The best automatic cars to buy 2021

  • Which are the best automatic cars to buy?
  • More and more models now available with automatic gearboxes
  • Are they worth buying instead of a manual?

Who buys an automatic car? Back in the day you’d probably have said they were reserved for luxury models, old people and those unable to operate a manual gearbox, but that’s certainly not the case any more.

Nowadays, automatic gearboxes are prevalent across the whole market – whether you’re buying a huge SUV, a practical people-carrier or a dinky city car.

There are big and small automatic cars, premium and cheap automatic cars, even automatic vans and sports cars.

In fact, some car manufacturers have almost totally ditched manual gearboxes altogether, particularly higher-end brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.

These are our favourite automatic cars:

Why choose a car with an automatic gearbox?

Ease, efficiency and smoothness are the key draws for automatic gearboxes. People buy automatics because they want a premium and relaxing driving experience, and an auto offers that, relieving your left arm and leg from operating a clutch and gear lever.

There are loads of different kinds of automatic gearboxes. Torque converters are what we consider to be a ‘traditional’ auto, but you might also see models with CVTs, dual-clutch automatics, automated manuals or in the case of electric cars, no gearbox at all. We’ve explained all of these in more detail here.

>> What is an automatic gearbox?

Pros of automatic gearboxes

Automatic gearboxes can take a little getting used to, especially if you’ve spent your life driving manuals, but once you’re accustomed they’re incredibly easy to operate. With just two pedals and no gears to select manually (beyond moving the selector from Park/Reverse/Neutral/Drive) an automatic car is especially easy in heavy traffic, where there’s no need to keep dancing around three pedals and a gear lever.

In the old days opting for an automatic meant a hefty sacrifice in fuel economy, but that’s no longer the case today. In fact, many autoboxes – especially those with seven, eight, or even more ratios – can be more efficient than their manual counterparts, with higher fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions.

Toyota Corolla gear selector

In very powerful sports cars, an automatic is better-equipped to handle the power and rifle-sharp gear changes needed to make the most of all that performance. For this reason manual sports cars are becoming a rarity, especially in very high-powered models.

A manual gearbox cannot easily be paired with a hybrid powertrain either, which means the latest crop of fuel-sipping hybrids and plug-in hybrids all use an automatic.

Cons of automatic gearboxes

An automatic isn’t always a passport to an easy life. Firstly, not all autoboxes are created equal – and if you get hold of a stinker, then you won’t enjoy driving it one bit.

While a bad manual gearbox can be worked around by a skilled driver, a bad automatic has nowhere to hide. With jerky changes, poor fuel economy and sometimes appalling reliability, it’s well worth taking a test drive and thoroughly checking reviews to make sure you’re getting a good example of the breed.

Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, an automatic gearbox typically costs more than its manual equivalent to buy – and can cost more to service or repair, too.

There are those who find an automatic gearbox less involving, which is a complaint we’d certainly agree with on certain cars. Small, buzzy sports cars and hot hatchbacks, for example, just don’t feel right without a manual gearbox.

There’s also licencing to consider. In the UK, if you pass your test in an automatic car you’re not legally allowed to drive manuals – severely limiting your options. Even if you intend to drive automatics for your whole life we recommend learning to drive in a manual car just in case.

The best automatic cars to buy 2021

Skoda Octavia 

One of the best all-round family cars you can buy

Pros:
✅ Wide range of engines
✅ Practical body and boot

Cons:
❌ Not as good value as previous Octavias

Skoda Octavia

For some members of the Parkers team, the Skoda Octavia is the archetypal family car. Whether in hatchback or estate form, it’s terribly practical – there’s a huge boot, acres of rear legroom and loads of clever touches.

Automatic gearboxes are available throughout the engine range, and they’re seven-speed dual-clutch examples (except for hybrids, which get a six-speed). They’re an excellent gearbox that’s used across the Volkswagen Group range of cars. An immensely sensible car that owners seem to adore.

