Automatic cars have become commonplace on the UK’s roads in recent years. Often cheaper to maintain and less fuel-hungry than manual vehicles, they’re also surprisingly relaxing to drive… once you get used to them.
But what is the difference between driving a manual and automatic car?
The most basic difference is that the former has a gear system that the driver operates using the clutch pedal and pushing the gear stick. In contrast, an automatic car changes gear automatically in relation to the vehicle speed. Consequently, there is no clutch pedal - just the left pedal for braking and the right for accelerating.
With automatic cars, you can say goodbye to gear-changing and stalling. Automatic cars control the gears for you. With four modes - park, reverse, drive, and neutral - you only need to decide if you want to move forward, backwards or stop; the car will do the rest.
This means that learning how to drive an automatic car is generally more straightforward. There are some things to be aware of though, as well as licencing restrictions. Here’s how it all works 👇
Automatic cars have only four gears:
With the vehicle in drive, as you push the accelerator, the car moves forward, automatically selecting the correct gear for the speed and the load on the engine, such as going uphill or towing. Generally speaking, it switches up through the gears as you go faster, but unlike a manual car in which you use the gear stick to select the right gear, the car takes care of that for you.
Most people in the UK learn to drive in a manual car, which means that when you pass your test, you’re qualified to drive both manual and automatic cars.
However, if you take your lessons and pass your test in an automatic car, you will only be permitted to drive automatics, limiting your options when considering buying your own vehicle. You’ll have to retake your test if you wish to have your licence upgraded to drive manual cars.
The practical driving test follows the same format (here’s a cheeky driving test cheat sheet!) for both automatic and manual cars, so at least you’ll know what to expect.
When it comes to learner driver insurance (clank! That’s the sound of us dropping that plug…), it’s important to note that if your supervisor, be they a professional instructor or a friend or family member, only holds an automatic licence, they cannot teach you in a manual car. Legally, they must be qualified to drive the type of vehicle you’re learning in.
If you’re used to driving a manual car, switching to an automatic can take some getting used to. Once you’ve learned that you don’t have a gear stick and the vehicle takes care of clutch control, it becomes a lot easier.
How to start an automatic car
How to stop an automatic car
As the technology used in automatic cars advances, several types of gearboxes - or transmissions - have been developed, giving you a number of choices when picking an automatic car.
Automated manual gearbox
Mechanically automated manual gearboxes work in the same way as conventional gearboxes. The only difference is that the gears are managed through the use of electric motors. These control the clutch and change gear when necessary. Usually found in smaller cars, they are generally very fuel efficient.
Dual-clutch automatic gearbox
Designed to work like an automated manual gearbox, the dual-clutch transmission, or DCT, has two clutches. When most automatic car transmissions shift between gears, there is a very slight power lapse when accelerating. The DCT, however, eliminates this by priming one clutch ready for a gear change while the other is engaged with the current gear. This improves fuel efficiency and produces a smoother, faster drive.
Torque converter automatic gearbox
This is one of the most commonly seen automatic gearboxes. Typically having between six to 10 gears, they produce smooth shifts through the gears and generate good acceleration. They are often fitted to larger luxury cars due to their power; however, they aren’t the most fuel-efficient choice.
Continuously variable transmission automatic gearbox
Most vehicles use cogs for gears, but continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs, use a series of cones and belts. The belts slide up and down the cones, depending on the speed the vehicle is travelling, and are not limited to precise gears. CVTs produce a smooth, quiet drive by constantly keeping the engine running at peak efficiency.
Both automatic and manual cars have their benefits and disadvantages.
Whether you prefer to take your test in an automatic or manual car is a matter of personal choice - but what you can’t stay on the fence about is making sure you’re insured. Whether you want hourly insurance or rolling monthly cover, you can get a quick quote in minutes.