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Automatic vs manual cars: which one should you buy?
Car Ownership

Automatic vs manual cars: which one should you buy?

Is automatic or manual better? This is a debate that’s been going on among petrolheads for quite some time. Research by Auto Express shows that in the UK just a quarter of new cars were automatic a decade ago and yet they now account for ...
Neil Thomason
September 2021
Automatic vs manual cars: which one should you buy?

Is automatic or manual better? This is a debate that’s been going on among petrolheads for quite some time. Research by Auto Express shows that in the UK just a quarter of new cars were automatic a decade ago and yet they now account for 49 percent of new car sales.

So is the manual gearbox’s days numbered? Or will it always have a place on the road? And is automatic or manual better? Read on…

What is the difference between automatic and manual?

A manual gearbox allows you to control gears to accommodate the amount of revs your car operates at. As you accelerate, you work your way up through the gears from one to five (or six) by pressing down your clutch pedal and using the gearstick. That brings with it the potential for stalling if you raise the clutch too quick or attempt to drive in a higher gear than your rev counter is at.

Manual has always been the most common type of gearbox in the UK, due in part to how they were traditionally more efficient than an automatic. 

An automatic gearbox is a much simpler set up and the gear stick will typically just have four options – Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive – so there’s no clutch. That means you’ll never stall in an automatic, and all you really need to do is decide which way you want the car to go.

Some automatic cars have started including paddle-shifters behind the wheel which allows some control for the driver or the option to choose when the gearbox shifts up or down through the gears, but it doesn’t quite give the level of engagement a manual does.

Pros and cons of manual gearbox

Pros of a manual gearbox

  • Greater control over the car

With control of which gear you drive in, a manual gearbox gives you more control over the car. You can shift down through the gears to take advantage of its natural breaking if road conditions change and shift back up easily as road conditions improve.

  • More responsive acceleration

While automatic gearboxes have improved with the adoption of dual-clutch transmission, a manual gearbox is better at transferring power from the engine to the wheels allowing drivers to accelerate quickly. With an attentive driver at the wheel, this responsive acceleration also leads to a more efficient engine.

  • Easier to maintain

A manual gearbox is much simpler designed compared to an automatic, with any gearbox issues much easier for a mechanic to find and fix. Unless the clutch is part of the gearbox problem it will usually end up cheaper to fix than an automatic too.

Cons of a manual gearbox

  • Potentially more polluting

If you’re not a responsive driver, or you sit in lower gears for too long letting the rev counter go over 3000, chances are you’ll be emitting more CO2 or NOX than you would if you were driving more efficiently. You’ll also be using more fuel than is necessary too.

  • Safety concerns

While most responsible drivers will have their hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, change gear, then return them to that position, in high traffic areas you might be tempted to keep one hand on the gearstick due to having to change gear often, or even ride the clutch to avoid choosing a gear or to give your poised leg a stretch. Neither of these is particularly safe, but something we’ve all probably been guilty of.

Pros and cons of an automatic gearbox

Pros of an automatic gearbox

  • Ease of use

Without the need for clutch control and responding to revs to change gears, all you have to do is put the gearstick into drive and away you go. After that there’s no awkward transitioning up and down through the gears, no grinding of gears, no stuttering to a halt or to accelerate away.

  • Convenience in congestion

There’s nothing worse than constantly pushing the clutch pedal as you cycle up and down gears in stop-start traffic. Your leg begins to ache and it can be mentally taxing if it goes on for a prolonged period. Automatic gearboxes require less effort in this respect meaning all you have to do is coast, brake, and respond to the traffic conditions.

Cons of an automatic gearbox

  • Unengaging to drive

Depending on what type of driver you are, you might prefer the convenience of an automatic rather than engaging with the drive like in a manual. Changing gears gives a more physical connection to the road, and the sportier the model the more fun there is to be had from a manual.

  • More expensive

Opting for an automatic can be the most expensive option, with prices between the base manual and base automatic of a model varying around £2-3k. But again, if you value convenience then this is probably an extra worth paying.

So are manual cars on the way out?

It certainly looks like the writing is on the wall for manual cars. While they currently account for nearly half of all new car sales, this growth in popularity is only going to continue with the rise of electric vehicles, which only come with automatic transmission, and the government’s proposed ban of petrol and diesel vehicles coming into force in 2030.

In light of the above, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has begun to make plans to adapt the driving test. Current legislation only allows people to drive manual cars if they passed their driving test in a manual, but this will become increasingly difficult as hybrid and electric cars become the norm.