What Transmission Do You Have? Let's Break It Down

Look down, what does it look like?

A manual transmission.
via Getty Images

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Oh, lost souls, we’ve heard your plight and cries from out of the darkness. We’ve listened to your questions about reality. Your yearning for the truth of the deepest of questions in all of the universe that should be, nay, must be answered. Today, it’s “What transmission do I have, Father?!”

That may sound silly, but apparently, a lot of you are confused as to what transmission you use whenever you slide into the driver’s seat. Enough of you to warrant an entire article about which one shifts, which one whirs, and which goes clunk, clunk, clunk—pro tip: No transmission should go clunk, clunk, clunk

To help that portion of the population that is bewildered by the knob between you and the passenger, The Drive’s crack comedians have put together a fun little guide to determine exactly what type of transmission you have. 

God, help us all. 

A question mark.
Depositphotos

What transmission do you have?

What Transmission Do I Have?

Let’s make it fun with a choose-your-own-adventure exercise. You know, like you used to get with Goosebumps’ stories. We’ll give you some clues that’ll lead you to the right answer. Ready?

Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. Look down. Is there a lever in between you and the passenger? Does it have numbers and an “R” on it, or do you see “PRNDL” written on the base? If there are numbers, typically 1-5 or 1-6, skip ahead to the “Manual” heading further down the article. If it shows “PRNDL” written along the base, skip to the “Automatic or CVT” heading.

  2. If you’ve found a lever but there aren’t any numbers, let’s look in the footwell. Are there three pedals? If so, skip down to “Manual.”

  3. Can’t find a lever between you? Let’s try this again, look at your dashboard. Is there a lever mounted to the steering column or a set of buttons with the PRNDL emblazoned on them? If you have either, scroll down to the “Automatic or CVT” heading. 
The manual trans.
Depositphotos

The manual trans. 

Manual

There are two types of manual transmissions: the traditional H-pattern manual and what’s known as a sequential manual. Each uses a driver-operated clutch and shifter to shift through the gears. 

Another fork in the road.
Depositphotos

Another fork in the road. 

Automatic Or CVT

If you’ve ended up here, well done, you have an automatic transmission. What type of automatic transmission, however, is still up for debate. Let’s go through one last choose-your-own-adventure.

When you hit the gas, do you feel as if there are momentary steps in the power delivery, or is it seamless with nary a wiggle in power put to the pavement? If you answered steps, move to the “Automatic” heading. If it’s as smooth as a baby’s butt, go to the “CVT” heading. 

An automatic transmission.
Depositphotos

An automatic transmission. 

Automatic

An automatic transmission has similar gearing to a stepped manual transmission, but the shifting process is automated. 

A CVT.
Depositphotos

A CVT. 

CVT

A CVT, or continuously variable transmission, is a type of automatic transmission that is constantly in both the next higher and next lower gear ratio to maintain an even distribution of power, reducing the jittery feeling that traditional automatic transmissions deliver. 

How Do Transmissions Work?

Now that you know which transmission you have, it’s time to learn how it works. 

Manual 

In a car with a manual transmission or sequential manual transmission, the driver is required to move the transmission through the gears using a clutch pedal and the hand shifter. The driver depresses the clutch pedal each time the vehicle needs to shift into another gear. For a traditional manual transmission, you’ll move the shifter left and right to slot into each gear. Sequential manual transmissions only require forward and reverse inputs to shift into higher and lower gears.

Automatic 

In a car with an auto transmission, putting the vehicle into Drive (D) engages a set of gears. A transmission receives engine power from the input shaft and sends it to the wheels via an output shaft. On automatic transmissions, the gears constantly change to accommodate throttle input and speed. When at a stop, an automatic transmission automatically disengages.

CVT

A car with a CVT works similarly to a standard automatic transmission, putting the vehicle into Drive engages a set of gear ratios, receives engine power from the input shaft, and sends it to the wheels via an output shaft. Where they differ is that a CVT’s gear ratios are constantly in flux to provide more seamless power delivery to the driven wheels.

A Hyundai Veloster N's cabin.
Jonathon Klein

A Hyundai Veloster N's cabin. 

How Do I Drive a Car Equipped with Each Transmission?

I mean, how have you been driving your car before this? You can probably just do that, but in case you’ve forgotten, here’s a refresher.

Manual 

  1. You will likely stall the car. That's ok. Don't get nervous. You won't break anything.
  2. Push the clutch pedal in, make sure the gearshift is centered in neutral, and start the engine.
  3. Release the emergency brake.
  4. With your foot on the clutch, shift to first gear. 
  5. Ease your foot off the clutch slowly to feel where the engagement point is, and the car starts moving.
  6. Continue easing off the clutch while pressing the accelerator pedal (the throttle). Listen to the engine revs rise; keep between 1,500 to 2,000 rpm at first. 
  7. The trick is in coordinating the clutch release with the application of throttle. If you give the car too much gas with the clutch half-engaged you will "ride the clutch." (If you keep doing this, you'll eventually damage it.) 
  8. If you release the clutch too quickly, the car will lurch forward. If that happens, simply push the clutch back in and start again.
  9. Release the clutch fully and apply throttle.
  10. If the engine stalls, repeat the steps. Keep trying until you get the feel for how the clutch and throttle work together.

If you want more, check out The Drive’s guide for How to Drive a Manual Transmission.

Automatic

  1. Put the car either in drive (D) or reverse (R) depending on which way you want to go.
  2. Do that until you either need to switch to D or R so you’re going the way you then. 
  3. Switch to park (P) when you want to stop.
  4. That’s it. 

CVT

  1. Put the car either in drive (D) or reverse (R) depending on which way you want to go.
  2. Do that until you either need to switch to D or R so you’re going the way you then. 
  3. Switch to park (P) when you want to stop.
  4. That’s it for a CVT too!

What Are All the Slang Terms for Transmissions?

Over the years, there have been many slang terms for transmission, including slushbox, auto, stick, self-shifter, prindle, three-pedal two-step, cog swapper, and a handful of others we can’t speak of in polite company. 

BONUS ROUND! Electric Vehicle Transmissions

We hear you have a Tesla. We hear that you’re wondering where you are in this universe of transmissions. Don’t worry, we’re all-knowing and can tell you exactly what you have. And that’s nothing. Seriously. 

If you have an electric vehicle (EV), you likely don’t have a transmission! Only a select few EVs have transmissions, as most don’t require higher gearing due to the nature of how electric motors work.