Manual vs. Automatic Cars: What’s the Difference? 

These days, almost all new cars have an automatic transmission. However, if you’re in the market for a manual transmission, there are still a few auto manufacturers that offer a few of their models with a good old-fashioned stick shift. And if you opt for a used car, you’ll find plenty of options with a manual transmission.

Manual transmissions can be a little bit polarizing. Some drivers and car enthusiasts swear by them, praising the control that they offer and finding them more fun to drive. Other people hate them, and see automatic transmissions as the only way to go. In fact, many drivers these days don’t even know how to drive a manual transmission. Both types of transmissions have their benefits, so having a preference is a matter of personal taste. Here are the key differences between manuals and automatics.

What’s the Difference When Driving? 

A manual transmission requires a lot more work from the driver. With an automatic transmission, the car determines when to switch gears. You simply place the shifter in “drive” or “reverse” depending on whether you want to go forwards or backward, and the car automatically handles what gear it should be in – hence the name. 

With a manual, you have to select the gears yourself. When you want to go forward, you put the car in first gear. As you accelerate and want to go faster, you shift to second gear. If you accelerate more, you shift to third gear or, if you start to slow down, you downshift back to first. All of the gear changes are made by the driver, and to facilitate this there’s a third pedal, called the clutch. When you press the clutch pedal, which is to the left of the brake pedal, it opens the transmission clutch and allows you to change gears. You then move the gear shifter into your preferred gear. This process can take a bit of time to learn because you have to time your release of the clutch pedal with your shifting, and when you press on the gas pedal. 

Manual transmissions require a lot more work than automatics. You have to regularly change gears, which not only means making decisions but using your right hand and your left foot regularly. However, they also offer more control, as you can shift into a lower gear to gain more power, and you can shift ahead of time to anticipate a change in the road, such as a curve or a hill. And for many car enthusiasts, manual transmissions are simply a lot more fun to drive.

Are Manuals or Automatics more reliable?

When it comes to pitting manual vs. automatic transmissions, it’s hard to judge the reliability, because the driver really matters. Manual transmissions have simpler and fewer parts than automatics do, which in theory should make them more reliable. With an experienced stickshift driver, that’s probably the case.

However, because manuals require more driver involvement, there’s more opportunity for the driver to cause damage. Drivers who aren’t as comfortable with a manual transmission can wear down the clutch, or grind the gears far more than would ever happen in an automatic transmission. So if you’re incredibly comfortable driving a manual, you can probably feel reassurance in your car’s reliability compared to an automatic. For everyone else, however, it’s probably a wash. 

Is There a Difference in Fuel Efficiency? 

Unleaded gas pump going into standard car

For a long time, one of the key points in the manual vs. automatic debate was the fuel efficiency factor. However, it’s gotten pretty complicated in recent times. In older cars, manual transmissions get better fuel efficiency. This is because the driver can preemptively change gears, whereas old automatic transmissions shift as they react to the road, which costs them some efficiency.

Automatic transmission technology has made leaps and bounds in recent years, however. Now the gear-changing technology in automatics is so advanced that automatic transmissions are more efficient than manuals. At some point, computers become more talented than humans, and when it comes to driving vehicles efficiently, we’ve officially reached that point. 

The difference between the gas mileage you’ll get in an automatic vs. a manual transmission is never very dramatic, but you can feel fairly sure that you’ll get better mileage in a manual if the car is older, and better mileage in an automatic if it’s newer.

Are Automatics or Manuals Cheaper?

This is one area where manual transmissions still win out. There aren’t many new cars that are sold with a manual transmission, but they’re usually a bit cheaper to buy than their automatic counterparts. And if you do have a transmission failure, a manual transmission repair or rebuild is usually quite a bit more affordable than an automatic transmission repair or rebuild, because manual transmissions are less complicated systems. 

You can also save on other maintenance costs, as changing the transmission fluid in a manual is generally cheaper than in an automatic, and it’s less likely that the transmission will need general maintenance or small repairs. However, as previously mentioned, you can easily do a lot of damage to a manual transmission if you’re not comfortable driving one. So while manuals are usually a little bit cheaper, automatics are a bit more foolproof.  

Regardless of what side of the manual vs. automatic car debate you’re on, it’s important to take good care of your transmission. At AutoZone, you can find the tools and parts you need for routine transmission maintenance, as well as for repairs. AutoZone purchases come with Same-Day In-Store or Curbside Pickup, and Free Next-Day Delivery is offered on eligible orders. 

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