When people think of drifting, what they imagine is a manual, turbocharged classic Japanese sports car. Therein lies the question, can you drift in an automatic car in lieu of a manual? After all, drifting is all about controlling oversteer in a rear-wheel drive car, right?
People often misunderstand the notion and concept behind what makes a car drift. Most people reckon that all you need is a powerful rear-wheel drive car. In reality, drifting is a skill that some drivers spend their whole life honing on.
What Is Drifting
Drifting is a driving technique that intentionally provokes oversteer. It’s a form of driving popularised through various forms of media. It’s fair to say that most people know what drifting is from watching movies depicting the racing scene in Japan.
Of course, you can’t just say that drifting originated from Japan. But Japan pioneered drifting as a motorsports discipline. I’m certain that most car enthusiasts have seen videos of illegal street racing in Japan. It’ll be drivers displaying their skill in controlling a car by oversteering through the entire corner in a cloud of tire smoke.
The ability to maintain complete control of your car with excessive rear slip angle through a corner is what most people will recognize as a valid drift. A skillful drifter can make it look effortless, but people who have tried it know it isn’t quite so straightforward.
Therefore, drifting is essentially maintaining the car in a constant state of oversteer while retaining control over it. There’s a common misconception that drifting doesn’t need grip but lateral grip is critical to maintaining good control over a drift.
Can You Drift In An Automatic?
Therefore, this begs the question – can you drift in an automatic? Short answer, yes. Long answer? It’s highly dependent on the capability of the driver. There are a few key concepts that drivers need to know before even attempting to practice drifting.
Understanding what constitutes a drift will help you understand what you need to initiate, maintain and exit a drift. Thus, you won’t be blindly spinning out in an empty parking lot flabbergasted as to why it’s happening repeatedly.
Can You Drift In An Automatic Factors #1: Traction
Somewhat counterintuitively, drifting is all about controlling the amount of traction you have. What happens during drifts is simple, the rear tires have less traction than the front, thus provoking oversteer.
As long as the rear tires can’t grip, your car will continue to drift. However, there can also be a condition where your rear tire has way too much traction, which in return causes understeer instead. Understeer can also happen if your front tires have less traction than the rear.
You want to maintain the perfect amount of forward and aft traction during the drift. This means that you shouldn’t apply too much power to the rear tires. If the rear tires have too little traction the front will overpower the rear and spin the car around.
You also want ample traction at the front while drifting. This allows you to maintain the drift and ensure that you can control your drift. Drifting isn’t just about generating clouds of smoke, it’s also about precision.
If you’ve paid attention, you would notice one critical mod all aspiring drifters make to their car. You’ll notice that the front wheels of their car can turn in way more than any stock car could. This improves the stability of a drift and also opens up extreme drift angles.
Great examples of precise drifting can be seen at the very top level. Professional drifters competing in Formula D for example are judged by their car control. They start at the perfect score and get points deducted for mistakes make.
Put simply, there are a few hard baselines to judge a drifter from and a subjective one. An optimum drift is judged by the speed, line, and drift angle that the drifter can maintain through a corner. Essentially, how fast and how angled one can drift through a corner while maintaining a proper driving line.
But that’d make it too dull and drifting isn’t supposed to be dull. Drifters are also loosely judged upon their style, eg. the driver’s ability to showcase their ability and flamboyance at drifting. This is very much tied to the drifter’s confidence and familiarity with their vehicle.
That can be how close the drifter drifts along the wall, how aggressive the angle of approach is, how close the drifter takes it to the next person (in tandem), and crucially, the drifter’s fluidity and smoothness. Good drifters can make drifting seem like a ballerina between cars.
And to make the perfect drift, one needs to have just the right amount of traction. It’s what keeps you off the wall, and the control of traction is what makes drifting so entertaining and addictive to some.
Can You Drift In An Automatic Factors #2: Confidence
Technically, this isn’t part of the car (or drifting necessarily), but the driver. The driver needs to have a good amount of confidence to start a drift, maintain it and not screw it up. Having a good amount of confidence to start with is a huge factor in learning how to drift.
The driver needs to be confident with their ability to enter the corner sideways (essentially blind to the corner approach) and make it out in one piece. Once you’ve committed to the corner, you better carry it to the end or you’ll likely spin out or go off the track.
