Okay folks, it’s time to talk about “the N-word”. No, not that N-word. I’m talking about that big N etched into the dash of your car, right next to your gearshift. Neutral baby. The power of the N-word, neutral gear that is, is completely obscured by the use of the D-word, drive. This is especially true in the case of automatic transmissions.
In automatic cars, most people are completely oblivious to the power of neutral. Those that drive manual transmissions would probably agree, and due to the nature of manual shifting, they know more about neutral then Switzerland in wartime.
But for those of us too lazy to use two hands while driving, or for those who prefer the convenience of an automatic transmission at a higher cost, the power of neutral seems to be completely lost among us. After all, the term “automatic” implies less responsibility on the part of the driver, which also seems synonymous with less control as well.
However, truly experienced drivers understand that the power of neutral is not completely lost in the hands of automatic transmission owners. All that’s required to reap the benefits of the “N” is a little bit of patience, finesse, practice—and an open mind to the idea that a little bit more work goes a long way. The silly truth of it all is that the term “automatic” doesn’t necessarily mean you have no control.
In terms of gas mileage, the neutral position pays back dividends—even with an automatic transition. That’s right my friends; no more must you endure the pointed elitists remarks of shifty manual owners that brag about how a “skilled driver” can get nearly 40 MPG. Now, you can be that guy.
Once automatic car drivers get past the slight awkwardness of switching back and forth between “D” and “N”, the experience is just as rewarding as the savings. For the past few weeks I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of using my depth perception to anticipate the perfect timing of neutral coasting just before a red light or stop sign.
The interesting thing is that some of the gear shifts in automatic cars are designed so that you don’t have to press the button in order to switch between neutral and drive. The shifter just glides seamlessly between the two states. This gives the automatic driving experience a nice glimpse of the manual one. The plus side of that? For automatic transmission drivers thinking about switching over to a manual ride, you can really begin to develop the timing and anticipation skills necessary to master a stick shifter.
The follow is the ABC Rulebook for utilizing the neutral gear on an automatic transmission.
Hills are primary terrain for poppin’ that bad boy into neutral. This works best on steeper inclines, but if you’ve injected enough gas into the engine on the way up, even more shallow dips can carry an idle car for a long while. I testing the power of hill-country this past weekend while going to visit a friend in Pennsylvania. On one particular set of continuous slopes, I managed to rack up nearly two miles by coasting on the gas of a few taps to the pedal.
In the game of neutral, anticipation is everything. The moment you see a stop sign or red traffic light, your hand should be on the gear shift. Taking into consideration the traffic around you, the incline of the road your driving on, and quality of your depth perception, anticipating the stops on your travels can add up to longer miles and bigger savings. Also, think about going green by shifting to N when you find yourself sitting in a highway parking lot, amidst a sea of red break lights.
Shifting the gear stick of an automatic transmission into the neutral position isn’t an intuitive motion. For those of us who don’t drive a manual car, we’re used to occupying our hands with the radio dials and iced coffee beverages at an arm’s length away. Because of this, refining your neutral shifting skills in the cabin of an automatic vehicle will take some time and a keen sense of awareness—you have to pay attention. That being said, practicing your shifting skills also cuts down on the temptation to text and drive (at least when you’re not on the highway).
Overall, the most important thing I’ve really taken away from my experiences of using the neutral position in an automatic vehicle, is the better understanding of how manual driving works. In refining your skills of timing and anticipation, you can gain crucial insight into the kind of awareness and timing skills needed to operate a manual vehicle. Now all you need to do is learn how to use a clutch.