Previously the car of choice for people uncomfortable with manual gearboxes, automatic cars aren't as rare as they once were. In fact, thanks to their fuel efficiency, relative ease to drive, and comparatively smaller maintenance costs, they're proving more popular than ever.
But while automatic cars take care of a lot of the work for you, it's certainly confusing to get behind the wheel of one if you’re used to manual transmission. In this article, we'll talk you through what to expect, detail the different types of automatic gearbox, and provide some top tips on how to drive an automatic car safely.
Before we get going with your automatic driving lesson, it's worth taking a look at the various kinds of automatic gearboxes that are available, so you know what to expect behind the wheel.
The most common and refined automatic gearbox, conventional automatic gearboxes use a torque converter in place of the clutch, feature anything from three to ten ratios, but do end up using more fuel than manuals.
Often found in hybrid cars, CVTs employ a belt that delivers a press-and-go experience, powering the car into action seamlessly, with no discernible ratios.
Efficient and highly reliable, the lack of gears delivers smoother, more streamlined journeys, though acceleration is a little slower compared to other automatic gearboxes.
Similar to conventional automatic gearboxes but without a torque converter, dual-clutch automatics employ two automatically operated clutches. One clutch operates the gear you're in, while the other prepares the one you want to change to.
Because of this, they're often found in sports cars that require lightning-quick gear changes.
Similar to normal manual gearboxes, automated manual gearboxes select gears automatically and use an onboard computer, rather than a pedal, to operate the clutch.
Such gearboxes once reigned supreme in the automatic world, but their jerky performance and more modern automatic counterparts have seen them fall out of favour in recent times.
So while automatic cars still have gearboxes, they work differently from manual ones. Rather than the driver manually choosing which gear to be in, the gearbox does everything for you.
The basic driving modes found in most automatic cars, each of which tell the gearbox what to do, are as follows:
P - Park: Used when you're stopping and exiting your car. Doing so 'locks' the transmission, which prevents it from rolling away, but you'll still need to apply the handbrake when parked.
R - Reverse: Much like you'd expect, this acts the same as a reverse gear in a manual and should be used when you need to drive backwards.
N - Neutral: If you're stopping at lights or in traffic for a couple of seconds, you should put the car in Neutral. Just be sure to use the brake/handbrake too to avoid rolling.
D - Drive: Used to go forwards, the car will automatically switch to second, then third and so on providing you're moving fast enough.
You might also see automatics that have other settings on their gearstick too, such as:
1: Stay in first gear (useful when climbing hills)
2: Stay in second gear (again, good for hills)
L: Stay in low gear
S: Sport (provides greater acceleration)
With so little to take care of behind the wheel of an automatic, those used to driving manual may be a little perplexed by the lack of a clutch pedal, and only a brake and accelerator to place their feet on.
Automatic or not, pushing down on both the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time isn't advised. But through sheer force of habit, there's a chance you might find this out the hard way.
To avoid this, many manual drivers going automatic tuck their left food behind their right foot when getting used to things. That way, there's no chance of their left foot hovering over to where the clutch would usually be.
An automatic will slowly move forwards when you're in Drive or any other forward gear. Likewise, when you're in Reverse, the car will slowly go backwards. This is called creeping or idle speed, so you should keep your right foot on or over the brake when you're parking or in slow-moving traffic.
Selecting Neutral and/or using the brake (or handbrake) ensures you won't move when you don't want to.
Now that you're more familiar with the gearstick, it's time to get driving. Here’s how to do it:
1) When starting, put your right foot on the left-hand pedal (the brake) and push down
2) Start the car by turning the key or pressing the start button
3) With your foot still on the brake, move the shifter to Drive or Reverse, depending on which way you want to drive
4) Take your foot off the brake – this causes the ‘creeping’ we mentioned above
5) Once you're moving, the gearbox will select the correct gear for the speed
As for stopping you’ll need to do the following:
1) As you slow down, the automatic transmission will shift down in gears
2) When you’ve finished your journey, press down on the brake pedal until the car comes to a stop
3) When that happens, keep your foot on the brake and shift the lever to Park
4) Apply the handbrake
5) Turn the ignition off
Hill starts in an automatic are a little trickier – though they’re still easier than performing them in a manual since there’s no clutch to think about. Here’s how to get automatics going on an incline:
1) Put your handbrake on and your gearbox in D
2) Push down gently on the accelerator until you feel the car straining against the handbrake
3) When this happens, release the handbrake. The car should now start moving forward
Yes, if you possess a manual licence, you can legally drive and rent an automatic car. However, if you’re wondering “can I drive manual with an automatic licence?” then, unfortunately, it doesn’t work both ways. Put simply, you can only drive an automatic with an automatic licence.