To engage a drift, you’ll be entering the corner at a speed faster than what seems sensible, and you’ll be a bit wary at first. That’s typical. In videos where you see drifters performing a ‘reverse entry’, they have full confidence that they’ve judged the corner correctly and have committed to it.
You also need to have confidence in your car. How the exterior fares aren’t terribly important but ensure that the mechanicals is well taken care of. You wouldn’t want to bring a leaky car to a drift event, that’s for certain. You also don’t want to bring a car that might break a lower arm once you hit a bump sideways and send you flying off the track.
Can You Drift In An Automatic Factors #3: Practice
And last but not least, the most important aspect of drifting is how much time one is willing to put in to practice it. Much like every other skill, drifting takes time to learn, and even more so to master. Everyone’s good at drifting until they get behind the wheel and attempt it.
The difficult part about drifting and track driving is the fact that seat time matters most. People often start at the empty parking lot before moving on to track days that allow drift practices. A rainy day also helps improve your chances of executing a drift.
However, do take note that if the floor is wet, it also makes it more sensitive to throttle inputs. Therefore, it’s also a good method to practice finer throttle control, which matters a lot when it comes to drifting.
Can You Drift In An Automatic, Then?
Now that we understand the basics behind the mechanics of a drift, how do you drift in an automatic vehicle? Nowadays, there’s a distinct difference between various automatic transmissions and how well they behave in performance driving.
Can You Drift In An Automatic, Gearbox Types #1: Conventional Automatic
Let’s start off with one of the most ubiquitous automatics you can own. A conventional, torque converter automatic transmission that’s equipped on most of the affordable rear-wheel drive cars you can buy nowadays.
Conventional automatics are characterized by the use of a torque converter paired with a valve body and planetary gearsets. Early generation automatics can be entirely mechanical, with shifting made possible via linkages and mechanical valves.
Over time though automatics have started to incorporate electronic controls that allow them to shift smoother, more predictably, and most importantly, quicker.
However, you’ll most likely be dealing with a normal automatic that doesn’t shift fast and has little to no manual override (which is why it’s worth studying how to drive stick). This begs the question, is it possible to drift in an old automatic rear-wheel drive car?
Technique To Drift A Conventional Automatic
The critical thing with an old car is that it’ll most likely be using a normal mechanical handbrake. Avoid parking brakes actuated via foot as it’ll be nigh impossible to temper the amount of wheel lock while drifting.
You’ll also need to remember to stick with the lowest gear you can find. In most 4-speed and 5-speed automatics, the drive ratio would be too long. As a beginner having a shorter gear ratio makes it easier to engage a drift at a controllable pace.
Most cars come with the option of keeping the transmission in 2nd gear and some also allow you to shift into L. It keeps the transmission in the lowest gear possible, and that makes it easier to shift the car around with power.
Finally, all you need to do is to be brave and power over to prompt oversteer. More power to kick the tail out, then all you need is to feed enough throttle to keep the tail out. This is all down to instincts and practice once the tail is out.
The mechanical handbrake is there to help you engage a drift. In some cases, it might be difficult for you to initiate a drift depending entirely on the engine. This is where the handbrake comes in handy.
Ideally, while entering a corner to initiate a drift, you’re looking to yank the handbrake hard to lock up the rear wheels intentionally. This allows the front wheels to swing the car around and transfer from understeer into oversteer.
With that said, these are all tips that are applicable in every instance of drifting, not just attempting it in an automatic. Just keep in mind that drifting is all about the delicate balance of weight transfer in a vehicle.
Can You Drift In An Automatic, Gearbox Types #2: Modern Automatic
Modern automatics deserve a special mention. Automatics nowadays are a far cry from what they used to be. You can’t call one a slushbox anymore. Long gone are the days of delayed, sloppy shifts.
Not just that, but as automatic transmissions get more gears to play with, the gear ratio and final drive ratio can be better optimized for acceleration and driver engagement.
Carmakers with 4-speed and 5-speed autos had to sacrifice acceleration for drivability and efficiency. This is why some cars that supposedly had potent engines felt underwhelming. Long ratios paired with a slow transmission made for a laid-back drive.
