly that you’ll barely hear the engine blip as it shifts.

In contrast, the worst gearboxes leave you waiting for power for what seems like an age, as you pull out to overtake, and then rev the engine hard just as you’re slowing down for some traffic lights.

Many of the differences are down to the type of gearbox that’s fitted to your car. With a varying number of speeds, and various labels such as S-Tronic and CVT, you’ve got more choice than a supermarket crisp aisle, and some of the options are just as bewildering:

  • Automatic
    The original type of automatic gearbox can sometimes take its time to change gears, but is usually smooth.
  • Dual-clutch automatic
    This gearbox uses two clutches: you drive along in one gear, while the next one you’re likely to use is pre-selected. When the time comes to change, the shift is lightning quick and smooth
  • CVT
    A continuously variable transmission (CVT) doesn’t use cogs, but has a belt that constantly changes the car’s gearing. In this way, it can keep the engine revving at its most efficient speed while you accelerate and brake. The sensation is strange but it can boost fuel economy.
  • Automated manual
    This isn’t really an automatic gearbox, but a manual one that’s operated electronically, so there’s no clutch pedal. It uses less power than a proper automatic, but is often makes driving quite jerky.

The other thing to consider are the number if gears. Seven, eight and even nine-speed gearboxes are increasingly common. In general, the more gears you have, the quieter and more economical your car will be, because the engine will be able to spin at its most efficient speed for longer. But these gearboxes need to be smooth because they change gear so frequently.

Best automatic small cars

Hyundai i10 1.2 Premium auto

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Gearbox type automatic
The i10 is one of the very best city cars on the market and is one of the few cars of its size that has a decent automatic gearbox. It’s smoother than most, although your journeys would still be less jerky if you opted for the manual gearbox.

It only has four gears, but works well when combined with the 1.2-litre engine. At 45.6mpg, fuel economy is over 10mpg worse than the equivalent manual i10.
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Renault Clio Dynamique Nav TCe 120 Auto

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Gearbox type dual-clutch automatic
The first selling point of the automatic Clio is that it isn’t the manual Clio, which has a gearlever that feels loose and is easy to slot into the wrong gear. The second is that the automatic is a dual-clutch version, called EDC. It changes gears quickly and smoothly, and is best left to work by itself. The Clio is fitted with paddles behind the steering wheel that allow you to change up and down the gearbox, but there’s a lengthy delay between tapping the paddle and the gears changing, which makes it a frustrating experience.

Fuel economy in the TCe 120 petrol car is the same as the manual version but the price is almost £1,500 more.
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Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 110 SE DSG

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Gearbox type dual-clutch automatic
Skoda is owned by the Volkswagen Group, which means that its cars use the company’s dual-clutch gearbox, called DSG, just like Audis, Seats and Volkswagens.

It’s one of the best gearboxes available, even when it’s installed in the little Fabia. where its quick, smooth changes are a fine match for the nippy 1.2-litre petrol engine (you can only get the automatic with the most powerful petrol engine or one of the diesels). Fuel economy is even slightly better than the manual.

The similarly-sized VW Polo and Seat Ibiza are also available with the same DSG gearbox, but the Fabia’s spaciousness and good record of reliability, makes it more appealing.
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Best automatic family cars

Mercedes-Benz C-Class C 220d 4MATIC Sport Premium Auto

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Gearbox type automatic
It’s rare to find a manual version of the Mercedes C-Class: if you’re looking for a car with more luxury than the mainstream, then you’re less likely to want to change gear.

And so, with plenty of experience in supplying cars with automatic gearboxes, it’s no surprise that Mercedes uses one of the smoothest on the market. It’s a conventional gearbox, sacrificing some of the speed and efficiency of a dual-clutch model for almost seamless shifts that have you wondering whether the gearbox even exists.

Some C-Class models only come with a less-advanced seven-speed gearbox that’s not as smooth as the nine-speed version.
Read the Mercedes C-Class buying guide

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Volkswagen Golf Match Edition TSI 1.4 125 PS DSG BMT

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Gearbox type dual-clutch automatic
Volkswagen’s seven-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox is a good match for the 1.4-litre engine in the Golf. The two combine to provide good fuel economy and steady acceleration.

