Choosing a transmission used to be simple; you’d get a manual — a stickshift — if you wanted a less expensive car with better gas mileage that offered a more controlled driving experience; or you’d choose an automatic that cost a little more and sacrificed some fuel economy for an easier driving experience.
A lot has changed in recent years. These days you’ve got multiple transmission types to choose from, and there isn’t a whole lot of difference in performance and economy no matter which you choose. Despite the performance similarities and lots of choices, car enthusiasts debate the value of automatic and manual transmissions.
What’s this debate about anyhow?
To shift or not to shift (yourself) – that’s the question
Sales of cars with automatic transmissions in the U.S. have gradually overtaken manually-shifted cars since General Motors first offered an automatic option more than 80 years ago. Until relatively recently, cars with automatic gearboxes cost more and got fewer miles per gallon. But they also offered convenience and peace of mind.
Today’s automatics actually surpass the selling points of manual transmissions. But nostalgia is hard to shake, and while the manual transmission is outdated technology by today’s standards, some drivers still enjoy having more control over their cars and argue that automatics don’t give them the experience they’re looking for.
Why choose an automatic transmission?
The automatic transmission is a great choice if you’re looking for a consistent, low-stress driving experience. Nearly anyone can drive an automatic. The transmission makes driving easy because the car takes care of all the legwork for you; plus, it saves you from embarrassments like stalling in an intersection or on a hill, or grinding gears during a bad shift.
And, advances in automatic transmission technology have boosted performance and economy. Today, acceleration and mpg are close to identical whether you drive an automatic or a stick. The 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, with its V8 engine and 8-speed automatic, has a reported 0-60 mph time of just under 4 seconds. That’s pretty quick!
New automatics end the argument that shifting manually delivers better fuel economy. For example, the 2016 Honda Accord comes with numerous configurations with both automatic and manual transmissions; in every case, the combined mpg for automatics exceeds the manuals by up to 5 mpg. The V6 3.5L manual gets a combined mpg of 22 and the automatic version gets 26 mpg. The 2016 Subaru XV Crosstrek is another such case. The 4-cylinder, 2-liter automatic gets a combined 29 mpg, while the manual only delivers 26 mpg.
Automatics also let you keep both hands on the wheel at all times, which is the safe driving method taught in driver’s education classes. And, since there’s no clutch pedal with an automatic, you’ve only got the gas pedal and brake to worry about.
The cons to automatics? Because they’re complex, they can be costly to repair when they need service. Also, if you’re a driving enthusiast, they’re not as exciting. There’s no shifting while you drive, and so there’s nothing but the road itself to help keep your mind on the task at hand.
Why choose a manual transmission?
For manual transmission enthusiasts, the truth that a stickshift doesn’t truly offer better performance than many modern automatics can be tough to swallow. But there’s still one big saving grace: if you enjoy driving, having a manual transmission can be really fun.
Manual transmissions put you into direct control of the car. You decide the gear you want and how fast the gears change, so you can adjust to road conditions faster than almost any automatic can.
This precise control means you can do a lot of fun things, like take your car from 0 to 60 mph faster and smoother than some automatics can, at least with older cars. The 2014 Ford Mustang GT is a newer example where a stickshift still ekes by a newer automatic. With a V6 and a manual transmission, the Mustang can go from 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds, while the automatic version lags behind by more than a full second.
Today’s automatic transmissions may outperform their manual counterparts, but for some, they dilute the driving experience. At the end of the day, it really depends on what you’re looking for, and your decision should be determined by the driving experience you seek. If you’re in the market for a vehicle and considering your options, make sure to get behind the wheel and drive different cars with different transmission, in different situations. Good luck!