Driving up and down steep hills can be rough on your brakes. Going down steep hills can wear them out quickly and increase your chances of losing your brakes if you are driving a long distance up and down these kinds of hills. Using your transmission to hold you back on hills and using it to increase power to go up steep hills is not just something you can do with a manual transmission, it can be done with an automatic transmission as well.
This whole procedure is known as engine braking. Once you get the hang of it with an automatic transmission you will not only find that your brakes last longer, but you will have learned a safer way to drive as well.
The concept of downshifting is not something new. Those who have driven or still drive a vehicle with a manual transmission know that downshifting can be used to slow your car down to brake or slow it down while descending steep hills. You can also downshift to increase rpms to gain speed to go up hills. Many people are not aware that an automatic transmission can be used in the same way. It not only makes you feel more in control of your car, but if you do not know how to drive a manual transmission, it gives you a good idea of how they function.
When approaching a steep hill, you can initially leave your vehicle in D and start up the hill. In most cases your transmission will downshift itself once it gets to the end of a gear, but if you feel comfortable, you can downshift the transmission yourself. Usually shifting down to 2 will give you enough extra power to make it to the top of the hill with less effort. Remember never to shift into 1 if you are traveling over 30 mph. This is especially helpful if you are towing anything such as a boat or trailer. Once you reach the top of the hill, you can return the transmission to D.
The same process works when going down a steep hill as well. When you approach the top of a steep hill and start descending down, shift into 2, take your foot off the brake and allow your car to travel down the hill. Never shift into 1 as this can damage your transmission. If you start feeling uncomfortable, you can apply the brake slightly to slow down further. In most cases just shifting in to 2 will hold the vehicle back enough to keep you at a safe speed traveling down a steep hill. If in the case you do have brake problems going down the hill it is much easier to slow down and stop going 30 to 35 mph then 50 or 55 mph.
Learning to use your automatic transmission like a manual transmission can save brake life, help you feel more in control of your vehicle and most important of all help you be a safer driver. Although it takes a little time to get used to not applying the brake to slow your car down on a steep hill, after a few times you will actually feel more comfortable using the transmission as a “brake”. When going up hills and you feel like you do not have enough power, downshifting can help increase your power and make it up steep hills safer.