Driving an Automatic

Once only popular with elderly drivers and those unable to drive a manual car, automatic cars are now increasingly common.

Not only are they easier (and more relaxing) to drive than a manual, in some cases they can be better on fuel and can cost less to maintain.

If you haven’t driven an automatic car before, however, it can be all too easy to get behind the wheel and be perplexed by the lack of a clutch pedal and the array of options provided by the shifter.

Here’s how to get going quickly.

Before you start

Most automatic gearboxes will let you select between ‘P’ (for park), ‘R’ (reverse), ‘N’ (neutral) and ‘D’ (drive).

  • Park should only be used when you’re stopped and getting out of the car. This ‘locks’ the transmission, preventing it from rolling away (but you still need to apply the handbrake when parked as well).
  • The reverse does as it says – acts the same as a reverse gear in a manual, and should be selected when you want to drive backwards.
  • Neutral is the same as knocking a manual gearbox out of gear. It shouldn’t be selected when moving – this is known as coasting – but can be used (along with the handbrake) if you’ve stopped for a short time.
  • Drive will select gears automatically and allow the car to move forwards.

Some automatic gearboxes will also give you the option to select first or second gear.

This will help in situations where you want to use the gearbox to keep your speed down – such as driving down a steep hill.

Having this option also helps to keep the revs down and stop the wheels from spinning when pulling away in certain situations.

For instance, when moving off in snowy or icy conditions it is sometimes advisable to pull away in second gear to stop the wheels from slipping if it is particularly snowy – some automatics have a dedicated ‘winter mode’, however, that takes care of this.

You can read more about driving in adverse conditions on our driving in snow page.

Other automatics will let you manually select any gear, either using the selector or paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.

This gives the driver more control over how the car moves up and down through the gears.

Some drivers prefer this as it better suits their driving style and gives them more control over how the car performs, but the more you drive a manual car the more you will find out about the type of manual gearbox you prefer.

How to drive an automatic in simple steps

Although automatic gearboxes are generally very easy to use, the confusion comes when starting and stopping.

When you get into a car with an automatic gearbox, it should have been left in ‘park’.

Put your right foot on the left-hand pedal (the brake) and push down, start the car using the key or start button, and (with your foot still on the brake), move the shifter to ‘D’ (if you want to drive forward) or ‘R’ (if you wish to reverse).

Lifting your foot off the brake will cause most automatic vehicles to ‘creep’ forwards – this helps with parking or in low-speed traffic.

It might need a bit more gas if you’re on a hill or want to move off quicker.

Once moving, the gearbox will select the correct gear for the situation and do all the hard work for you.

When you’ve finished your journey and the car is stopped, keep your foot on the brake and shift the lever to ‘P’, turn the ignition off and exit the car.

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