Nowadays though, it’s not uncommon to see cars with more than 6-speeds, with Ford and GM broadly employing 10-speed automatic transmissions. Even then, manufacturers are warming up to 9-speed, 8-speed, and 7-speed transmissions.
The great thing about modern automatics when it comes to drifting is that you have tighter control over the vehicle’s powerband, and the shifts are a lot faster. Most transmissions have a manual mode that enables the driver better control over the gears.
Thankfully, this means that the process of initiating and maintaining a drift should be easier. However, the downside is that most cars with modern automatics also come with an electronic handbrake.
Without a mechanical handbrake, you’re essentially limited to relying on the method of power over. That’s giving the car a generous amount of throttle input to start the drift, and feeding just enough throttle to maintain the drift.
Another point with modern cars is that they usually come with ESP and ABS. You can switch these features off, but in many cases, there will still be a considerable amount of intervention. This is usually the case for normal, daily-driver automatics.
However, if you’re switching ESP off in an enthusiast-focused car, it’ll like be properly off. This applies to the usual repertoire of hot rear-wheel drive cars. If not you might have to resort to ‘dynamometer’ mode which switches off all driver assists.
Different makes have their methods of accessing and activating the dynamometer mode. In some cars, the ESP can also be permanently deactivated via OBD coding using a capable scanner.
Special Mention: Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT)
DCTs are another type of modern ‘automatic’ transmission. Whilst the operation of shifting gears in a DCT is fully automated, DCTs are more akin to manual transmissions.
This means that like manuals, DCTs work via engaging selector forks and meshing synchronizer rings. The entire process is automated via a valve body, much like those found in automatics. Two clutch packs work in unison to provide rapid shifts.
Therefore, DCTs are less about can you drift in an automatic. It’s very comparable to manuals, but you lack the clutch input and thus the ability to freely disengage the engine. And nowadays, modern automatics aren’t too far behind DCTs when it comes to shifting speed.
However, what DCTs do provide is that unspeakable feeling of connection between the engine and the road. Since DCTs utilize mechanical coupling via clutches, they feel more responsive and direct than automatics. That’s primarily what separates DCTs from automatics.
The question then lies, can you drift in an automatic manual transmission? Yes, DCTs tend to be driver-focused. This means that there’ll almost always be a manual override in DCTs transmission. This allows greater control over the vehicle.
The lack of ‘lag’ between the engine and the transmission also makes for a more enthralling experience. You’ve got to drive one to understand the appeal behind a DCT.
Continuously-Variable Transmission (CVT)
CVTs are becoming increasingly popular across modern cars. They’re not limited purely to eco-hatches, as some brands put CVTs in performance cars nowadays.
However, CVTs are often built for economy instead of performance. The act of drifting puts a constant, extreme pressure load through the whole drivetrain. And CVTs are prone to overheating when you’re loading them constantly at peak power.
The other issue that CVT transmissions face is that it feels distinctively disconnected from the driving experience. When you understand the mechanics, you grasp why a CVT feels disconnected from the wheels. While drifting, you want as direct a connection as possible.
Also, keep in mind that CVTs are usually front-wheel drive cars. While drifting in an FWD is definitely possible, it’s quite a bit trickier than RWD drifting.
Can You Drift in An Automatic: Mods That Improves Your Experience
Now that you understand how to drift in an automatic vehicle, there are ways to prepare your car for drifting. Going to a parking lot and learning how to keep your car sideways introduces you to the concept of drifting.
However, you might notice that no matter how good you get at controlling your car, your drifts don’t look quite as intense as drifts demonstrated by professional drifters. Even some amateur drifters in their drift missiles can maintain longer drifts at extreme angles.
The reasoning behind this is that drifting isn’t all about pulling the handbrake and counter steering. Making the correct modifications to your car can make the car more pleasant to handle while drifting.
One of the most important, and often overlooked aspect for beginners, are ergonomics. It doesn’t matter how good your car behaves in a drift. Whether it’s a manual or an automatic, good ergonomics are critical in making sure that you can control the car comfortably while sideways.
When you’re getting more serious about drifting and going to track days, spare the expense for a good racing seat. If you can afford it, getting an FIA-certified seat ensures that it’s actually up to standards when you do crash. An older, used one would work too, as long as you don’t intend to race.
