What Does The L Mean On A Gear Shift? [When to Use Low Gear In Automatic Car]

When you enter an automatic vehicle, you will notice that the gear shift lever has several letter markings. This includes P, R, N, D, and L. In some cases, you may see more letters, such as D1, D2, M, and D3. Each one has a function. We may already know what P, R, N, and D do, but what does the L mean on a gear shift?

The “L” on the gear shift stands for low gear in automatic cars. Basically, the car will only be shifting from gear 1 to 2 and back based on the road conditions. You will use this gear set when you want more torque than speed. This can include going over rough terrain with several obstacles.

Driving your automatic car should never be hard again. With expert advice, you would know when to use the different gear settings available with the vehicle.

This guide not only focuses more on the L gear setting but also offers more details about the other gear symbols you might see. We also recommend the right gear setting to use for various scenarios to help you drive better.

What Is The Low Gear Used For

About 79.1 million vehicles made in 2021 we all be automatic. With these cars, you will find the gear system listed as PRNDL. However, most people know what D, P, R, and N stand for. However, what about L? This is because we use that gear position sparingly.

As you drive normally with the lever on D, the car can automatically detect the terrain and use the most suitable gear. However, at times you may only want to use low gears to get more torque out of the transmission.

When the vehicle is set to low gear, it prioritizes the power of the vehicle to ensure it can handle steep terrains or any other rough surfaces. When L is engaged, it will mean the car will be driving on gear 1 or 2, and the engine does not spin faster even if you keep pushing the gas pedal.

Based on what we see a low gear is all about, someone would also want to know in detail when best to use it. Here are some ideas.

  • Use it for towing trailers, other cars, and boats. When you have the vehicle is in low gear, it can generate more pulling power. That is how you can find it is good for towing even other vehicles. Just make sure to check the vehicle manual to understand its towing capacity.
  • To drive through snow or ice. The car may move slowly whenever you are in low gear, but it generally has more power to go through snow or ice. The tires would also have a better grip which is vital to prevent the car from potentially spinning too much.
  • Driving up the steep hills. It does not have up the hills alone. It can still be going down steep hills too. As you probably know, going up a steep hill can be tough on the higher gears. You need the torque to go up the hill by switching to the low gears and maintaining the same. The same goes for a steep decline. You need to go slower too, thus the reason to stick to low gears.
  • Driving on slippery or muddy roads. This is key in ensuring you have better control of the vehicle. The last thing you need is to drive fast while on a slippery road. That is why using low gears would be ideal for helping improve the power delivered to the tires to provide better control.
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Is It Bad To Drive A Car In Low Gear

Is It Bad To Drive A Car In Low Gear

Driving a car in low gear is not bad at all. It depends on the terrain and how fast you want to go. 

Let us say you are going up a steep road, which means you need more torque than speed. So, having your vehicle in L should be good enough to get it over the terrain.

However, it will not be the best gear to use if you drive long distances and the surface is flat and smooth.

Keeping the vehicle in low gear means it will not run efficiently in such a case. The result is that a vehicle uses more fuel. It is more reason to shift back to D if the low gears are no longer needed.

Automatic Gearbox Symbols Explained

when to use l gear in automatic car

If you have driven an automatic vehicle before, you must have seen the letters PRNDL alongside the gear lever.

General Motors introduced the automatic gear in cars in 1939, and the naming of the different gears has not changed in a long time. There has been an addition of a few letters like D1, D2, D3, M, and others depending on the automaker, but the difference is not much.

Meaning of P

The letter P means that the vehicle is in the Park setting. In this setting, the vehicle is not in gear which still means the gears are locked. It essentially locks the wheels from turning either forward or backward.

Also, most vehicles require you to start them while the gear shifter is on P. This ensures the best safety generally.

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Meaning of R

R is for reverse and comes after P. Once engaged, the vehicle starts to move back immediately after you release the brake pedal.

