Everything You Need to Know About the “Park” Gear
Do you drive an automatic car? If you’ve driven one for many years, then you’ll doubtless already be very familiar with the gear shift and its functions. However, a large number of UK drivers are just coming to drive automatic vehicles for the first time. Between 2019 and 2021, sales of new automatic cars finally started to outstrip those of manual cars, which means driving automatics is set to become the new norm
One thing that does tend to confuse new automatic drivers is the “Park” function. It doesn’t sound like it should be confusing — you stop the car to park, shift it into “P” for park, apply the parking brake, and you’re done, no? — there is still some difficulty for some in knowing, for instance, when to use Park “P” and when to use Neutral “N,” among other things.
In today’s blog, we’ll be taking a closer look at everything a new automatic driver needs to know about the Park “P” gear on their automatic shifter, including when it and when not to use it.
Background: Understanding the Automatic Shifter
First, let’s be clear on the main functions of a standard automatic gearbox and shifter. They actually come in different forms, with the three most popular being:
- Conventional automatic gearboxes
- Continuously variable transmissions (CVT)
- Dual-clutch transmissions (DCT)
Most regular automatics use conventional automatic gearboxes, while CVTs are most often used in hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. The DCT is an automatic transmission reserved mostly for high-end and high-specification models like the VW Golf GTI. The Volkswagen direct-shift gearbox (DSG) is an example of a commercially mass-produced DCT that brings together manual-like performance with the convenience of an automatic transmission.
Conventional Automatic Gearbox: Different Modes
The gear shift is marked up with several letters, and sometimes some numbers, too. The main functions are invariably:
- “P” – Park
- “N” – Neutral
- “D” – Drive
- “R” – Reverse
On some models, you may also notice D1, D2 and D3 or a combination of similar indicators. These indicate modes where one can add greater torque or more engine revs for speed and power when required. For instance, D1 offers a lot more torque, which is useful when you’re trying to navigate any tricky terrain like mud.
Others might help with adding torque and power for uphill climbing, or adding revs to make overtaking at higher speeds easier. However, in today’s blog, we want to focus more on the Park “P” mode, so let’s dive in closer.
What Does It Mean to Put an Automatic Car Into Park “P”?
First, let’s understand exactly what’s happening when we put the car into Park “P” mode. The most important thing that happens mechanically when you set your car to Park is that something called the transmission parking pawl — a metal pin within your transmission system — will move into place, locking the transmission in place and preventing the output shaft from rotating. As long as the output shaft is not rotating, the road wheels can’t move.
So, when you put the car into Park, you are doing so because you are getting out of the car and you don’t want the car to move at all from wherever you’ve parked it. It’s the way to properly secure your car in place when you’ve stopped, as opposed to putting it in Neutral “N” which does not do that.
If You’re in Park “P” Do You Still Need the Parking Brake?
Yes, even though the transmission parking pawl prevents the output shaft from rotating, you should still apply your parking brake, be it mechanical or electronic. The parking brake acts as a contingency and auxiliary brake should your parking pawl and transmission locking system happen to fail. Such failure is far from likely, of course, but over time and with enough wear and tear, it can certainly happen.
When Should You Use “P” Park in an Automatic Car? When Should You Not Use It?
Next, let’s look at some different scenarios that can confuse people when driving automatic cars. In particular, we’ll be looking more closely at when you should use Park “P” and when it’s best to use Neutral “N.” These things might seem obvious to people who have driven automatic cars for many years already, but for the increasing numbers of first-time automatic drivers in the UK, these are new functions and rules.
Stopping and Parking the Car – Use “P”
If you are stopping the car with the intention of getting out, then it’s best to use Park “P” to properly lock the transmission and secure the car in place. As we mentioned earlier, this function should also be accompanied with the parking brake (mechanical or electronic, depending on your car) as an extra contingency.
At Traffic Lights – Daytime – Use “D”
During the day, when you stop at traffic lights, the best and most efficient thing to do is simply use your foot brake to slow yourself down and come to a stop, and then just hold the foot brake in place. You could slip it into Park “P” but that’s better saved for the night (see below), and for the daytime when roads are busy just keep “D” active and hold the brake.
You might think this would cause wear and tear on the brakes, but actually it won’t. Provided you steadily brake to come to a stop, it won’t do your brakes any harm to hold them while stopped (especially on a flat road) because there’s no heat being generated, and very, very little being generated when you brake during “creep” mode.
At Traffic Lights – Nighttime – Use “P”
At night, you should put your car in Park “P” when you’re at traffic lights. The main reason for this is that if you have any cars behind you at night, applying and holding your brakes can create dazzling light for any drivers behind. If you’re stopped at the lights, the driver behind won’t be far away, and the bright brake lights will more likely dazzle them. So, use Park “P” so that you don’t need the brake lights.
Being Towed – Use “N”
If an automatic car is being towed, you mustn’t leave it in Park as this will cause serious damage to the powertrain and drivetrain units. If you’re being towed, put the car in neutral, or if possible have the towing company bring a flat-bed truck so they don’t have to tow it at all.
Using a Rolling Car Wash – Use “N”
If you go up to a rolling car wash where you stay in place and are dragged through the machine, be sure to set your car to Neutral “N” so that it can move forward without any problems.
Pushing the Car – Use “N”
Finally, if you’re having to push the car forward for whatever reason, put it in Neutral “N” to allow it to roll.