Racing seats are often the priority for drifters. Normal car seats normally have insufficient bolstering to keep you in place while drifting. A good addition would be a properly installed racing harness and a decent aftermarket steering wheel.
Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, then you can start thinking about modifying your car’s suspension. Crucially for drifting you’ll want good adjustability and strength. Avid drifters and circuit lovers alike tend to start with a set of quality adjustable coilovers.
Some popular drift cars would also have off-the-shelf adjustable suspension components. Adjustable control arms would open up a lot of room for adjustments. Camber plates are also a popular way to go.
Pillow ball mounts also ditch the stock, compliant rubber absorber mounts for spherical pillow ball bearings car. Those are a lot tauter, improving the rigidity between the absorber mounting and strut towers.
On the topic of pillow balls, stiffening the suspension is the way to go for drifting. A set of polyurethane bushings aren’t all that expensive and will noticeably improve the responsiveness and reduces changes in alignment during suspension deflections.
Another upgrade that you’d want to improve your drifting ability is an angle kit. Angle kits aren’t always available for a car off the shelf. But an angle kit allows the steering to turn at a steeper angle. Steering angle kits will allow your car to drift at angles you’ve never thought possible before.
Another popular modification drifters like to make is replacing the stock mechanical pull-handbrake with a proper hydraulically-actuated one.
Hydraulic e-brakes offer way more mechanical advantages compared to mechanical handbrakes. This makes it easier to lock up the rear brakes which helps with initiating a drift. Hydraulic handbrakes also put the lever at a more ergonomic location.
Tugging on a mechanical handbrake over time also puts a lot of stress on the handbrake cable, meaning that it can be less reliable and consistent when compared to a hydraulic handbrake.
Some might even opt for a dedicated parking brake caliper if the stock parking brakes aren’t powerful enough to lock up the rear wheels.
What all amateurs and professional drifters alike need are tires. To get started, all you need is a stockpile of used and worn tires that tire shops sell. This is economical and keeps the hobby affordable.
Another advantage is that used tires tend to have less traction available, meaning that it’s easier to initiate a drift on old tires. In a way, drifting on old tires also allow you to concentrate more on the seat time rather than finding tires.
However, it’s worth noting that more experienced drifters with purpose-made drift cars actually have sticky track tires. Those tires allow them greater control over their cars.
Maintenance and Essentials
Finally, an often-overlooked portion for many amateur drifters is maintenance. Before attending any sort of track driving or drift practice, the first thing you should do is perform a comprehensive multi-point checkup. You don’t want to blow your engine up or end up slamming into the wall because of your negligence.
This means that beforehand, you should spend the time checking over your vehicle. Just routine maintenance upkeep – tires, brakes, oils, and cooling. Tracks typically have rules and regulations to prevent people from bringing potentially dangerous vehicles onto the track.
You’ll also be required to wear a crash helmet, make sure it’s a quality one. Also preferably, have a small fire extinguisher mounted in a spot you can get to quickly within your vehicle. Tow hooks/straps must be installed and made obvious to track marshals.
Before you ask whether you can drift in an automatic, be sure to question if you should. Accidents are difficult to avoid, therefore make sure that you don’t try to drift your only method of transportation.
Drifting in Automatic Cars – Facts
- Drifting is a driving technique that involves intentionally oversteering to cause a loss of traction in the rear wheels while maintaining control from entry to exit of a corner.
- Drifting is associated with Japanese cars and culture, but it can be done in any car.
- Rear-wheel-drive cars are better suited for drifting than front-wheel-drive cars because the former makes taking corners easier.
- Drifting can be done in an automatic car, but it is more difficult to do so than in a manual car because the driver does not have as much control over the car’s speed and power output.
- To properly drift in an automatic car, the driver must use the brakes to slow down for corners and then get back on the gas as they exit the turn.
- Drifting can damage a car’s tires, wheels, suspension, and brakes, but the risks are lower when performed lightly.
- To drift, one does not require a special license or car, but rear-wheel-drive cars with manual transmissions are more suitable for drifting.
- Modifications that can improve a car’s drifting performance include upgrading tires, suspensions, and installing a limited-slip differential.
- There are three main types of drifting: power sliding, brake sliding, and clutch kicking.
- Drifting competitions are held all over the world, and anyone can participate in grassroots drifting events.