Best automatic petrol cars: from superminis to SUVs

Petrol cars with an automatic gearbox are no longer a niche. Read why here.

Murray Scullion
Jan 28, 2019

Automatic petrol cars used to be a fast track to ruin. Their big engines were fuel guzzlers, even without the automatic gearbox, which reduced economy further.

But technology has come a long way. Efficient turbocharged engines and hi-tech gearboxes can now return impressive mpg figures. Combined with the downfall of diesel, it means that a petrol-powered automatic vehicle could your car of choice.

Even sports cars are now routinely fitted with automatic gearboxes as standard. Where old-tech versions ambled from one gear to another, the latest gearboxes rifle through the speeds, faster than the human hand. You're less immersed in driving than with a manual, but you'll get there quicker. Porsche for example, claims a manual Cayman can launch itself from 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds but with its automatic gearbox, it’ll do it in 4.5 seconds.

 

Best automatic petrol cars 

 

Automatic gearboxes: the quick guide

Standard automatic
Also known as a torque converter. Gear-changes are normally smooth but ponderously slow.

Dual-clutch automatic (DCT)
Uses two clutches: one for the gear that's currently in use; the other for the gear that will be needed next. Results in faster shifts and improved fuel economy.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)
This uses a belt attached to two cones. The belt is moved up and down the cones continuously to vary the gear ratio and keep the engine at optimum speed. Fuel economy is good but driving can be noisy and feel unnatural, without standard gear changes.

Smart ForTwo

Latest Smart ForTwo petrol automatic deals from £5,250
Finance from £88 per month

Previous versions of the Smart ForTwo were almost infamous for their automated manual transmission. These cars have a clutch and gearbox, but robotise the action of changing gear. These kinds of gearboxes are cheap to make, but are lurchy and jerky under hard acceleration. Or soft acceleration. Or medium acceleration.

However, Smart has switched to using a dual-clutch system, (DCT) which Smart calls twinmatic. This makes it quick shifting, and very smooth.

As far as dinky cars with petrol engines and automatic gearboxes go, the Smart ForTwo is your best bet.
Smart ForTwo buying guide

 

Hyundai Ioniq

Latest Hyundai Ioniq petrol automatic deals from £12,999
Finance from £176 per month

The Ioniq is available as a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and as a fully-electric car. The hybrids use a six-speed dual-clutch automatic, which is far nicer to drive than the CVT gearbox in the alternative Toyota Prius, which becomes thrashy when you're looking to accelerate swiftly.

As with most battery-powered cars, the electric Ioniq only has one gear.
Hyundai Ioniq buying guide

 

Volkswagen Golf

Latest Volkswagen Golf petrol automatic deals from £9,399
Finance from £155 per month

The Volkswagen Golf is the de facto choice of car for many families. It’s slightly nicer than a Ford Focus, but not as expensive as a BMW 3 Series. Rock solid used prices and reassuringly well-made interiors complete the look.

Pre-2017 models will have six-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox. Newer models have a seven-speed. The newer is slicker-shifting and generally worth looking for. This seven-speed ‘box can be found in the smallest 1.0-litre TSI petrol engine, all the way up to the 306bhp performance Golf R.
Volkswagen Golf buying guide

 

Seat Ateca 

Latest Seat Ateca petrol automatic deals from £15,990
Finance from £200 per month

Named after a municipality in Zaragoza (Seat is Spanish after all), the Ateca benefits from Volkswagen's excellent dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

Seat's crossover is a family hatchback that's been raised up for a higher driving position and some extra practicality. Unlike many other cars of this type, it feels sporty to drive, remaining stable in corners with little leaning. The fast-changing automatic gearbox fits with this character and is available with all TSI petrol engines.

If you’re really after something fast, Cupra, Seat’s sporting sub-brand, makes its sporting version of the Ateca, which will accelerate from 0-62mph in only 5.2 seconds and comes with an automatic gearbox as standard.
Seat Ateca buying guide

 

Nissan Qashqai

Latest Nissan Qashqai petrol automatic deals from £11,799
Finance from £178 per month

Like the Smart above, the Nissan Qashqai is a contender for the most improved award. Previous Qashqais used a CVT automatic that is cheap and easy to use. But it can be unbearably noisy.

In October 2018, Nissan slotted in a nine-speed DCT system that is smooth, quiet, and pairs nicely with the also-new 1.3-litre petrol engine.

The Qashqai lacks paddles mounted behind the steering wheel to change gear. This may annoy people who like the option of changing gear themselves, but in truth, the average Qashqai user wouldn’t really make use of them anyway.
Nissan Qashqai buying guide

 

BMW 3 Series

New for this year, the brand new BMW 3 series brings new styling, technology, and a driver-focussed attitude that sacrifices some comfort for sharp steering response.

At the moment, it’s only available with one petrol engine, badged 330i, which will be quick enough for most, accelerating from 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds.

It also comes with BMW’s slick-shifting eight-speed automatic. BMW calls it a sports automatic - meaning that in day-to-day driving it works like a normal automatic, but if you want to spice things up, you can change gears manually using paddles behind the steering wheel.

 

Alpine A110

If you haven’t heard of Alpine, you’re probably not the only one. Alpine is Renault owned, and hasn’t had a car for sale in the UK for more than 20 years.

Under the bonnet is a 1.8-litre petrol engine good for 155mph and 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds. It also sounds great for a four-cylinder engine.

There isn’t an option of a manual. The automatic is a seven speed dual-clutch and works well around town when going slowly, but more importantly, wakes up with razor-sharp changes when you want it to be quick.
Alpine A110 buying guide

 

Mercedes S-Class

Latest Mercedes S-Class petrol automatic deals from £45,980
Finance from £665 per month

Luxury cars don’t come much more luxuriously well made than an S-Class.

Changing gears yourself is not what the jet-set life is about. Mercedes uses a traditional torque-converter type of gearbox, but despite its relative simplicity, it changes gears so smoothly that you won't notice. As befitting of a car like this, the automatic gearbox is made for smoothness, and not speed.

Mercedes offers all S-Class’ with automatic gearboxes, which means you can choose from the S450, S500, or AMG 63.

 

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