You cannot start the vehicle while it is in reverse mode. It is generally unsafe to do so; thus, the automakers have a safety switch to prevent such from happening.

Meaning of N

N stands for Neutral in your car. It is also called free-spinning mode. This means no gear is engaged in this position. However, depending on the terrain, you can still move the vehicle forward and backward by rolling or pushing.

N mode is mostly used when the engine won’t start, and you have to push the vehicle or when it has to be towed.

Meaning of D

D on the gear shift stands for Drive. This mode allows the vehicle to engage all its gears, depending on how you drive. The car stands with gear 1 and progresses until it reaches the highest gear depending on demand.

However, you might come across D1, D2, and D3 settings too. What do they do?

D1 is for increasing torque to handle terrains such as sand or mud. There is also D2 which can make the vehicle handle uphill climbing or give you a quick engine boost.

D3 can sometimes be called the Overdrive gear, which makes the engine rev efficient for overtaking. The overdrive gear ratio makes the tires move faster than how the engine spins.

Here is a video explanation of how overdrive works

YouTube video

Meaning of L

We have already talked about L. Well, L indicates that the transmission is now in low-drive gear.

The low drive gears are mostly geared 1 and 2. So, the vehicle will keep driving on these two gears to help provide more torque for getting out of tricky situations.

Sometimes, the L might be replaced with the letter M, which means you can now manually shift the gears. It can be through the paddle shifters or using the same gear lever but pushed to the manual side.

Gears – How Do They Work?

When to Use “L” Gear

Gears are essential for transmitting power from the engine to the wheels. Because of such importance, it can be important to understand how gears work.

Gears have teeth around the wheel and slot into each other depending on the design and what you plan to achieve.

As much as gears can be different, they will do one of three main things. This includes increasing speed, increasing force, and changing direction.

A good example is that a smaller gear wheel turns faster but will have less force, while a bigger gear wheel turns slower but has more force.

Gears can also be vital for changing direction. If you put two gears together, you will quickly notice they spin in different directions. When one is going clockwise, the other will go counterclockwise.

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This is important, especially for applications such as the differential, where the cone-shaped bevel gear can turn the driveshaft’s power through 90 degrees and help turn the back wheels.

Here is a video explaining how gears work in a vehicle

YouTube video

Why Is Being In The Right Gear In A Car Important?

You will experience better engine performance and efficiency when you drive in the right gear. 

Most car brands recommend keeping the engine running between 2000 to 4000 RPM. This means you keep changing the gears to the right one to maintain such a sweet spot.

This can be key for those who are driving manual vehicles. However, with automatic, you let the car do everything. The ECU sends the signal for changing the gears to the optimal one depending on various inputs from the vehicle itself. 

If you are driving a manual vehicle, here is a summary of which gear you use for which speed.

Gear Speed (mph)
1st 0-10
2nd 10-20
3rd 20-30
4th 30-40
5th 40+
6th 40+

How to Shift the Vehicle into L Gear Setting

Now that you understand the meaning of the L setting in an automatic transmission, next is how to use it actually. Below are the steps to use for shifting into L.

Scenario 1: The vehicle is at a standstill

In such a case, start by pressing the brakes and then shift the gear lever from P all the way to L. Just like that, you are done. Release the brake and now control the vehicle with the gas pedal.

Scenario 2: The vehicle is moving

If you are already driving and you want to shift into the L setting, first let go of the gas pedal so that the speed reduces up to 20mph. Move the shifter to the L setting and resume a steady speed by stepping on the gas pedal.

Make sure to keep the speed low as you are now using low gears.

Shifting Back to D

Increase the RPMs to around 3000, then move the gear lever back to D to activate the Drive mode. At this point, the vehicle will decide on the right vehicle for the terrain.

Which Gear Should You Use In Which Situation?

Different situations might demand using different gears. A good example is when going uphill and on a flat surface, the gears needed are different. Here are a few scenarios to help you determine the right gear for the application.

