Best Of

Best automatic cars

It's easy to understand the appeal of a car with an automatic gearbox, and the good news is that not only large, expensive cars come with auto 'boxes. In fact, city cars, hybrids and even sports cars have them, too.

First published: 1st August 2017
For some drivers, a car with an automatic gearbox is, well, the automatic choice. What makes these cars so appealing and easy to live with is that you don’t have to use a clutch pedal. Just put the lever into Drive and let the car do the rest.

Many cars now come with a so-called 'semi-automatic' gearbox, where you have the best of both worlds. This means you don’t have to bother pressing a clutch pedal, which can be a real help in city driving, but you can still change gears manually using the lever or paddles on the steering wheel. The best of these systems employ a twin-clutch design that makes for quick, seamless gearchanges.

Automatic gearboxes are not just for big cars, either. Many city cars and superminis are offered with an auto to make them ideal town transport. As you can see from our picks below, there’s a car with an automatic gearbox out there to suit everyone.

Our selection:
  • Peugeot 108 – the good-value one
  • Mercedes S-Class – the smooth one
  • Toyota Prius – the economical one
  • Porsche 718 Cayman – the sporty one
  • BMW 5 Series – the intelligent one
Peugeot 108 – the good-value one
If you’re looking for one of the most cost-effective ways into a car with an automatic transmission, the Peugeot 108 must be on your list. The compact French city car comes with the firm’s 2-Tronic gearbox that’s a semi-auto, so you have the choice of selecting gears yourself or leaving it in fully automatic mode. The 108 is easy to drive, and it's ideal in town thanks to its tight turning circle. The auto ’box doesn’t penalise you at the fuel pumps, either, thanks to 67.3mpg average fuel economy, while emissions are below 100g/km to keep road tax at a low level.
  • Our pick of the range: 108 1.0 Active 2-Tronic
  • List price: £11,560
  • CO2 emissions: 97g/km
  • Fuel economy: 67.3mpg
  • Boot space: 180/868 litres
Mercedes S-Class – the smooth one
The Mercedes S-Class is a car designed to waft captains of industry around in supreme comfort, so a smooth-shifting automatic gearbox is essential. To deliver such a seamless transition from one gear to the next, Mercedes uses either a seven- or nine-speed ’box depending on which model takes your fancy. While that might sound like there will be more changes, each blends with the next in a way that you struggle to know it’s happening unless you watch the rev counter as it rises and falls with each shift. It all comes together perfectly in a luxury saloon that’s just as accomplished in every other area as its gearbox.
  • Our pick of the range: S350d SE L
  • List price: £70,470
  • CO2 emissions: 141g/km
  • Fuel economy: 50.4mpg
  • Boot space: 510 litres
Toyota Prius – the economical one
There was a time not so long ago that drivers of cars with an automatic gearbox had to accept worse fuel economy and higher emissions than in a manual-equipped rival. The Toyota Prius turned that notion on its head with its hybrid powertrain and CVT (continuously variable transmission) gearbox. This type of transmission does away with gears and, in their place, are two cones connected by a belt that give an infinite number of ratios. While it can take a little getting used to, this version of an automatic ’box allows for relaxed cruising and helps the Prius deliver its superbly low emissions and fuel consumption; and, it allows the car to swap between petrol and electric power with no interruption to the drive.
  • Our pick of the range: Prius Active
  • List price: £24,115
  • CO2 emissions: 70g/km
  • Fuel economy: 94.1mpg
  • Boot space: 457/1512 litres
Porsche 718 Cayman – the sporty one
‘Porsche Doppelkupplung’ doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as readily as ‘PDK’, which is why Porsche uses the abbreviation to describe its seven-speed automatic gearbox on the Porsche 718 Cayman. It’s really an automated manual with twin clutches, which allows the transmission to select the next gear in advance for quicker, smoother shifts. Clever stuff, but the bottom line is it lets you enjoy this wonderful sports car to its full at every opportunity. It also makes light work of city traffic and motorway miles, while also making the Cayman cleaner and more efficient than it is with the six-speed manual ’box.
  • Our pick of the range: 718 S Cayman PDK
  • List price: £53,853
  • CO2 emissions: 167g/km
  • Fuel economy: 38.7mpg
  • Boot space: 150 litres front/275 litres rear
BMW 5 Series – the intelligent one
It’s all very well the BMW 5 Series being extremely clever, but you have to be able to use the technology. Thankfully, this executive saloon and estate is simple to get on with and the eight-speed automatic gearbox is a perfect example of this. It’s barely perceptible as it swaps from one cog to the next, and you have the option of taking more control with the steering wheel paddle shifters. There are also different modes you can select that comprise comfort, sport and economy settings to suit your mood or driving conditions. It all adds up to one of the finest auto ’boxes in one of the best cars you can choose.
  • Our pick of the range: 520d M Sport
  • List price: £40,830
  • CO2 emissions: 108g/km
  • Fuel economy: 68.9mpg
  • Boot space: 530 litres
(All figures correct at the time of publication)