It’s an ideal fit with the Golf, which might not be the most exciting family hatchback that you can buy, but has a level of comfort and quality that’s above most rivals.
Read the full VW Golf buying guide

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Jaguar XE R-Sport 2.0 200PS Petrol Auto

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Gearbox type automatic
It’s not just that the gearbox in the Jaguar XE is smooth, but that it also seems to know which gear the car needs to be in before you do. So as you press hard on the accelerator, the eight-speed automatic seems to instantly find a lower gear for better acceleration. And when you’re slowing down, it flows from one gear to another, reducing the car’s speed without any jerkiness.

Inside, it's smooth as well - in style terms. There’s no gearstick, just a dial that rises out of the interior trim when you start the car.

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Best automatic crossovers and SUVs

Seat Ateca 2.0 TDI 190PS 4Drive DSG Xcellence

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Gearbox type dual-clutch automatic
This is another car that uses Volkswagen’s dual-clutch DSG gearbox to great effect. The seven-speed automatic has enough gears to ensure that the 2-litre diesel engine is running efficiently and quietly, avoiding the clatter that it can make when it’s running slowly or very fast.

As ever, with this gearbox, changes are quick and it does a good job of changing down quickly when you need to accelerate. Unlike other cars with DSG gearboxes, the automatic Ateca is slightly less efficient than the manual version, and it’s expensive too: the only automatic version available is the top-of-the-range 2.0 diesel XCellence.
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Audi Q7 3.0 TDI 218PS quattro S line

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Gearbox type automatic
The Q7 is designed to make its passengers as comfortable as possible rather than being the last word in performance, so Audi’s eight-speed automatic gearbox, called Tiptronic, is an ideal fit for the seven-seat SUV. You’ll barely notice the shifts, or the sound of the car’s diesel engine, even when you’re accelerating hard.

It may not change gear quite as quickly as the DSG dual-clutch gearbox in other Audis, but most Q7s are not bought for performance.
Read the full Audi Q7 buying guide

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Range Rover Sport 3.0 SDV6 HSE Dynamic (7 seat)

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Gearbox type automatic
The eight-speed gearbox in the Range Rover Sport has to be a jack-of-all-trades. Its different settings allow it to boost off-road performance, or prioritise smooth on-road driving. And despite the different demands, it shines at both extremes.

For a big seven-seat SUV, it’s relatively efficient too, with an official fuel economy figure of 40.4mpg. As with other Jaguar and Land Rover automatic gearboxes, it’s controlled by a dial that rises out of a panel next to the driver. The price of comfortable, cocooning luxury? A not insignificant £68,700.
More information in the Range Rover Sport buying guide

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Best automatic sportscar

BMW 730d M Sport

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Gearbox type automatic
The eight-speed automatic gearbox in the BMW 7 Series is, as you’d expect, uncannily smooth. Key to the system is the fact that it’s partly controlled by the car’s sat nav.
Whether you are using route guidance or not, it is able to feed topographical information to the car’s gearbox, instructing it to change gear in response to corners and gradients.

So, whereas more basic systems rely on real-time changes such as variations in engine load or the application of the brakes, the Seven’s system is able to predict these events and prepare for them.
Read the BMW 7 Series buying guide

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Best automatic sportscar

Porsche 911 Carrera S

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Gearbox type dual-clutch automatic
For the most involving driving in a sportscar, then you’ll want a manual gearbox. But for the optimum performance and fastest gear changes, then a computerised dual-clutch gearbox is faster to change than any human.

That’s particularly the case with Porsche’s automatic gearbox, called PDK, which cuts the car’s 0-62mph acceleration time by 0.2sec: a significant amount when the figure is just 4.1 seconds.

If you want to take control, then there are paddles behind the steering wheel that change gear quickly in response to your taps. In traffic, you’ll be relieved that there’s no heavy clutch to handle.

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