1. What gear to use when going uphill

What gear to use when going uphill

Use the second or third gear when you start heading up a steep incline. However, you should not change the gear midway as it might be enough to make it hard to keep going.

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Another tip is to always gather enough momentum before getting to the hill. In an automatic car, the third gear is likely to be selected and only shifted down to two if necessary. However, if you are in a manual vehicle, you will need to change it earlier to third or second.

2. What gear to use when going downhill?

What gear to use when going downhill

Use the first gear while driving downhill. This will generally help with engine braking. This is where you do not have to keep pressing the brake pedal to brake as you go downhill. This is important to minimize the wear on your brakes.

3. What Gear To Use On Flat

What Gear To Use On Flat

It largely depends on the speed you are driving at. Keeping the vehicle in higher gear, such as 5th or 6th, is advisable if you want to go faster. However, you can still keep it in 3rd or 4th gear for slow speeds.

4. What Gear To Use when Driving Down Steep Hills When Off-Road

What Gear To Use when Driving Down Steep Hills When Off-Road

It is advisable to choose the lowest gear possible, which is just number 1, and brake lightly where necessary since the vehicle will mostly be doing engine braking. Those with Hill Descent Control mode should also enable it to improve how well they go downhill.

5. What gear to drive in the snow

What gear to drive in the snow

Drive in the second gear rather than the first gear when going through snow. The second gear has less torque than the first gear, which is vital for driving in snow. Too much torque can also make it hard to control the vehicle in snow.


Is there a difference between 2 and l in automatic cars?

L stands for Low gear in automatic transmission systems. This means that the car starts in the first gear and then shifts to the second gear. Not more than that. Such a setting is usual for pulling a heavy load, or you are going up a steep hill. 2, on the other hand, means you are starting in the second gear. It might not have as much starting torque as L, but it is good enough for snow and ice conditions.

How does a car’s low gear increase power while going slower?

To the surprise of many, redlining your engine does not mean you get more torque. Actually, there is a range where the engine provides more torque, where low gears come in. We see that when the vehicle is in a lower gear, the engine turns faster than the wheels. As such, there is more power that is needed by the wheels to go through the driving conditions.

Low gear vs. high gear: What are the differences?

Low gears are mostly geared 1 and 2. When you select these gears, the engine works faster, but the vehicle is slow. This means there is now additional powder at the wheels, which is torque rather than speed. It is the opposite for high gears, where the optimum goal is to achieve speed rather than torque while keeping the engine working at optimum speeds too.

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How Fast Can You Drive in L Gear Mode?

Low gears are not meant for fast speeds. Automakers would not recommend pushing a vehicle L gear mode to go past 55mph. If you want to go fast, it is best to shift it back to D and let it choose the right gear for more speed.

Can You Switch To Low Gear While Driving Automatic?

Yes, it is possible to switch to L while driving. However, you should not be speeding. Try to get down as low as 20mph before shifting from D to L. This practice is vital for keeping the transmission in good condition to ensure you do not end up damaging it.

Can You Shift From D To L While Driving?

Yes, you can change gears from D to L. Shifting to L is not an issue because it is an SW indication to utilize a higher Regeneration level rather than a gear change. 

What Does 3 Mean On A Car?

3 indicates normal or drive, whereas 2 and 1 are switches that compel the automobile to stay in either second or first gear without shifting. It also suggests that the wheels will have a higher power in positions 1, 2, and 3 than in position D. Continue reading to find out when to employ 3, 2, and 1 transmission.

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When Should D1 And D2 Be Used?

Before changing the selection lever, ensure the brake pedal is fully depressed, and the car is stopped. Make Certain That The Selector Lever Is In The Appropriate Position: Make certain that the selector lever is in the desired position. To go forward, press “D,” “1 (D1),” “2 (D2),” and “R” to back up.

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