There was once a time when cars with automatic gearboxes were relatively uncommon in the UK. But they are becoming increasingly popular and most drivers, after getting used to using an automatic after driving a manual, would agree they are more relaxing - and easier - to drive that their older counterpart.

Additionally, automatic gearboxes are better suited to newer automotive technologies - chiefly hybrid and all-electric cars.

If you're one of many drivers who don’t feel enthusiastic about automatic cars, the truth is that manual gearboxes will one day - quite soon - be a thing of the past.

When you sit in your first automatic car, you'll notice the absence of a clutch and different gearbox controls. The gears will be selected by the vehicle, rather than you, the driver. Aside from these differences, automatic cars are exactly the same as manuals; you'll operate all the other controls in the same way.

All the key aspects of good driving are the same: maintaining the right road position; steering; and braking progressively.

Two of the big positives of automatics are that you can keep your hands on the steering wheel for more of the time (no changing gear!) - and you can concentrate on spotting hazards and planning where you're going.

Most automatic cars will have a centre-mounted six-speed gearbox. Automatics still have gear selector knobs.

How to start an automatic car?

To start most automatic cars, you'll need to press and hold the brake pedal, then press the engine start button. Some autos have a key ignition - but all will only start when the brake is depressed.

Automatic car gearboxes

You'll see a series of letters and possibly numbers on the gearbox of an automatic car. But almost all gearboxes will bear the following letters:

P = park

R = reverse

N = neutral

D = drive

M = manual

If any numbers are present, these provide more control over the gearbox in relation to specific scenarios. The car's handbook will explain these.



‘Park’ locks the transmission - meaning the car cannot move. When parking up this must be selected, alongside the handbrake.



D - Drive - is then selected for driving off. Simply press down the brake pedal, choose Drive and then release the handbrake. The car will move off very gently - an appropriate speed for maneuvering.

Speed is increased by pushing down on the accelerator. The car will switch gears automatically. In order to maximise efficiency, when accelerating gently the car will choose gears earlier. But when the accelerator is depressed harder, the car will change gears considerably later. This delivers more engine power.

When slowing down the car will move down gears, as appropriate to the situation.

If you have to stop temporarily - perhaps at a pedestrian crossing - you simply depress the brake pedal while keeping the car in Drive mode.

If you’re stopping for longer - perhaps at a set of traffic lights - the gear stick can be shifted to Park. This means you do not have to keep your foot on the brake pedal; the car will be prevented from moving.


Hill starts

Hill starts are much simpler in an automatic car compared to a manual car. To carry out a hill start you'll need to co-ordinate the car’s controls carefully. From a parked position, simply select Drive and take your foot off the brake, then gently press the accelerator to move off. Another benefit of autos is that the engine will never stall - since the car takes care of all gear changes.

Short pauses on a hill will not require you to come out of Drive: simply brake, then accelerate to move off. And you don’t need to worry about rolling back, thanks to the vehicle's creep function.



For parallel parking, for instance, simply hold down the brake pedal and switch to Reverse. There's no need to use the accelerator since the creep function will provide enough maneuvering speed. Just control the car with the brake pedal. To finish, choose Park, release the brake and then engage the handbrake.



As the name suggests, this lets you control the gears you use - by way of paddles on the steering wheel. In other cars there may be different letters and/or numbers for specific controls - check the handbook for details.

Manual control can be useful in certain situations. To minimise wheel spin on slippery roads, for instance, you might choose to move off in second gear. And if you’re travelling down a steep hill you might choose a lower gear than normal, in order to improve engine braking and limit the need to use the brake pedal. Choosing lower gears can help deliver more power in some scenarios - such as when moving onto a motorway. But for regular driving, you're best off in Drive mode.



This enables the car to free-wheel - useful if the car needs to be towed or pushed. However, it reduces control over the car, so should not be used in normal driving situations.


Up next? What is a semi automatic car.