What’s the ‘L’ in Your Shifter and When Should You Use It?

chrysler-pacifica-limited-awd-s-appearance-2021-25-center-stack--climate-control--front-row--gearshift--interior.jpg 2021 Chrysler Pacifica | photo by Christian Lantry

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.

Related: Is Your Check-Engine Light On? 5 of the Most Common Causes

It was a staple position in early cars with automatic transmissions (which date from the 1940s), and it had some practical purposes back when brakes weren’t as good, engines weren’t as powerful and automatic transmissions weren’t as smart. As with their counterparts today, drivers of early cars with an automatic usually just selected “D” for “Drive” when wanting to go forward and then simply left it there. In Drive, the transmission would typically start off in 1st (Low) gear, then shift up automatically to a higher gear or gears as speed climbed.

But there were times when selecting Low would be beneficial.

When to Use the ‘L’ Position

Generally speaking, lower gears are there for greater power delivery when accelerating or climbing hills, while higher gears are there for better fuel economy, lower noise and less engine wear at higher speeds. This applies regardless of how many gears the transmission has. But importantly, lower gears can also be used for slowing down.

Low, which prioritizes use of the transmission’s lower gears, can be valuable when descending steep hills, as it keeps the engine spinning faster despite not having your foot on the gas. That allows for more engine braking — meaning the effort needed to spin the engine helps slow the car down rather than using the brakes (which can cause them to heat up and fade). In the early days of automatics, this was likely the primary purpose of the Low position.

However, Low could also be useful when climbing steep hills or powering through sand or deep snow, because shifting to a higher gear (which the transmission might otherwise want to do) could tax the engine, causing you to slow down and lose precious momentum.

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.

More From’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Latest expert reviews