So you did not want to struggle much learning to drive so you skipped the manual transmission and opted for an automatic car. Possibly, you have been cruising around but wondering why your colleagues say their car does 12km per litre of gas but you can only do 14km per litre and are always in the garage. Or you have just got your driving permit – hopefully after doing and passing the driver’s test – and are ready to jump into your first shiny new car.

Whatever the case, you are convinced that driving an automatic is a piece of cake and you are ready to go. You are wrong.

There is a right and wrong way to use an automatic transmission. So unless you have some shade tree mechanic working near your house, or you just have deep pockets to spend on fuel and garage, let’s cover the basics.

You should know that a vehicle with automatic transmission usually has three basic gear transmissions.

When you select Drive, the car will only shift through the first three gears. Overdrive introduces a fourth and fifth gear that allows your car to achieve better fuel economy at high speed.

However, if you have a button activated Overdrive mode, you can press it on and press it off while driving at constant speed to feel the effects. You’ll lose RPMs when engaging overdrive and get better fuel economy if and only if you do not strain the engine. The Overdrive gear is higher than a 1:1 ratio, so acceleration is an uphill battle with it engaged.

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Your gear selector probably has P, R, N, D and/or (0) along with any combination of L, 1, 2, or 3.

  • P: Is the position that is selected when the vehicle is parked.
  • R: Reverse. Used when the driver wants to go backwards.
  • N: Neutral. Only used when you need to roll the car from one place to another.
  • D: Drive. The drive range is selected when you wish to drive the vehicle forward.
  • L, 1, 2, and 3: These are modes that will lock your automatic transmission into using a particular gear. This is helpful when you do not want the transmission to shift in response to throttle position or load. It is useful if you need to pull someone out of a ditch or engage engine braking.

Not all roads are the same. Most automatic transmissions also allow you to manually select one or more lower gears, such as Low (L), 1st (1) and 2nd (2). In the case of L and 1, the transmission will stay in the lowest gear and not shift on its own. That allows maximum power when you need it, such as on a steep hill, but greatly limits your speed. Some automatic transmissions will shift out of 1st once you reach a certain speed, to prevent damage to the transmission or engine, or cut power to the engine. And with others, if you select 2, the transmission starts in 2nd gear and is locked in that gear.

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This is useful when starting out on slippery surfaces or for engine braking when descending a steep hill. So L, 1, 2 and 3 modes are very useful in specific conditions. On some of the muddiest roads, the 2 range helps to get you rolling over very slippery areas. Because you are selecting a higher gear, less spin (per engine rotation) is being imparted to the wheels, which helps prevent you from spinning your tires when you take off on slippery terrain.

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