Manual vs Automatic Transmission – Advantages and Disadvantages
Perhaps you’ve seen a bumper sticker proclaiming “Save the Manuals” or featuring a manual shift pattern. While manual transmissions are becoming an endangered species, a cult following viciously advocates for their preservation. The problem is these manual disciples can sometimes get a little too fanatical, making them poor resources for facts about how stick shifts measure up to automatics.
Advantages and disadvantages exist for both automatic and manual transmissions. Understanding what these means you can make the best choice when buying a car. Sometimes a stick might be the best option, and other times an automatic is the best fit. Let’s take a close look at each set of factors.
Before getting into the differences, you first need to have a basic understanding of what transmissions are, what they do, and how they work.
Essentially, a transmission works to ensure the powered axles, and the wheels attached to them, don’t turn at the same rate as the engine itself. Engine speed can change dramatically while you’re driving, but the car’s movements are smooth, thanks to the transmission.
With a manual transmission, you literally use a stick to change from one gear to the next. Before moving the stick shift, you must push in a clutch pedal, then release it while pressing on the accelerator at least some. This can be a difficult skill to learn, as many drivers new to manual transmissions have stalled out in traffic before.
Automatics shift gears for you. You just put the selector in Drive, and that’s it. Modern automatics use a computer to manage gear transitions. It’s an easier way to operate a car.
Obviously, the biggest advantage automatic transmissions have over manuals is convenience. You just turn the key, put the transmission in Drive and manage two pedals. With a stick shift, you need to stay aware of engine RPMs, coordinate pressing the clutch with shifting into gears, coordinate downshifting when needed, etc.
What isn’t convenient is not knowing how to drive stick. While most cars in many parts of the world have an automatic transmission, you might find yourself in a situation where being able to handle a manual transmission is necessary. For example, in some countries, you might not have the option of getting a rental car with an automatic. Having that skill with a stick can really come in handy.
Back in the day getting a car with a manual vs. an automatic meant savings on the purchase. Automatic transmissions were treated like power windows and locks, leather upholstery, or other luxuries.
Times change, and this isn’t always the case anymore. It depends on the model, but some cars don’t cost anymore with an automatic transmission. A growing number of models don’t even offer a stick shift as an option.
Everyone likes to save money. Spending less on fuel is a great way to do that. There are a lot of myths surrounding fuel economy and manual vs. automatic transmissions, so let’s clear those up.
It used to be that stick shifts used less gas, while automatic transmissions guzzled fuel like crazy. Thanks to modern technologies, that’s no longer necessarily the case.
As automatic transmissions gain more gears, they become even more efficient. Today, you can get automatics with eight, nine, or even ten gears. That means the engine spends more time within the optimal RPM range, so it burns less fuel. With fewer gears, you can’t do that using a manual transmission, so fuel consumption goes up.
One of the more recent innovations for automatic transmissions is stop-and-go systems. When traveling in the city, the biggest hit on fuel efficiency is idling. The system senses once the car is completely stopped, say at a traffic light or in a drive-through, and it shuts down the engine. Once you take your foot off the brake, the engine fires up again. That means idling is pretty much eliminated. You could conceivably do this with a manual transmission, but it wouldn’t be automatic.
You can’t get away from maintenance items on a car unless you want to deal with a big and expensive repair job later. Both manual and automatic transmissions require some maintenance to operate properly.
In general, automatics don’t require as much maintenance as manual transmissions, but that really depends on the vehicle. That being said, maintenance and repairs of an automatic are usually much costlier. For example, on most cars a transmission fluid change for a manual costs half as much as for an automatic.
If you’re not very coordinated, you can cause some serious wear and tear on a manual transmission. That might translate into a new transmission down the line, which is a big expense to shoulder.
No matter which transmission type a car has, you also need to be aware of things you shouldn’t be doing that can cause premature transmission problems. With manuals, you need to avoid riding gears, touching the stick when not shifting, and grinding gears. If you have an automatic, watch out for shifting into drive while the car is still rolling backwards, not putting the parking brake on when parked, and using the accelerator instead of the brake to keep the vehicle from rolling backwards when stopped on a hill.
Traditionally, another reason to get a stick shift was that it provided better performance. If you wanted to race on a drag strip, or just liked getting up to freeway speeds quickly, rowing through the gears yourself was always superior to an automatic.
Today that’s not true anymore. Computer innovations have made automatics often quicker at acceleration than a manual, even with a professional driver behind the wheel. That’s why you can get cars like the Porsche 911 Turbo and Chevrolet Corvette ZO6 with an automatic transmission. The computer can make gear changes faster and more efficiently than you, so your 0-60 time will be that much quicker.
PDKs, a type of dual-clutch automatic transmission developed by Porsche. It cuts down on shift times by preselecting the next gear in the other half of the transmission. One clutch opens while the other closes simultaneously, which is the secret to the speed. Also, you don’t really feel the gear changes; they’re so smooth.
If you’re a control freak, having a manual transmission is the way to go. With a stick shift, you determine exactly when the transmission changes gears and how. People describe this as feeling a deeper connection with the vehicle. That might sound strange, but once you learn to drive stick, you get what that means.
Sometimes automatics will shift at what you might feel is the wrong time. They can gear hunt, or constantly switch between two gears, as you’re traveling through hilly terrain. Using a manual transmission, you can just keep it in the best gear for any situation.
Some people prefer the improved control and its benefits, despite slightly slower acceleration. There are a few cars, like the Ford Focus ST, where a manual transmission is the only option. Such vehicles appeal to enthusiasts since most shoppers don’t perceive these subtle advantages.
That’s not to say with automatics you surrender all control. Many modern automatic transmissions have a manual mode, where you the driver can choose when the car shifts. This might be controlled by moving the gear selector forward/back or by flipping paddles attached to the steering wheel, like a Formula One car.
To be honest, many automatics in manual mode don’t react immediately to gear changes. There’s a lag you don’t feel with a manual, which provides an immediate response.
It’s a sobering fact, but car theft is a problem. While it’s a sickening feeling to find an empty spot where you parked a vehicle, it’s even worse to be the victim of a carjacking.
Transmission choice might not seem like a factor for car theft, but it actually can be. A growing number of people don’t even know how to operate a manual transmission, including criminals. Some vehicle thefts have been thwarted by a stick shift. But, there isn’t data to either support or refute the claim that cars with a manual transmission are less likely to be stolen, only anecdotes.
Some studies have concluded that driving with a manual transmission is safer. The thought is that since a stick shift demands you to be more engaged in the driving experience, you’re less likely to be using a phone or getting sucked into distractions behind the wheel.
Other people believe manuals are more dangerous. They can be less forgiving of driving errors, which is most definitely bad for newer drivers. You also must often drive with one hand on the steering wheel, versus the ability to keep both on the wheel with an automatic. This hasn’t been the conclusion of any serious studies, but the few that indicate manuals are safer aren’t exactly conclusive.
There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing between a manual vs. automatic transmission. Rather than one being superior to another, the fact is that it comes down to preference. Both have good and bad qualities, so you need to choose which setup is best for your situation.
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