Key Takeaways

  • The M on your gear shifter usually means manual mode
  • Manual mode lets you shift the vehicle’s automatic transmission up and down, and is especially useful when you want manual control on hills and mountains
  • Manual transmissions can also be a fun drive for people who want more control over their engine speed.
  • Within manual mode, the gear shift is done by either using steering wheel controls over by moving the gear shift side to side to the “up” and “down” positions.
  • Manual mode is usually initiated through the gear level, but consult your manual.

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Cars have lots of icons and letters on the dashboard that could mean a few things. What does the “M” function mean on a car?

In most vehicles, the “M” function refers to manual, which lets some vehicles switch between an automatic transmission and a mode that allows some control over the transmission. In vehicles with an “M” mode, manual is most often used to control the vehicle better in uphill and downhill driving.

We’ll explain what makes the manual function unique on vehicles with this function, what it does in an automatic car, and how to use the M function.

Table of Contents

What does m function on a car mean?

The M literally means manual mode, or manual transmission mode. This is fairly common amongst vehicles with an automatic transmission. Manual mode allows you a bit more manual control than provided by an automatic transmission.

What does the M function do for my automatic transmission vehicle?

The M function lets the vehicle mimic the advantages of manual transmissions. Let’s talk a bit more about when and why you would use the manual function on an automatic car.

When going downhill

One of the best times to take full advantage of manual mode is when going downhill. Drivers who take serious downhills in the mountains or on otherwise hilly terrain can appreciate this because manual code allows for much more complete control thanks to engine braking.

The alternative in this scenario is consistently - and probably constantly braking which will of course lead to faster brake pad wear.  On the same hill or mountain,

When climbing hills

Climbing hills in your vehicle can be stressful for your car’s engine. Your engine RPM will climb and the vehicle’s fuel efficiency won’t be as good as it can be. Just like going downhill, you could use the manual mode in your vehicle and shift yourself into a low gear that allows for a lower RPM range. You won’t climb the hill all that fast, but it will cause less fuel consumption.

For fun

Some people just like keeping more control of their vehicle, or even like the physical movement of changing the manual shift lever position or gear shifter while driving.

A few examples of where one might be a bit enthusiastic about manual mode and try something different is keeping the transmission locked in gear so that you don’t shift while turning. You might also discover that your vehicle has more torque in a certain gear, and want to pass a semi on a one-lane highway. Using manual code can give you a small head start to keep your vehicle accelerating faster.

Vehicles that offer a manual mode often call it sport mode so that the driver can better control the engine and shift gears when they want to.

How do I use manual mode?

Where do I find the gear shift?

There are typically two places to look when attempting to shift gears from automatic to manual mode. The gear shift itself often has an “M” mode that is behind the drive place within the gear shifter. Once in this mode, the vehicle will tell you that you are in manual mode.

After that, most vehicles offer manual gear shifts in one of two places: Either by shifting the gear shift left or right to start manual shifting up and down, or with buttons to the left and right of the steering wheel. These often look like wings that can be flicked with a free finger while you are driving. On the gear shift column, these will probably look like a plus and a minus position.

Does the car’s computer help shift in manual mode?

In a word, yes. The car’s computer will help shift from the current gear and change wears when necessary. It is entirely possible that the driver doesn’t know how to properly shift between gears in a way that makes driving smooth - or they could simply stop paying attention to their current gear and rpm. In this scenario, the car should be smart enough to change gears for you.

Car manufacturers allow the computer to shift gears within manual mode like a traditional automatic transmission in part because the driver could easily “redline” and harm the engine and transmission if they switched to the manual transmission mode and pushed the gas pedal harder.

Can manual mode get better gas mileage?

When used correctly, a vehicle with a manual transmission or in manual code can get better fuel efficiency than vehicles with automatic transmissions. The idea is to keep your vehicle from revving high consistently, especially when going up or downhill. An automatic transmission will likely rev an engine high to climb a hill and maintain the speed that you are going, as set by your foot on the gas pedal or cruise control.

You’ll have to pay plenty of attention to make better gas mileage compared to an automatic car though. Automatic vehicles are computer programmed to shift gears to keep RPMs as low as possible, which also often involves adding more gears. With that said, a manual transmission on down or uphills on a regular basis can save you some money at the pump.

Can I hurt my vehicle in manual mode?

Probably not. Check your owner's manual, but most vehicles with a manual mode will ger shift automatically when you are beginning to “Redline” your vehicle and need to shift. Automatic mode is smart in this sense to keep your vehicle from damaging itself with one of its own features.

Get some practice

While manual mode isn’t nearly as complicated as learning a 4, 5 or 6 speed manual transmission, you should try it while driving alone or just in a parking lot to get used to what it feels like. This way you can become an experienced driver in that mode before using it in traffic to keep a low gear while traveling up or downhill.

You will probably find this quite easy, as it doesn’t quite require the same movement and timing as moving an entire stick - plus there is no clutch pedal or specifically synced-up foot and hand movements to worry about.

How do I turn manual mode off?

Simply shifting the vehicle into drive will turn manual mode off - and make the car’s computer decision making more prominent while giving you an easier drive.

Also, yes, you can usually shift from manual to automatic while driving. You shouldn’t need to pull over to the side of the road or stop.

Do people like manual driving?

While most cars are now automatic, some drivers will want the exhilaration of driving with a specific manual control that lets them set speed. Having hand and foot controls associated with driving is also fun. We’ve also seen people complain recently about some small cars with serious power that are using a CVT transmission but only offer a manual mode instead of a real stick shift.

What Does The "M" Function On A Car Mean?

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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