New price: From £21,230
Lease this car: From £254 per month

Jaguar XF 

Jag’s classy executive saloon is well worth a look

Pros:
✅ Fantastic to drive
✅ Looks elegant and athletic

Cons:
❌ No hybrid or sports model
❌ Engines can be thirsty

Jaguar XF

The Jaguar XF has been one of the best executive cars for keen drivers for ages – though it’s not necessarily the most practical, nor the cheapest to run, it’s fantastic to drive and very good-looking.

A recent facelift has given the XF an interior to match its looks, while the automatic gearbox is a really excellent eight-speed unit that pairs up well with any of the available engines. And compared with its rivals, it’s great value, with prices that undercut its main them significantly.

New price: From £32,910
Lease this car: From £497 per month

BMW 3 Series 

The archetypal compact executive – still as brilliant as ever

Pros:
✅ Wide range of engines available
✅ Great to drive

Cons:
❌ Firm ride in some models
❌ Can get pricey

BMW 3 Series

BMW’s automatic gearboxes have been excellent for a long time, and the one fitted to the latest 3 Series is no exception. It suits the car’s sporting nature very well, and paired up to the its brilliant range of engines it’s a great combo.

Whether in saloon or Touring estate guise the 3 Series is a very family-friendly choice, with a high-quality interior that’s stuffed to the gills with standard equipment.

New price: From £31,590
Lease this car: From £377 per month

Peugeot 2008 

A stylish compact SUV with a great automatic gearbox

Pros:
✅ Striking design
✅ Available as an electric car

Cons:
❌ Touchscreen functions can be unresponsive
❌ Higher models are expensive

Peugeot 2008

Small SUVs are big business, but just because the Peugeot 2008 is a relatively small car doesn’t mean it has to have a manual gearbox. We reckon Peugeot’s eight-speed automatic is one of the best around, and it’s at its best combined with one of the 2008's responsive petrol engines.

If you’d rather an alternative option, you could go for the all-electric e-2008 instead – it’s even simpler than the automatic, with two pedals but no ‘gearbox’ as such – and it’s a great gateway to electric vehicles.

New price: From £21,030
Lease this car: From £199 per month

Renault Clio 

Our favourite small car is great as an automatic too

Pros:
Great value
✅ Peppy engines

Cons:
❌ Cramped back seats

Renault Clio

We already reckon the Renault Clio is one of the finest small cars you can buy – it’s the Parkers First Car of the Year for 2021, and features in our list of the best small automatics too. It uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for the more powerful petrol engine, while lower-powered units use a surprisingly effective CVT.

These gearboxes allow you to enjoy the rest of the Clio’s attributes, such as its excellent interior, big boot and great value.

New price: From £15,895
Lease this car: From £205 per month

Toyota Corolla 

Hybrid hatchback is a great challenger to established competition

Pros:
✅ Fantastic fuel economy
✅ Striking design

Cons:
❌ Not very engaging to drive
❌ Not much space in the back

Toyota Corolla

The world’s best-selling car is a title that doesn’t come around by accident – and through all of its various iterations the Corolla has built a reputation for reliability and solidity that’s richly deserved. The latest model, however, also has many other strings to its bow.

It comes with a choice of two hybrid powertrains, both of which use the same continuously variable transmission. It’s not particularly engaging, but it’s very smooth and perfect for city driving – while remaining relaxed on the motorway, too.

Price new: From £24,480
Lease this car: From £233 per month

Porsche 911 

One of the all-time greats; a sports car of distinction

Pros:
✅ Fantastic to drive
✅ Amazingly usable as an everyday car

Cons:
❌ Needs expensive options to be at its best

Porsche 911

Proving that a sports car doesn’t always need a manual gearbox is the Porsche 911, which the vast majority of buyers specify with the amazing dual-clutch automatic that Porsche calls PDK. This gearbox is amazingly swift when you’re changing gear manually using the steering wheel-mounted paddles, yet smooth and unobtrusive when you’re just pootling along.

