Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions : Which is Better?

The manual vs. automatic transmission debate has been around for quite a while now. Whether it is potential car owners or just folks who want to learn how to drive, the question” which is better automatic or manual cars” has been asked many times. It is natural for such a question because everyone wants to get the most from their vehicle. You are probably reading this because you either need to make an informed decision about a car-related matter, or you just want to satisfy your curiosity.

Either way, you are at the right place. This article will look at both types of transmissions by providing a little background on them while comparing the pros and cons of both types of transmissions. It will also compare manual and automatic transmissions based on performance, fuel economy, and reliability. So if you are looking for answers to the question “manual or automatic cars: which is better? , read on to the end of the article.

Manual Transmission Basics

The manual transmission has two key components: the clutch and the gear shifter. Its housing contains three shafts with gears of different sizes. One of these shafts (the input shaft) is attached to the engine through the car’s clutch. The countershaft which has several gears on it is always linked to the input shaft. The output shaft(which happens to be the third gear) links the countershaft to the vehicle’s wheels via the driveshaft. The gears which are on the countershaft are fixed and are designed to spin with the shaft itself.

On the other hand, the gears on the output shaft are designed to spin freely without turning the shaft. Gears come with teeth that form something like a network so when large gears engage smaller gears, the smaller gears spin faster than the larger ones. That means the bigger the difference in size, the higher the gear ratio.

which is better automatic or manual cars

To get a vehicle with a manual transmission in motion you start by stepping on the clutch pedal which triggers the friction clutch. The friction clutch is located amid the input shaft and the engine’s flywheel. It is designed to separate the transmission from the engine, so both spin independently when you step on the pedal. This prevents torque from being transferred to the gearbox from the engine so that you could easily change gears.

To change gears, you will need to use the gear shifter or stick which is used to engage the gears manually. Engaging the gears on the output shaft and locking them in position causes them to turn the shaft and send torque to the vehicle’s drive wheels. So when you move the stick, it deploys the gear selector forks, which are linked to the dog clutches that activate the gears.

So the minute your foot is off the clutch pedal, energy travels from the engine via the transmission to the drive wheels, which causes your vehicle to move. As the speed increases, you then increase the gear ratio to allow the vehicle to optimize the RPM. To shift the transmission into reverse, the transmission shaft rotation has to stop, and you will need to depress the clutch pedal to do this.

So what are the pros and cons of having a manual or automatic? Let us start with a look at the pros of having a manual transmission vehicle.

Pros of Manual Transmission

Have you noticed that racing cars and sports cars come with a manual transmission? The reason is that the manual transmission offers you total control of your car since you get to decide which gear you want to drive in. This is a major difference between manual and automatic transmission. Increased control of a vehicle can reduce the amount of gas used up by the engine, so a manual transmission can have better gas mileage than an automatic transmission.

Cars with manual transmission are more cost-efficient. They require little maintenance and so the running costs are less. Why? The manual transmission has a relatively simple design that does not require any complex repairs. Since the design and operation of the manual transmission are simple, it does not overheat easily so that’s fewer problems for your car. Once you drive your manual transmission car the right way and do some regular preventative maintenance, the car can last for quite a while. What’s more? Manual transmission cars are relatively cheaper, plus they come with lower insurance costs.

Cons

Having to change gears for an extended period of time can take a toll on the driver. Then there is the physical stress (aches and pains) that comes with changing gears with your legs and your hands for extended periods. Then there is the mental strain and possible loss of focus that comes with driving a manual transmission.

Manual transmission is also quite challenging to learn, and there is the danger of not being able to effectively steer the car when you regularly change gears.

Automatic Transmission Basics

Cars with automatic transmissions have always sold better than manual transmission cars in the United States, and this is despite the benefits that come with manual transmissions. This part of the article will focus on the way automatic transmission works. The automatic transmission uses gears to optimize the torque generated by the vehicle. This way, the engine can function at the right speed while offering a variety of output speeds.

manual vs automatic pros and cons

It does this with fluid pressure, so gear change with such vehicles is automatic. One major difference between the compositions of the manual and automatic transmission is the presence of a torque-converter. This component is linked to the drivetrain and communicates speed by exerting pressure on the transmission fluid.

