If you took your UK driving test in a manual car, then you can drive manuals and automatics without any restrictions.
However, if you have an automatic-only driving licence – code B(Automatic) – then you don’t have any choice – you must have an automatic.
For driving licence purposes, an automatic is defined as a vehicle that does not include a clutch pedal or lever which the driver may operate manually*.
It doesn’t matter if you can change gear manually or not – the sole requirement is that there is no manual control for the clutch.
What’s A Manual?
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first.
In a car with manual transmission, you have to change gear yourself. This means pressing down on the clutch pedal, selecting the next gear you want to use, and releasing the clutch pedal again.
Hopefully the result will be a smooth transition from one gear to the next – but it’s down to your skill and timing. This is what defines a manual car – operating the clutch yourself.
When driven correctly, manuals are generally very reliable and more fuel efficient than most types of automatic. However, manual gearboxes provide no protection against poor driving technique, which can ruin your fuel economy and prematurely wear out your clutch.
What’s An Automatic?
There are actually four types of automatic gearbox, at the latest count. They all do pretty much the same thing – change gear automatically – but they do it in different ways.
I’ve listed each type of automatic gearbox below with its name and a few comments. The idea here is that you can then ask what type of automatic gearbox a car has and not be confused by the answer.
All of these gearboxes can be used in fully automatic but many have a manual mode, too. This enables you to control the gear changes without having to operate a clutch.
Torque Converter automatics
The torque converter is the oldest type of automatic gearbox. It gives a very smooth ride and is very easy to use, but is probably the least fuel efficient of the auto boxes. Torque converters are fairly old technology and usually pretty reliable.
Torque converter autos can have any number of gears – more is better for fuel economy.
Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Automatic
CVTs are only used by Honda, Nissan, Audi and Mercedes, mostly in their smaller cars. CVT gearboxes work in a weird and wonderful way but are reasonably reliable and more fuel efficient than a torque converter automatic.
CVT autos usually have 7 speeds. Audi calls its CVT gearbox the ‘Multitronic’.
Direct Shift Gearboxes (DSG)
DSG automatics are a VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group) invention. That means they only appear on cars made by VAG – Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda. DSG gearboxes provide very fast shifts and offer good fuel economy.
DSG autos always have six speeds. Audi calls its DSG gearbox ‘S-Tronic’ – although it is the same as all the others.
Automated Manual Transmission (AMT)
Automated manuals are made up of a normal manual gearbox with a clutch that is operated electronically, by the car’s computer. AMTs normally have a fully automatic mode and a manual mode that allows you to choose when to change gear.
AMTs are relatively new and still improving in refinement, but they offer a couple of big potential advantages:
The gear change is timed and performed correctly every time – we humans tend to fluff them occasionally. This reduces clutch wear, especially for less skilled and experienced drivers.
By always changing gear at the optimum time, AMTs are capable of getting very good fuel economy and reducing CO2 emissions.
Although these benefits are theoretically possible with a manual gearbox, it takes a skilled and very consistent driver to achieve the same performance all of the time.