The automatic gearboxes fitted to modern cars are streets ahead of the sort of three-speed slushboxes we used to drive when we were younger; those fitted to modern cars are so efficient and effective that many enthusiasts – and I include myself in this category – actually prefer driving an automatic to a manual, even on the racetrack. We’re happy to place our faith in the skill and experience of the engineers and designers who will have spent years perfecting the design and programming of the gearbox in the car we are driving.
Others, including those with certain physical and mobility issues, as well as anyone who has passed their driving test in an automatic car, will be limited to driving cars with an automatic gearbox.
An automatic car or van also confers many advantages for the vehicle manufacturer, not least of which is complete control over its performance in the all-important EU emissions and fuel consumption tests. This is so important that many manufacturers, including those who build high-performance supercars like Ferrari and McLaren, won’t sell you a car with anything but an automatic gearbox.
You might think that’s a bad thing. It’s not, as we’re about to find out.
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Automatic car controls explained
An automatic car will usually have a minimum of four positions or settings: Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Park. They’re self-explanatory and all you need to know is that you must always leave your car in Park when you turn it off because this setting locks the transmission, and acts as a supplementary ‘brake’ should your handbrake fail. Many cars won’t let you remove the ignition key in any other position.
Some will have ‘1, 2, D3’ etc. positions, too. In this case ‘1’ will limit the gearbox to first gear, ‘2’ will start in second gear, while ‘D3’ will change up through the gears as normal until you reach third, at which point it will stop. This setting is becoming less common, which is understandable when you consider that some automatic gearboxes have ten gears now!
You might also have a ‘Sport’ or ‘Snow’ setting, and we’ll come to using that later in the article.
Manual vs automatic cars
The basics of driving an automatic car
At its simplest, driving an automatic car or van simply means placing your left foot firmly on the floor and then forgetting all about it. You then brake and accelerate with your right foot.
To start driving, you put your right foot on the brake pedal, move the gearlever to Drive if you want to go forward or Reverse if you want to go backwards.
Then ease your foot from the brake pedal at the same time as you release the handbrake and the car will start to slowly move. This is called ‘creep’ and can be used to move your car in confined spaces such as car-parks or in very slow-moving traffic. This is a deliberate design feature; whereas you can balance the clutch and throttle in a manual car to adjust your speed when you want to go very slowly, you cannot do the same in an automatic because, of course, it doesn’t have a clutch pedal. The ability to creep along like this allows you to have this control, albeit at a slightly lower level. (Please see ‘Ninja level’ later in the article for more details.)
If you want to move faster, then you simply move your foot across to the accelerator pedal and gently press it. You will move forward (or backwards if you are in reverse gear) at a faster rate and you can then control your speed using your right foot on either the accelerator or brake pedal, depending on what you want the car to do.
Congratulations. You can now drive a vehicle an automatic gearbox (assuming, of course, you do already have your driving licence – if not, you will need to pass that first, rather than relying solely on my brief instructions).
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You can now concentrate on your driving free of the worry of co-ordinating clutch and gear-lever, and can (almost) enjoy traffic jams in the knowledge that you can make progress at a slow speed using only the brake and throttle pedal. This makes the whole process easier and less stressful - and is the main reason why I only buy automatic cars, whenever possible.
And please, don’t let anyone ever suggest that driving a car in this way makes you any less of a driver; I once worked for McLaren and was driving its then-new MP4-12C sportscar on a track with a professional racing driver sitting beside me. I told him that I was going to pop the gearbox into drive and then leave it there, and would completely ignore the steering wheel-mounted gearchange levers (‘flappy paddles’ as Jeremy Clarkson would have them).
I would, I explained, much rather concentrate on getting my acceleration and braking consistent and smooth, and my cornering lines accurate than faff about trying to second-guess some of the best racing engineers in the business. He smiled and shook my hand: “No-one has ever said that to me before,” he said. “But it is exactly how I drive when I’m trying a fast car on a circuit for the first time too.”
It works for heavy duty off-road driving too; while we used to insist on driving manual Land Rovers and the like back-in-the-day, we have almost all switched to using vehicles with an automatic gearbox now because it is one less thing to worry about when you’re canted over at a 45-degree angle and sliding sideways down a hill…
The intermediate level
Many of you will, of course, be very happy to drive your automatic in that fashion, and why not? The manufacturer has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the gearbox ratios are appropriate, that it changes up and down the gearbox when it should, and that those changes are made as seamlessly as possible.
But, for those of you who enjoy driving might like to delve a little deeper, because there is satisfaction to be had even if you are still happy to delegate your car’s gearchanges to an inanimate object.
The first thing to understand is that most modern automatic cars have a couple of options, usually described as ‘Drive’ and ‘Sport’ or something similar. No-one has ever admitted it to me, but I suspect that Drive is only there to ensure that the car changes up as early as possible, and hangs on to a gear for as long as possible because the manufacturer wants to optimise the car’s performance during fuel consumption and exhaust emission testing.
We can use this knowledge to our advantage in two ways. Firstly, if your priority is smooth and comfortable motoring with an eye on your car’s fuel consumption and environmental impact, then just pop it into Drive and leave it there. The car will drive fine, and you will – in conjunction with our tips for maximising your car’s fuel economy – enjoy the best possible fuel consumption. You’ll be saving money and treading lightly.
But, if you enjoy wringing the best possible performance out of your car then you need to turn the switch to the Sport mode. This will give faster gearchanges and hold on to each gear for longer, often until the red line. The car will feel sharper and faster and this is, I believe, the setting the development engineers programmed in to give you maximum enjoyment, albeit at the cost of fuel economy and exhaust emissions.
