Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions: Which One Wins?

April 21, 2017

stick shift
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Very few things are discussed as heatedly in the auto industry as manual vs. automatic transmissions are. It’s true, many auto enthusiasts swear by their standard transmissions and in many parts of the world, as much as 80% of cars that are produced still require people to learn to use a stick-shift. However, here in the United States, we’re edging in on about 97% of all new vehicles sporting automatic transmissions (AT).

Which is better? That’s a question only you can answer for yourself, but you’ll have the background to make an informed decision, even if you’re a novice now, by the time you finish this.

All Transmissions Convert Your Engine’s Power into Forward Motion

No matter what the vehicle is, all gasoline-powered engines create the energy needed to power the vehicle. It’s an immense amount of energy and, if your wheels were attached directly to it, you’d have no way to control the speed of your wheels or even stop. Instead, we have transmissions, and each transmission contains a gear box. You can think of it like the gears inside a watch or even a bicycle. The notches on circular gears are designed to catch and turn a secondary gear. If the secondary gear is larger than the first or the secondary gear has fewer notches, the secondary gear will turn slower. If the secondary gear is smaller or has more teeth, it will turn more rapidly than the first. This is represented as rotations per minute or rpm. In short, that’s how the speeds of your vehicle are determined and how much torque/ power your vehicle has. While you can push a gear to go fast, you’re going to make it wear out quicker and burn through more fuel to do so, so you switch gears to optimize for the speed you wish to drive at and how much power you need; for smooth driving and efficiency.

Manual Transmissions Require You to Do Some Work

In order to switch gears, you have to first disengage the gears, or pull them apart, so you can move your primary gear that has the engine’s power to the one causing the movement of your wheels. In standard vehicles, you’ll push the clutch pedal to get it to release. Then, you’ll use your hand on the stick to shift to a new gear. While it sounds complex, and it can take some time to learn how to drive a stick-shift, most people learn to process the motions fairly quickly and it becomes second-nature, much like checking your blind spot is.

Automatic Transmissions Do the Work for You

Vehicles with AT still go through a similar process, but the vehicle monitors all sorts of things, such as the rpm, speed of the vehicle, and position of the gas pedal, and decides when to switch gears for you.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions: Pros and Cons

There is not a solution that works universally well for everyone, but knowing the pros and cons of manual vs. automatic transmissions can help you know which one is best for you.

  • Standard is often less expensive. While this isn’t always true, most vehicles with stick-shifts run $800-$1,000 less.
  • Standard vehicles often cost less to repair. Again, this isn’t true for every vehicle, but standards have less complicated inner workings and, if you know how to drive well, you’ll likely pay less in repairs over time.
  • Standards usually get better gas mileage. Power loss from the extra components used in AT can cause a drop of as much as 15% in fuel economy. Normally, it’s closer to 3-5%, but there are exceptions where the AT variety actually outperforms the stick-shift or where it only loses by a small margin. Your driving habits will impact fuel savings as well.
  • AT is usually easier to manage on congested roadways. If you’re a regular commuter, you may struggle with the constant shifts of stop-and-go traffic.
  • ATs can be easier to drive. If you’re going to learn to drive a stick-shift, it’s best to spend some serious time on back roads and working your way up to areas with hills before you even think about going into city traffic. You’ll probably stall the engine more than once and gets stuck going up a hill a few times while you learn, so a thick skin and strong desire to learn is important.
  • ATs may be easier to sell later. Probably for the same reason you’re reading this now, others may shy away from buying your AT vehicle later. You may wind up selling it for less as well because so few people will know how to drive it.

The bottom line is that, if the vehicle you want is only available as a manual, don’t let that hold you back if you’re a quick study, but also be aware that you may struggle if you’re in a mountainous region or do a lot of city driving. You’ll probably reap some of the other benefits of having a standard, though. However, if you’re not up for learning or drive under difficult conditions, you may be far more comfortable with AT. There are a time and place for both.

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About the Author

Guest Author is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

2 User Comments

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By , May 30, 2017
Great article! I'm a 31yo female, when I pull up to mechanics shops with a manual, 6 times out of ten I get "a look" :) I LOVE driving a stick, I'l never go back to Auto unless something happens to me that prevents me from driving with 2 feet.
By , July 12, 2017
Automatic may be more popular but that will never beat driving a manual