The transmission fluid serves to engage and disengage planetary gears to move between ratios. That’s why with the automatic transmission, you put the gear shift handle on D and sit back and drive. This is possible because of a complex system that is built around the planetary gear set which creates the different gear ratios used by the transmission.

The planetary gear set is a system of gears that includes a sun gear, planet gears, and ring gear. All of these gears need to work simultaneously for the car to get into its different gear ratios. 

Although the automatic transmission fluid also helps to keep parts of the transmission cool and well-lubricated, its major function in this system is to power the vehicle. The transmission fluid is responsible for generating the pressure required to activate the bands and clutches regulating the vehicle’s gear.

Pros of Automatic Transmission

Car lovers in the United States find cars with automatic transmission attractive because it is relatively easy to master and drive. However, the automatic transmission system is complex; driving one is extremely simple. It is also very convenient since there is no clutch, and all that you need to do is simply select D (for drive) and move.

Because of the smooth transition which this kind of transmission offers, you don’t need to maneuver the gear stick while driving the car. Neither do you have to worry about driving uphill, moving in congested traffic, or having the car stall on you? This ease of learning and driving makes automatic transmission cars popular within and outside the USA.

Since it does not require manually changing the gears, driving a car with automatic transmission is relatively safe; you get to keep both hands on the wheels. Automatic transmission requires less effort, which also means less mental and physical strain while driving. There is also more innovation with automatic transmissions, so they are constantly improving.

Cons

One of the disadvantages of an automatic transmission is the costs involved. Cars with automatic transmission are expensive whether you are looking to buy a new or second-hand one. Besides the initial costs of buying one, you also have to contend with the repair costs and high insurance costs. The automatic transmission system mechanism is quite complicated, so there is an increased tendency for faults to arise. Overtime these faults adversely affect the lifespan of the transmission.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmission Performance

People who ask the question “which is better automatic or manual cars” need to understand the performance of both types of transmissions.

Automatic transmissions allow the driver to enjoy the cruise without worrying about changing gears. However, they offer less control and often waste engine power when the gear is too high. On the other hand, manual transmissions offer a lot more control as they allow the driver to change the gears according to circumstances.

Automatic transmissions are more comfortable to drive in heavy traffic where the vehicle has to continually start, stop and even move at a snail’s pace sometimes. Drivers of such vehicles can move around such situations quickly. Once the engine is on, they only have to keep the foot on one pedal instead of continually jostling between three pedals.

It’s a lot more complicated with manual transmissions where the driver has to change gears continually. This makes driving a whole lot more difficult, especially if the roads are also bad. The performance of manual transmission vehicles is also hampered by stalling. Automatic transmissions rarely stall when driven except when there is some mechanical fault with the vehicle.

Owing to the system’s simple nature, manual transmissions are not heavily built, so they accelerate better than automatic cars. The possibility of losing engine power is also less with manual transmissions than it is with automatic transmissions.

So if you are looking for better control, reduced loss of engine power, and better acceleration, then the manual transmission is your best bet. But if you are looking for convenience and ease of driving, then the automatic transmission wins every time.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmission Fuel Economy

This comparison is a bit tricky. Advocates of manual transmission cite fuel economy and efficiency as a major advantage over automatic transmission. This used to be because older models of automatic transmissions were designed to consume more fuel. That has changed with improvements in automatic transmission. The fuel economy of the new automatic transmissions has improved to the point where some automatic transmissions are just as economical as their manual counterparts. The reason for this change is that the more recent versions of automatic transmissions have been built to depend less on the torque converter and have more gears than the three gear models of the past.

Manual Vs. Automatic Transmission Reliability

Going by the frequency of the internet search entry “manual vs. automatic transmission reliability” on Reddit, you can tell that it is a source of concern to many people. This is because comparing manual vs. automatic transmission reliability is a great way to determine what works for you.

  Although many people are quick to assume that manual transmissions are more reliable than automatic transmissions, this is not always true.

Automatic transmissions are more efficient than their manual counterparts since the computers take the shifting of gears to levels that many professional drivers cannot attain. The downside is that this efficiency level is difficult to maintain over time, and it starts to wane after some years. This leads to the reliability issues that haunt automatic transmissions after they have been used for some time.