Secret car features
It will sometimes also alter the throttle mapping to make the car feel more responsive, and might even alter the car’s suspension settings too. If this is the case, then you can often optimise them by creating your own personal profile and many keen drivers, including me, like to set the car up so everything is as sporty as possible bar the ride, which is set to its softest setting.
I used to coach drivers through the IAM Advanced Driving Test and I remember the driver of a Jaguar F-TYPE complaining that his car felt flat and dull, and not at all the sportscar he thought he had bought. We turned the gearbox setting from Drive to Sports and his face lit up within a mile. The car was more responsive, faster and generally a far nicer place to be and when we met spoke later (he passed his test first time; he was a very good driver) he told me that he had never turned it back to Drive.
This simple tip could help restore your faith in your car if you’ve bought something with an automatic gearbox only because a manual wasn’t available.
Some cars also have a ‘Winter’ or ‘Snow’ setting. This usually starts the car in second gear, changes up even earlier, and sometimes limits the throttle opening, too. This is also a very handy setting to use if you find yourself in mud, or on wet grass in a temporary car-park in a field.
The advanced level
Most people – and I include myself in that category – will be very happy to attain and then stay at the intermediate level. An awful lot of work has gone into fettling and tuning the gearbox and the software that runs it, and I’m pretty sure it was designed and written by folk who are far cleverer than me.
But I know there are a lot of you out there who enjoy driving and an important part of the whole experience is being able to continue to change gear for yourselves – and there’s nothing to stop you doing so in your automatic car.
You can switch your car into ‘Manual’ mode, but simply forcing a gearchange will do it, too. You can, if you like, lift off the throttle pedal and click the gearchange lever on the console, or use the flappy paddles if you have them. The ‘+’ sign indicates an up-change, and the ‘-‘ indicates a down-change. The car will change gear smoothly and quickly, and you will have the illusion of control.
I say ‘illusion’ because your car’s computer won’t change gear if, for example, it would lead to your car’s engine over-revving. This is safety measure put in to prevent engine damage and potentially locking your car’s driving wheels if you inadvertently changed down too quickly.
Speed bumps explained
Your car will almost certainly revert back to automatic mode if you leave it in the same gear for a long time, too. This is frustrating when you want to thread your way along a winding country lane in, say, second gear as I did recently in a CUPRA Leon hot-hatchback. Sometimes, switching to ‘Sport’ will lock it into a full manual mode, but often it won’t.
More good news comes with the knowledge that most cars will allow you to change gear without lifting your foot off the throttle, which makes for a much faster gearchange than you could ever make with a manual gearbox. Many cars, especially the sportier models, will also blip the throttle when you change down too, rev-matching the engine to the gearbox in a very satisfying way.
I do accept that changing gear, even in an automatic car, is good fun and if you want to drive your car like that then you have my full support. It isn’t for me (I keep forgetting to change gear; there’s something about the absence of a clutch pedal that fools my brain into thinking that I don’t need to do anything, even when I have made the choice to change gears for myself…) but if it helps keep your love of cars and driving alive then it can only be A Good Thing.
Motoring offences you could be fined for
If you really want to master the art of driving an automatic car then you need to explore the dark art of left-foot-braking.
This is, as the name suggests, a technique where you brake with your left foot. It has nothing to do with the left-foot-braking technique that allows rally drivers to better balance their cars on loose surfaces at high speed, and everything to do with being able to better control your automatic car at low speed.
The technique is simplicity itself: you just operate the throttle with your right foot, and the brakes with your left. As we’ve seen, automatic cars creep along at a very low speed when they’re in gear but you sometimes want even more control, and juggling the car’s speed using both feet allows this.
Of course, your left foot is used to stabbing at the clutch, a movement that requires almost no finesse at all so your first few goes are likely to see you coming to an abrupt halt. Fort this reason you need to practise with a) your seatbelt on, and b) in an empty car-park with no-one else around. It’s a great technique, and one I adopt unconsciously now, but it does take a while to re-programme your left foot to be as delicate as it needs to be.
Little known speeding facts
Types of automatic gearbox
You don’t need to know this, but I thought some of you might like to know a little bit about the different types of automatic gearbox that are on the market.
Conventional – this is a conventional automatic gearbox that has anything from three to ten ratios. It has a torque convertor in lieu of a clutch, and is the most common sort of automatic gearbox.
Automated manual – the automated manual gearbox is really a manual gearbox whose operation is automated (engineers, who are the folk that name these things, tend to be literal creatures). An onboard computer changes gear and operates the clutch. This sort of system is a bit crude and can be jerky, so it is going out of fashion.
Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT – this type of gearbox doesn’t have set ratios, hence the term ‘continuously variable’. A belt provides a press-and-go experience, and the car will seamlessly accelerate with no discernible ratios. (Although some manufacturers programme it to feel as if it has, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.) The noise it makes is directly related to the speed you are going, which makes for an unnerving experience and not one I enjoy or would recommend.
Dual-clutch – yep, you’ve got the hang of this by now, haven’t you? The dual-clutch automatic gearbox has two clutches instead of a torque convertor. One clutch operates the gear you are in, while the other prepares the one you want to change to. This system makes for very fast gearchanges and is usually found on sporting cars.
Do you have a question about driving an automatic car? If so, email us on email@example.com and we’ll do our best to answer it!