Semi-automatic cars are easy to drive, and give you manual control when you need it most. 

If you have just bought your first semi-automatic, it is important that you understand what a semi-automatic is and how it differs from other vehicles.  

By the end of this article, you will know how to recognise a semi-automatic car, how they differ from automatic vehicles, and how to drive one. 

Read on to learn all this and more about semi-automatic cars. 


What Is a Semi-Automatic Car?

A semi-automatic car combines elements of both a manual and an automatic gearbox. Like an automatic car, most semi-automatic cars are not fitted with a clutch pedal as the clutch is remotely controlled. 

In a semi-automatic car, you will have the option to switch between manual and automatic controls easily. 

You can drive a semi-automatic like a fully automatic car – with no need for manual gear changes – but you can also take manual control. 


How Does It Work?

Semi-automatic transmissions are manual transmissions, without the clutch pedal.  This makes them easy to drive and means that you can choose how to control the gears as there is a selection of manual and automatic options. 

Instead of cables and pipes running from the transmission to the driver to affect gear changes, actuators and computers do this for you in a semi-automatic car. 

You can push a lever on the gearstick to change gears or use steering wheel paddles which allow you to go up or down by pressing the ‘+’ or ‘-’ buttons. 

The engine produces kinetic energy which helps to rotate the wheels. Carefully tuned gear ratios control how fast or slow the wheels spin.  

The automatic clutch connects to a hydraulic motor – a replacement for a clutch pedal – and changes gear for you when in automatic mode. 

If you take manual control, the computer will tell you when to shift up or down via the corresponding paddle.  

The computer always controls the clutch function, meaning you don’t have to worry about syncing it all up. 


What Do the Letters on a Semi-Automatic Gearstick Mean?

Unlike an automatic gearbox which has four settings (Park, Drive, Reverse and Neutral), a semi-automatic transmission is likely to show the letters P, R, N, D & M or A, N, R & M. 

P = Park 

Acting as a handbrake, park locks the transmission and stops the car from moving. You should engage park mode whenever you get out of the car. 

R = Reverse 

If you want the car to go backwards, you should select reverse. You should not put the car into reverse for any other reason. 

N = Neutral 

Neutral is the mode you should use to stop the car for a short period of time, for instance whilst waiting at traffic lights.  

If your semi-automatic car has a handbrake, you should engage this at the same time. Even if you have selected neutral, the car will still creep forward if you take your foot off the brake. You should not engage neutral for any other reason. 

M = Manual 

Selecting manual puts you in charge of changing gear. The car will only automate the clutch in this mode.  

D = Drive 

Drive keeps the car moving forward. You should put your car in drive when you want to move – otherwise the computer can’t change gears for you. 

A = Automatic 

Automatic works exactly the same as drive (D). 


An image of a semi-automatic gearstick.

You may see the letters P, R, N, D & M or A, N, R & M on a semi-automatic transmission.


What's the Difference Between an Automatic and a Semi-Automatic Car?

As a semi-automatic car gives you the option of changing gears manually, this can give you extra control and a smoother drive. In an automatic, the car will change gears for you. 

Semi-automatic cars can be more fuel-efficient that fully automatic vehicles. You can even drive a semi-automatic car on an automatic licence – provided that the vehicle does not come with a clutch pedal. 

Many modern cars use electronic automatic gearboxes to change gear when the computer recognises that you need it most. The ease of slipping the car into drive and not having to worry about it appeals to many people. 

However, a common criticism of automatic cars is that gear changes can be jerky or ineffective. The computer has set gear ratios and knows exactly when to shift up or down – but it doesn’t factor in the road situation when it does so.  

If you own a semi-automatic car, you have the option to shift it into manual, making driving at low-speed or low revs easier.  

Many high-end sports cars and supercars are semi-automatic, benefiting the driver in terms of extra control and precision. 

When you combine this control and enjoyment with potential fuel savings, it is easy to see why so many drivers have ditched the manual gearbox. 

In essence, a semi-automatic car gives you more flexibility than an automatic car, while keeping the same ease and convenience that draws drivers towards computer-controlled transmission. 


Should I Buy a Semi-Automatic Car?

If you’re looking for a vehicle with the ease and convenience of an automatic and the control and smoothness of a manual, then a semi-automatic car could be perfect for you.  

Not to mention that a semi-automatic gearbox can give you more control whilst driving in snow and ice, or whilst driving uphill. 


Which Cars Are Semi-Automatic?

Most manufacturers have produced semi-automatic transmission cars.  


  • VW Passat 
  • Mercedes Benz E-Class 
  • Volvo S90 
  • BMW 3-Series 
  • Alfa Romeo Giulia 


  • Ford Fiesta 
  • Peugeot 208 
  • Vauxhall Astra 
  • Hyundai i10 
  • Fiat 500 


  • Hyundai Tucson 
  • Ford Kuga 
  • Volvo XC60 
  • Skoda Karoq 
  • Mitsubishi Outlander 


  • Peugeot 2008 SUV 
  • BMW X1 
  • Peugeot 3008 SUV 
  • Audi A6 
  • SEAT Leon Sport Tourer 


What Are the Most Common Problems with Semi-Automatic Cars?

Some of the most common problems with semi-automatic cars include: 

  • Grinding or shaking sensation in gear 
  • Car won’t engage or respond when in gear 
  • Transmission is noisy 
  • Burning smell 
  • Slipping gears 
  • Low or leaking transmission fluid 

If your car begins to change gear less smoothly, becomes less responsive, or starts making a whining noise, then you should have it looked at by a professional mechanic.  

Transmission fluid is bright red when clean and dark red when dirty. If you notice a puddle of this under your car, then there is an issue which needs to be resolved – driving with an unlubricated transmission can lead to costly repairs.  

Continuing to drive with damaged gears can make the problem worse and the repair bill more expensive.  

The issue could be something as easy-to-fix as a transmission fluid top-up, but it could be far more serious.  

A burning smell should never be ignored, as it can indicate that the fluid has overheated, and your vehicle is now unsafe to drive.  

If you notice a burning smell, make sure that you stop driving as soon as possible and call your recovery provider to take your car safely to a garage.  


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We hope you have enjoyed learning about semi-automatic cars. 



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