On the flip side, while manual transmissions might not be as efficient as automatic transmissions are, they tend to be more reliable over time. For one, the maintenance costs are less with a manual transmission since the components are cheaper. A simple illustration is the difference between the cost of transmission fluids for both automatic and manual transmissions.

When you consider that automatic transmissions require more fluid changes and filter replacements than manual cars, you will be dealing with a lot more maintenance costs. This is mostly down to how automatic transmission functions. Auto transmission fluid types degrade a whole lot quicker since they are often at high operating temperatures when in use.

However, there is more to the reliability of transmission than its maintenance and attendant costs. Driving styles play a crucial role in how reliable transmission is in the long run. Shifting hard on the clutch will lead to more mechanical problems and hence less reliability. So in such a situation, a manual transmission might not be as reliable as a well-driven and well-maintained automatic transmission.

However, all things being equal (maintenance and driving style included), manual transmissions always tend to be more reliable in the long run than automatic transmission.

Manual vs Automatic: Which is better? YouTube

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q: Is Automatic Or Manual Better?

It all depends on what you are looking for in a vehicle. Each transmission type has its advantages and disadvantages, which cancel each other out when comparisons are made. People have different driving needs that are often better suited to one transmission than the other, so it’s all down to individual preferences.

If you are big on control and more power and acceleration when driving and you are on a budget, then a manual transmission might be better. Then again, if smooth transitions, convenience, and safety while driving is your thing, then the automatic transmission is your best bet.

Q: Is It Bad To Drive An Automatic In Manual Mode?

Many automatic cars allow the driver to use the gear selector like a shift when situations demand it. Say, for instance, when driving uphill. When you drive automatic transmission in manual mode, you increase the risk of wear and tear of the engine’s components. These components are not designed for driving in manual mode, so they are more likely to get damaged. There is no need for the driver to change gears with a functional automatic transmission since the transmission is designed to choose the best gear ratio at each point.

Q: How Long Do Automatic Transmissions Last

It all depends on mileage, maintenance, time, and driving style. But all things being equal, the average automatic transmissions last for a few hundred thousand miles or about seven years. There are always exceptions to the rules. There are instances where the transmission does not last that long, just as there are instances where it lasts longer.

Q: Are Manual Cars Safer Than Automatic

Although this question is informed by the manual vs. automatic accident rate, the truth is that it all depends on the driver. There has been an argument that manual transmissions are safer because drivers have more control over the car during certain adverse conditions. As such, the driver can focus on driving, thus reducing the occurrence of driving errors.

There is a counterargument. Having to change gears manually can also be distracting, and since not everyone is great at multitasking, it is easy to get into dangerous situations. There is little or no need to change gears with automatic transmission so the driver can focus on driving with both hands on the steering wheel.

Q: What Lasts Longer Manual or Automatic Transmission?

This is a popular discussion on online forums; hence you get internet searches like manual vs. automatic transmission on sites like Reddit. Owing to its design, automatic transmissions have many potential issues with all the complex circuits and whatnot. This sets this kind of transmission up for the kind of damage that negatively affects the transmission’s longevity.

Manual transmissions are less complicated and less susceptible to damage; that is why most manual transmissions tend to last longer than their automatic counterparts.

Q: Is It Cheaper To Rebuild Or Replace A Transmission?

Replacing your transmission is more expensive than rebuilding it. When you opt to rebuild your transmission, you will only be replacing the failed parts of the transmission. Replacement requires changing the entire transmission.

Final Words

 So, after all, is said and done, what is the best way around the “manual vs. automatic” debate?

Well, the truth is that it is difficult to objectively state which is better because it is entirely a matter of subjectivity. Different people have different driving needs, so what works for one person might not work for the other.

Folks who live in urban areas with traffic issues would prefer to drive a car that handles such issues. On the flip side, some people want a car with a lot of power that they can control completely while driving. It all depends on individual preferences.

That said what side are you on, on the manual vs. transmission debate?

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Osuagwu Solomon

Osuagwu Solomon is a seasoned automotive technician for the past 9 years, and a technical writer. He loves writing about auto professional repair guides, DIY repair guides, and buyer’s guide. After spending six years in the automotive workshop, he decided to impact his knowledge to people aside his domain, and he has achieved this by centering his Automotive writing skills on REPAIRS.

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