Automatic vs. Manual Cars: Is One Better than the Other?

Automatic vs. Manual Cars: Is One Better than the Other?

Even if you're no car buff, you've likely heard the terms automatic transmission and manual transmission. While it may seem like they're simply two variations of the same vehicle, the differences between the two are a bit more complex. Each transmission works differently, and so each has its own set of benefits and setbacks.

For example, which is better on gas mileage? Does one go faster than the other? What about cost and resale value?

Here, we explain the differences between both, so you can best decide whether an automatic or manual transmission is best for you. But first, let's talk about the basics.

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What is a transmission?

Your vehicle's transmission is what harnesses the engine's power and makes the wheels move. Over time, it earned the nickname "gearbox" because it's essentially a metal box full of gears. The transmission transfers energy to the wheels to propel the car forward and helps control the vehicle's speed and torque.

To make understanding the physics of transmission simple, compare it to the gears on a bicycle. Pedaling uphill requires the rider to use lower gears while moving against gravity, restricting the bike to slower speeds. In contrast, higher gears allow the bicycle to go faster, but riders can only use them in level or downhill scenarios.

The two most common types of transmission are automatic and manual. Vehicles usually have four to seven gears, but some feature eight or more. Generally speaking, the higher the gear, the higher the vehicle's capacity for speed. But it must first start its trajectory in a lower gear — such as first or second — until it reaches enough velocity to shift into third, fourth, or fifth, after which it can continue to build speed. 

In first gear, most cars are only able to travel up to 10 mph or so. But from there, the transmission changes gears until it reaches fifth or higher, where the vehicle can travel above 40 mph.

What is an automatic transmission?

Automatic transmissions allow the vehicle to change gears without the driver having to intervene, hence the name. They do so using transmission fluid, which lubricates and cools pieces of the transmission. A torque converter communicates between the engine and transmission using hydraulic pressure, allowing the vehicle to switch gears smoothly and prevent it from stalling. 

Driving an automatic is less complicated since the driver doesn't have to worry about switching gears. They also only have to work with two pedals: the gas and the brake.

What is a manual transmission?

Manual transmissions, also known as standard transmissions, are manually operated — again, hence the name — and require the driver to change gears manually using the gearshift as the car speeds up and slows down. Some refer to this type of transmission as "standard" or "stick" since it uses a stick-like gearshift that's usually located between the driver and front passenger seats. 

When driving a vehicle with a manual transmission, the gearshift is only half the equation. You also have to consider the clutch.

Located to the left of the brake pedal, the clutch pedal stops power to the transmission while the driver changes gears using the stick shift. Before shifting from one gear to another, be it from first to second gear or fifth to fourth gear, the driver must first ease off the gas with their right foot and then press down the clutch with their left foot before moving the gearshift. This footwork is called "blending," and it's much like a dance between the driver's feet and the clutch and gas pedals.

Once the driver has changed gears, it's time to release the clutch, which returns power to the vehicle. In an automatic vehicle, this is the job of the torque converter. The trick is, if the driver changes gears too slowly in a manual car, it can cause extreme wear on the vehicle. If this happens too quickly, the engine is likely to stall. Additionally, when on a hill, if the driver doesn't switch gears quickly enough, they may find themselves going backward.

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What are the pros and cons of an automatic transmission?

Besides being easier to drive, one of the benefits of owning a vehicle with an automatic transmission is maintaining a higher resale value. This is because more people feel comfortable driving them as opposed to their manual transmission counterparts. They're also more widely available, and in terms of the driving experience, they are more comfortable. The car will always be in the proper gear when starting and stopping in heavy traffic or on inclines, and you'll be able to enjoy long drives without having to mind gear changes as well as weaving through traffic and navigating directions for hours at a time.

The main downfall of automatic vehicles is the price. Not only are they usually more costly upfront, but gas, maintenance, and even insurance are likely to cost more.

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What are the pros and cons of a manual transmission?

Manual vehicles are beneficial because they typically cost less and are more fuel-efficient. You may also see lower maintenance costs and insurance prices. They also offer you better control of the vehicle since the driver, not the car, is in charge of changing gears. While they are more of a challenge to learn how to drive at first, some believe they are less susceptible to theft. 

Some cons of cars with manual transmissions are variety and comfort. The US is manufacturing fewer vehicles with manual transmissions these days, which means buyers have fewer options from which to choose. Some drivers believe they are less comfortable for long-distance trips or heavy traffic since they require extra attention to switch gears. You also have to be extra mindful when starting on inclines to prevent the car from rolling backward.

