Automatic transmissions have come a long way since their dark old days. When they first began being offered as options where most cars were manual, they were usually two or three speed affairs with very clunky mechanics and extremely poor efficiency. Nowadays automatic transmissions are extremely complex – far more than manual gearboxes – and can have anywhere from four to 10 speeds, as well as sequential control and various kinds of lock-up clutches.
But we won’t bore you with the technicalities of it all. The main question we’re here to answer today is what the best way to drive an automatic transmission is – and this applies to any automatic transmission, regardless of complexity or design. We can agree that all true automatic transmissions (which come with both gears and a torque converter) will have P, R, N and D at the very minimum. Some will have an M for manual override, S for Sport, or 2 and L for Second and Low respectively.
The reason an automatic transmission has a torque converter to begin with is to allow it to slip between the driven wheels and engine without damaging or wearing out components. That means that when you come to a stop, the engine doesn’t stall – whereas you would normally have to press a clutch to disengage a manual gearbox or the engine will stall out. In a way, this means that you don’t need to put your transmission into N, or Neutral, when you come to a stop – although doing so doesn’t hurt the transmission either and stops you from accidentally creeping forward.
P, or Park, is self-explanatory – a locking gear that stops the wheels from moving while allowing the engine to spin free. R, or Reverse, is also obvious as it allows you to travel backwards. But the problem comes when you look at cars with 2 or L options, because it’s hard to say when you need to use them. The idea behind having these gears is two-fold – it allows you to start off in slippery conditions more easily with 2, as well as allowing you to keep the car in a low gear for climbing steep inclines in L.
But there’s more use to it than that, and you may have seen the signs if you travel down mountain roads on the regular. Gunakan Gear Rendah, or use low gear, is a method of slowing the car down without having to use your physical brakes. In doing so you reduce the risk of overheating and losing your brakes on the way down, which can be very fatal. When you see signs like these, slowing down and slipping the transmission into 2 will help to keep the car rolling downhill at a manageable speed thanks to engine braking. Don’t worry about how it works for now, but just know it’s there to keep you safe.
As for more complex transmissions, having an S or Sport mode is more software than anything, effectively making the transmission hold a lower gear for longer so you get better acceleration. Manual mode gives you full control over the gears to varying degrees of response – some of the fastest being BMW’s ZF automatic transmissions – and you can apply the same theories here as you would with 2 or L – simply select a lower gear with the manual control and you will get your engine braking.
We understand that this is a lot to take in if you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics of an engine or transmission, but rest assured that you’ll hopefully know what to do if you’re presented with a steep incline, slippery conditions, or a steep downhill road. Always be careful to avoid shifting the car into a lower gear when at speed or you could break the engine or the gearbox – or both. As for everything else, leaving it in D, or Drive, is fine.