Most people are familiar with the basic functions of a car. After all, even if you don’t drive yourself, you’ve probably been in a car and seen how they work.
But, even experienced drivers can sometimes be confused when they see an M on the gear shift. After all, most gears are named after numbers, and even the ones that aren’t, drive, reverse, and neutral, don’t start with an M.
So what does it mean if your car has an M on your car? What does it do, how can you use it, and is it useful?
What Does M Mean On Your Car?
If you’re driving an automatic, you might see this M marking on or near the gearshift. It’s most common in Toyota vehicles, but other manufacturers may include this option in some of their models.
The M simply stands for Manual, or Manual Control, and is a way for you to switch your vehicle between automatic and manual transmission functions.
Having the option to switch to manual control might not seem like a big deal, but it can actually make a huge difference in safety and performance in the hands of an experienced driver who understands manual driving.
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What Is The Difference Between Manual And Automatic Control?
It wasn’t that long ago that basically all cars and trucks had a manual transmission. But, with improvements in the durability and effectiveness of automatic transmissions, the opposite is true today. Almost all vehicles are made with an automatic transmission, and more and more people have only ever driven an automatic.
So, now that you know what M means on your car, what are the core differences between manual and automatic transmission control?
With an automatic transmission, your vehicle changes transmission gears on its own, as a response to the RPM and load on the vehicle. In constantly variable automatic transmissions, which are getting a lot more common, the transmission will shift gears more often and even your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gear positions on your shifter represent gear ranges instead of set gears like on a manual or a different kind of automatic transmission.
The result is that the driver doesn’t have to think about as much while driving, because the vehicle is taking care of gear shifting automatically. It can lead to smoother driving, but may not always be as efficient or safe because there’s no guarantee that the computer will respond to the situation appropriately.
For instance, your vehicle might shift gears several times before downshifting on hills because it’s getting mixed messages about what’s happening, it can take a minute for the transmission to find the right setting.
In a manual vehicle, on the other hand, the driver is in complete control of the gears. That can give you more control in dangerous situations, but also means that you need to pay closer attention to your speed and RPM because you’ll need to shift on your own.
That said, it can be easier on your transmission to have manual control because you, as a driver, have more information to be able to choose the right gear.
Take our uphill example: while an automatic transmission may shift several times to find the right setting, you’ll know that you need to downshift for more power on a steep hill, so you’ll be able to shift into the right gear faster, which is easier on your vehicle.
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Why Would You Want To Switch To Manual Transmission Mode?
The most common reason to switch to manual mode is that driving in manual gives you slightly better control over the vehicle. You can react to a lot more information than the car’s computer, including weather conditions, light levels, nearby traffic, and more.
Switching to manual mode may also be helpful when you’re driving through a difficult bit of road, or in hazardous conditions like on icy roads, or when there is standing water on the road in a storm.
Manual mode also tends to be better for controlling your speed in hazardous conditions. Downshifting creates a maximum speed your vehicle is going to reach and can make its engine brake if you start going too fast. Engine braking, in combination with manual braking, can help maintain control of the vehicle, particularly on icy roads or downhill slopes.
Engine braking can also be used to give your brakes a break, which can help prevent overheating if you’re going downhill for a long time. It’s common to use engine braking on mountain roads, for instance.
Manual shifting is also useful for when you need more power, like when you’re hauling a trailer or going up a steep slope. An automatic transmission it’s likely to choose a higher gear setting, which can make it difficult to reach the speeds you want to under load or go uphill because the engine loses power when you’re going faster.
Choosing a lower gear might limit speed slightly, but it also gives your engine more power to better handle the total load of the vehicle and maintain speeds.
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When Should You Use Manual Mode?
Different drivers are going to have different opinions on when it’s most useful to switch into manual mode.
For instance, some drivers actively prefer driving in manual and may switch to manual mode just because that’s how they prefer to drive.
Other drivers might only use manual mode for adverse conditions and difficult roads because of the added control.
It’s also alright if you prefer not to use manual mode, especially in vehicles that still have a clutch, or that use an abnormal shifting method while in manual. The last thing you want to do is switch into manual mode during a difficult bit of driving only to discover that you don’t know how manual shifting works in your vehicle.
With that in mind, if you’re considering using manual mode in your vehicle, it’s a good idea to get some practice before you try using it on the road. Every vehicle is a little different and having familiarity with how your vehicle shifts before you need manual mode will help keep you safer.
Of course, if your vehicle’s manual mode never sees action, that’s perfectly fine as well.
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