The rest of the car is just as accomplished. It’s practical, with a large front boot and comfortable, high-quality interior – but the best part is how much fun it is to drive. This is a true sports car, and though it’s expensive, it’s worth every penny.

Price new: From £84,700

SEAT Tarraco 

A large family car that ticks all the boxes

Pros:
✅ Seven practical seats
✅ Handles well for a large SUV

Cons:
❌ Firm ride

SEAT Tarraco

The SEAT Tarraco is Parkers Large Family Car of the Year for 2021, and highly deserving of the title – it’s a wonderfully competent SUV for those with several passengers to carry. Thanks to its practical and hardwearing seven-seat interior, you can fit plenty of people (or plenty of luggage) inside.

It’s available with a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox across most of the engine range, providing smooth, seamless shifts and great fuel economy for such a large car.

Price new: From £29,140
Lease this car: From £283 per month

Tesla Model 3 

Our favourite electric car drives just like an automatic

Pros:
Impressively long electric range
✅ High-end tech on all models

Cons:
❌ Build quality patchy

Tesla Model 3

It took a while for electric cars to become really usable, and there’s no doubt we owe a lot of that to Tesla. The Model 3 is our favourite of the three models available in the UK, and it really gets almost everything right – a long driving range, easy charging, and a ton of technology ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Every Model 3 accelerates like a sports car, and with two pedals and no gearbox to worry about it’s simplicity itself to drive. Well worth considering if you’re in the market for a car this size.

Price new: From £43,490
Lease this car: From £490 per month

Mercedes-Benz GLB 

Seven seats in a compact, premium-feeling package

Pros:
✅ Third row of seats is very useful
✅ Comfortable ride

Cons:
❌ Interior feels flimsy in places

Mercedes-Benz GLB

Mercedes-Benz is very experienced in building SUVs, and the GLB is one of its best – small in size, but big in utility. That’s why we awarded it Parkers Medium Family Car of the Year for 2021, as the mixture of seven seats, a premium interior and a compact body - combined with great value - is hard to pass up.

It uses a nine-speed automatic gearbox which is wonderfully smooth, matching the petrol and diesel engines well. It’s a comfortable car to drive, and the allure of the Mercedes badge is strong, too.

Price new: From £36,905
Lease this car: From £354 per month

FAQ

Are all electric cars automatic?

Yes. While electric cars have a 'transmission' of sorts, it's usually just a fixed reduction gearing system between the wheels and the motor.

The only thing a driver has to select is Park, Reverse, Neutral or Drive, as well as the level of regenerative braking - which can often be operated through the gear selector or steering-wheel mounted paddles.

Can I tow an automatic car?

In emergencies, yes. However, automatic cars shouldn't be towed for long periods - the owner's manual will usually state that the car may be towed for X miles and usually below a certain speed.

This is because in an automatic car, selecting neutral does not disengage the wheels from the transmission. Therefore, towing would move the transmission - but with the engine switched off, oil does not circulate, and therefore you risk damage.

Should I use Park or Neutral every time I stop?

That depends on your driving style but generally, it's not necessary. Automatic cars are designed to be stopped on the footbrake, and if you're only going to be waiting for a few seconds at a red light or give-way sign this is what we recommend doing.

If you're stopping for longer, switching into Park will allow you to give your foot a rest. It minimises the risk of a lapse in concentration letting you creep forward and it also means your brake lights aren't illuminated, saving the retinas of whoever's following you.

If you're switching into Neutral, always apply the parking brake or the vehicle won't be secured and could roll away.

Are automatics more expensive to insure?

Not necessarily. Insurance costs can vary but they may not be directly related to the gearbox - in fact, the leisurely nature of some models may mean that premiums are actually reduced.

As always, shop around for insurance quotes before making your purchase. You can do this on our sister site, Mustard.co.uk.

What is a semi-automatic gearbox?

Semi-automatic used to differentiate an automatic where you could select the gears yourself from one that you can't. It's fallen out of favour lately, as almost every vehicle regardless of what kind of autobox it has allows the driver to override it and select their own ratio.