Everything You Need To Know About Gear Shift Letters & Numbers MILTA Technology

Everything You Need To Know About Gear Shift Letters & Numbers

You would be surprised by the number of drivers who operate vehicles with an automatic gearbox and have no idea what the letters and numbers beside or on their gear lever mean. While it is less important than actually knowing how to operate a car it is always good to know the details which separate you from other motorists who just don’t care or are not interested.

In this article, we will explain the meaning behind each gear shift letter and number, even those that are not the most common. We will start off with the basics and dive deeper at the end with gear shift letters and numbers you only find on hybrid and off-road vehicles.

Automatic gearboxes

There are no numbers on the gear knob of an automatic car. An automatic transmission selects most of the gears by itself – hence its name and the lack of gear numbers. Instead, you’ll find a few letters on or beside the gear shift lever. Their order is usually (from top to bottom): PRND-(S). In the United States of America, this order is set by law, but it has also established itself internationally, which is why the letters are abbreviations of English terms.

P – Park

As the name suggests, you should select the P position as soon as you have parked your car so that your car does not roll away. Important: You can only switch between the P, R, N and D positions with the brake pedal completely pressed in and while at a complete standstill. Once you have released the brake, these positions cannot be changed.

Once you shift into P (Park) your transmission will engage a parking pawl which keeps your car from rolling away. While it will not hurt your automatic gearbox if done once in a while, your car should not be relying on the parking pawl to prevent rolling away. That job should always be carried out by your emergency parking brake!

R – reverse

Just like with a manual gearbox, the R stands for “reverse” on the automatic gearbox as well. You can shift into the R (Reverse) position when you come to a complete stop. Be careful, the car will roll off by itself as soon as you take the foot off the brakes.

N – Neutral (Neutral)

The N letter that accompanies every automatic gearbox, stands for “neutral”. It is essentially idling with an automatic transmission. In the “N” or neutral position, your car will not start rolling as soon as you let go of the brake pedal (the transmission is not engaging), but it can still be moved or start rolling away if you are not on a flat surface. Neutral gear on an automatic is necessary, for example, in a car wash where you are being pulled forward or if your car is being towed.

D – Drive

The D stands for “Drive”. To get the car to drive, all you have to do is put the gear selector in D and release the brake. The car will start rolling on its own, at about walking pace. Now all you have to do is step on the gas pedal to go faster and the automatic gearbox will do the rest for you. Remember, do not shift into Park or Neutral when stopping at a red light or when coming to a stop. Just press and hold the brake and roll away when it’s time.

S – Sport

Many automatic gearboxes, especially in sports cars, also have the so-called S position. The S stands for “Sport” and is basically the same as the D level. The difference is that the automatic gearbox reacts faster and more aggressively. This means that upshifts are made later and downshifts earlier in order to achieve maximum acceleration times.

1, 2, 3, 4

Some automatic gearboxes will come equipped with numbers in addition to the “standard” letters we mentioned before. These are there to limit the transmission to the currently engaged gear. So if you set the number to 3, the car only works from first to third gear. This is commonly seen on SUVs and used in conditions where more power than speed is needed. This option also comes useful when going downhill or uphill in mud, thick gravel, sand or ice.

E – Economy

Some vehicles also have an economy mode, which is identified by the letter E. The automatic gearbox applies a shift pattern that reduces fuel consumption. This usually means it shifts gears earlier and uses engine braking more aggressively.

B – Brake

This feature can be found on hybrid vehicles and should be used when driving downhill. In this mode, the mechanical brakes are relieved when driving downhill by increasing the engine braking effect through recuperation.

M – Manual

Newer vehicles also often have the so-called “M-mode”, i.e. a manual mode. You will usually find a plus (+) and a minus (-) sign above and below the letter M. In this mode you can determine the up-coming gear and manually shift up (+) or down (-) by simply tapping the shift lever forwards or backwards. This is especially useful when you have to start off carefully, for example in snow or slippery conditions.

This mode is also often used by sporty drivers who, despite having an automatic gearbox, want to have full control over gear changes and want to fully extend each gear. Gearshift paddles are often built into corresponding models on the steering wheel, which can be used to switch manually without touching the gear shift lever.

Manual gearboxes

Things are a bit more simple and straightforward on manual gearboxes. Your gear shift knob will always feature the number of gears and the pattern in which you move through the gears. In most modern cars, the shifting pattern is the same with the exception of the (R)everse gear whose position varies depending on the car manufacturer.

If you ever find yourself in an older car, for example, a 1980s Mercedes-Benz with a manual gearbox, take a look at the gear shift pattern. It might surprise you!


We hope this review of what some motorists perceive as basic knowledge served you some new and useful information. It is good to know what goes behind the scenes in each of the gear lever positions so you know how to properly operate and preserve the health of your automatic gearbox.

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