What does the L mean on a gear shift? It’s sitting there in your car’s shift quadrant, holding down the last position. If you’re like most drivers nowadays, you’ve never even used it — but that doesn’t mean the lonely “L” is completely without its uses. It stands for “Low,” which typically means 1st gear but can sometimes mean the lower gears.
What does the L mean on a gear shift?
The L stands for “low”, and it represents a setting that prevents your car’s automatic transmission from shifting higher than the lowest gears—usually first gear and second gear if you’re thinking in terms of a manual transmission.
Normally, when you push the gas pedal down, your transmission will shift up to a higher gear in order to optimize acceleration and speed. When you switch to the low gear setting, it will optimize your vehicle’s engine torque instead of its speed.
When to use the low gear setting
The low setting is used to keep driving at a low speed while improving tractionondifficult terrain. This helps your vehicle maintain power and control in situations like driving off-road, climbing hills, and towing.
When climbing up a steep hill
Steep hills can be scary places to drive, whether you’re trying to crawl up one or maintain control going down one. The low gear setting can help you stay in control and avoid slipping when driving uphill.
When driving down a steep hill
Using L mode when driving downhill will allow you to maintain a slower, more controlled speed. It will also allow you to use your brakes less, since the car’s engine will help you move more slowly instead—this is called engine braking.
You might not want to keep L mode on while you’re towing on the highway, but this could be a big help if you’re towing a trailer across gravel or uneven dirt roads, or if you’re toting a heavy load up a steep hill. The low gear setting improves your vehicle’s pulling power byoptimizing low-end torque instead of speed.
When bad weather
You need to use extra caution when you are traveling through snow and ice. By shifting into low gear, you can harness the power of the engine more effectively for maximum safety.
In the lower gear, you will be able to keep your speeds down without losing any power. What you are left with is a better grip with the wheels, especially on slippery surfaces where you need to prevent spinning from occurring.
Explaining more of the L on a gear shift
L refers to low gear, essentially a gear setting of 1 or 2 (if you’re familiar with manual transmissions) for vehicles.
Your car’s automatic transmission won’t normally shift when you’re in L mode. In this mode, the transmission will stick to low gear and cause the engine to take in less fuel and keep the power output low. However, the trade-off is that you get more torque. Therefore, pushing the gas pedal will give your wheels more raw power than speed – something that will come in handy in certain circumstances.
Your car’s transmission passes through low gear when you start the vehicle and ramp up to faster speeds. If you don’t know, your vehicle automatically shifts into low gear. In addition, your vehicle also automatically goes to low every time you park or stop at an intersection and without turning off the engine.
Shifting to low gear is integral to the transmission process because it prevents your wheels from spinning out and losing control. With an automatic transmission, low gear shifting is already taken care of, so you don’t need to keep shifting modes while driving.
Automatic transmission gears: understanding P, R, N, D and L
On your automatic gearshift, you’ve likely noticed the different letters available. Most automatic transmissions have a P, R, N, D and L available. Here’s what each of them means:
- P (Park) – Helps your vehicle remain stationary
- R (Reverse) – Used to back up your vehicle
- N (Neutral) – Keeps engine power from transmitting to the wheels, commonly used to tow or push the vehicle
- D (Drive) – Allows transmission to shift naturally while traveling
Doesn’t the car shift into low gear automatically?
Yes. Your car regularly uses the low gear without any input from you. When the vehicle is first started and you go to pull out, it will be in Low gear. It also passes back through Low gear as you stop the vehicle or pull back out at a stop sign or red light.
Low gear is needed for these instances, otherwise the wheels would spin uncontrollably as you take off. Instead, the engine transmits just the right amount of power to the wheels for the current situation.
If you have an automatic transmission in your vehicle, there’s no reason to shift into low gear for these situations. Instead, allow the engine and transmission to work together as designed to provide the best power for the moment.
How to shift into L gear
If you want to put the vehicle into the Low gear, you will follow these steps.
- While in Drive, take your foot off of the gas pedal and allow your car to slow down to at least 20 mph.
- Resume a steady speed as you move the shifter to the L gear
- If the RPMs spike too high, you will need to slow down further.
When you are ready to allow the automatic transmission to work on its own again, you can shift out of the L gear. Here are the steps to follow.
- While the car is in L gear, accelerate until you get the RPMs up to 3,000.
- Switch the shifter back to the D gear to activate Drive mode.
If you shift the transmission from a high speed into the lowest gear, you could cause permanent damage to the transmission and engine. You should always be traveling at low speeds when activating first gear. When in doubt, it’s best to read the owner’s manual to find out how slow you should be going while using the L gear.
Check the owner’s manual
How does this apply to your car? For any vehicle owner, the best source of information is the owner’s manual. As an example, the one for a 1999 Isuzu Amigo with the shift sequence PRND32L states that the L [1st gear] position “… may be selected for maximum [engine] braking down severe grades.”
It goes on to say it’s “possible to move the lever into 1st gear [L] at any speed. However, the transmission will not actually shift to 1st gear until vehicle speed is below 27 mph.”
What this means is that going down a steep hill, you can shift into L for maximum engine braking, but the electronically controlled transmission is smart enough not to actually engage 1st gear until the vehicle has slowed below 27 mph — likely to keep the engine from spinning too fast. That is the only use mentioned for the L position in the manual. (There’s nothing, for instance, about using it for going uphill or through deep snow.)
Recommendations for other vehicles may be different. If you don’t have the owner’s manual for your car, you may be able to buy one off the internet or possibly download one for free.
What does the “L” on my gear shift stand for?
The “L” on your gear shift stands for “Low.” This setting is used when you need more power from the engine at a lower speed.
When should I use the “L” setting on my gear shift?
The “L” setting is typically used when you’re driving uphill, towing a heavy load, or driving at low speeds over difficult terrain. It keeps the transmission in a lower gear, providing more torque and power.
Can I damage my car by driving in “L” for too long?
While it’s not typically harmful to drive in “L” for short periods, doing so for extended periods can put unnecessary strain on your engine and transmission. It’s best to use “L” only when necessary.
What’s the difference between “L” and “D” on a gear shift?
“D” stands for “Drive,” which is the normal setting for your automatic transmission when driving. “L” stands for “Low,” which keeps your transmission in a lower gear for more power at lower speeds.
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