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What are some popular vehicles with automatic transmissions?

BMW 3 Series

BMW 3 Series

The BMW 3 Series has the convenience of an automatic transmission, with beautiful handling that will remind you you're in control of the vehicle. Its three-liter, six-cylinder engine has a fuel efficiency of 26 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. While it looks and feels luxurious, it has the right amount of sportiness to it that will make you want to take the backroads. Its user-friendly infotainment system and spacious interior will keep you and your passengers happy on longer drives. 

While a new 3 Series comes with a heftier price tag, used models are available for just under $10,000.

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BMW 3 Series

The BMW 3 Series has the convenience of an automatic transmission, with beautiful handling that will remind you you're in control of the vehicle. Its three-liter, six-cylinder engine has a fuel efficiency of 26 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. While it looks and feels luxurious, it has the right amount of sportiness to it that will make you want to take the backroads. Its user-friendly infotainment system and spacious interior will keep you and your passengers happy on longer drives. 

While a new 3 Series comes with a heftier price tag, used models are available for just under $10,000.

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Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is a high-performance vehicle with a playful automatic transmission that allows the driver tremendous control. Some GTIs even offer a seven-speed automatic transmission with sport mode, and every model comes turbocharged with a two-liter, four-cylinder engine.

With a fuel efficiency of 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, not only is the GTI fuel-efficient, but you can also save money upfront by buying a used model with listings starting at $19,200.

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Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is a high-performance vehicle with a playful automatic transmission that allows the driver tremendous control. Some GTIs even offer a seven-speed automatic transmission with sport mode, and every model comes turbocharged with a two-liter, four-cylinder engine.

With a fuel efficiency of 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, not only is the GTI fuel-efficient, but you can also save money upfront by buying a used model with listings starting at $19,200.

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What are some popular vehicles with manual transmissions?

Subaru Impreza

Subaru Impreza

The Subaru Impreza gives you the comfort of a sedan in a vehicle that looks and feels sporty. It's one of the best cars available with a manual transmission, and it offers additional control with all-wheel-drive in every model. That makes it a fantastic option for daily driving, especially if you live on backroads or where the weather is unpredictable — or both.

The Impreza's two-liter, four-cylinder engine has a fuel efficiency of 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, which means less money goes toward gas. Less money will go toward the cost of the car itself, too, if you pick up a used model for as little as $16,100.

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Subaru Impreza

The Subaru Impreza gives you the comfort of a sedan in a vehicle that looks and feels sporty. It's one of the best cars available with a manual transmission, and it offers additional control with all-wheel-drive in every model. That makes it a fantastic option for daily driving, especially if you live on backroads or where the weather is unpredictable — or both.

The Impreza's two-liter, four-cylinder engine has a fuel efficiency of 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, which means less money goes toward gas. Less money will go toward the cost of the car itself, too, if you pick up a used model for as little as $16,100.

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Honda Civic

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic is a downright legend among car enthusiasts, thanks to its excellent handling and manual transmission options that feature six or 10 gears. It offers a smooth ride in the city and can easily let loose on the open road. Its two-liter, four-cylinder engine makes for a fuel efficiency of 29 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.

The Civic is a sleek-looking car, and it's practical. For half the price of buying new, you can grab a used model for as little as $9,950. With prices that low, you're likely to find a higher trim level within a lower budget.

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Honda Civic

The Honda Civic is a downright legend among car enthusiasts, thanks to its excellent handling and manual transmission options that feature six or 10 gears. It offers a smooth ride in the city and can easily let loose on the open road. Its two-liter, four-cylinder engine makes for a fuel efficiency of 29 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.

The Civic is a sleek-looking car, and it's practical. For half the price of buying new, you can grab a used model for as little as $9,950. With prices that low, you're likely to find a higher trim level within a lower budget.

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Which transmission option is better, automatic or manual?

When it comes to deciding which transmission is better, it comes down to personal preference. Do you want the convenience and comfort of an automatic? Or the pricing and control of a manual?

If gas mileage is something that's a deciding factor in your next vehicle purchase, you may also want to consider an electric vehicle, most of which feature automatic transmissions. 

No matter which transmission option you choose, you can buy any of Shift's cars directly online from the comfort of your home, know it has no hidden issues, thanks to their mechanics' 150-point inspection, and get a fair, up-front price from the start. Regardless of the make and model, you'll know right away that you made the right choice.

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Author
Shift Editorial Team