Automatic vs. Manual Transmission: Which is Better?


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Automatic vs. manual transmission has been a long-standing debate in the car enthusiast community. The two sides argue which is more fuel-efficient, looks cooler and is more fun to drive. But which side comes out on top? Is one system objectively better than the other? Let’s settle the debate once and for all.

What is a Transmission?

Before we begin, let’s go over some essential background information. A car’s transmission shifts gears as the vehicle accelerates and decelerates, keeping the engine’s RPMs stable. Without the transmission, the engine would quickly overheat. Both automatic and manual transmissions have this same function, but the layout and execution are quite different.

Manual transmission requires the driver to shift gears using a clutch pedal and stick shift. 

Automatic transmission shifts gears on its own without the driver’s help. This technology certainly makes driving easier, scoring one point for the automatic team right off the bat. 

But what about the other factors, like fuel economy, vehicle health and the overall driving experience? Let’s explore the pros and cons of both transmissions.

Manual Transmission: Pros and Cons

Let’s start with manual, the older transmission system that fewer people are familiar with. As you will see, it has some impressive practical advantages over the automatic transmission system.

Pro: More Control of the Vehicle

Drivers have have more control over manual vehicles. You can shift gears whenever you want and also downshift to slow the vehicle down instead of braking (assuming you have enough space to slow down).

Additionally, driving manual requires more focus and thus can improve your driving performance. You can’t look at your cell phone or entertain other distractions, so all of your attention is on the road.

Con: Learning Curve

As we’ve already established, vehicles with manual transmissions are more difficult to drive. It might take weeks of practice before a driver is comfortable enough to take a manual vehicle out on the road. This factor turns many people off from manual vehicles, but shifting gears is not as difficult as critics would have you believe.

Learning to drive a manual is like learning to ride a bike. It takes some time to get past the learning curve, but once you learn, you don’t forget.

Pro: Better Fuel Economy

The ability to shift gears on command leads to better fuel economy in manual vehicles. A responsible manual driver never lets the car’s RPMs reach dangerous levels. This habit alone helps manuals conserve 3-5 miles per gallon more than automatics in the long run.

Con: Stop-and-Go Traffic

Stop-and-go traffic is not ideal for manuals. It doesn’t allow you to shift gears at the most opportune times. You have to constantly switch between first and second gears in slow traffic, which makes the driving experience wholly unenjoyable.

Plus, you have to worry about manual vehicles rolling backward every time you take your foot of the brake. This factor is intimidating for a lot of new manual drivers and might lead to a fender bender. Stalling also happens more often in stop-and-go traffic.

Pro: Cheaper Vehicle Options

Since manuals are more difficult to drive, they usually have lower prices. You’re more likely to find a used manual vehicle that fits your budget than a used automatic. You could save thousands of dollars if you’re willing to take on the learning challenge.

Manuals are also generally more durable and don’t require as many repairs, making them cheaper in the long run as well.

Automatic Transmission: Pros and Cons

Automatic is the newer transmission, but we shouldn’t call it “new.” General Motors successfully implemented automatic in 1939 and it has been the preferable transmission choice for most of the driving population for decades.

Pro: More Driving Freedom

You don’t have to worry about switching gears, which means you have more freedom behind the wheel. While some drivers like the responsibility that comes with a manual transmission, most people prefer the ease and convenience of an automatic.

Con: Worse Fuel Economy

However, a car doesn’t always switch gears at the best time, making automatics less fuel-efficient than manuals. That could change in the near future with advancements in the automotive industry, but manuals take the upper hand in this category for now.

Pro: Better for Suboptimal Driving Conditions

Automatics are much more convenient in poor driving conditions like stop-and-go traffic and hilly roads. You don’t have to constantly switch gears and can focus on the road ahead. Automatics are also better if you’re driving on unfamiliar roads. You can read directions and make sudden turns without needing to shift gears.

Con: Limited Driving Ability

All manual drivers can move seamlessly to an automatic, but the same cannot be said for automatic drivers moving to manual. If you ever make the switch, you have to practice and might even need to retake your driver’s license test.

This disadvantage could prove costly in an emergency situation. If you have to drive a manual vehicle and you don’t know how, it’s not something you can learn in a few minutes.

Pro: Quicker Acceleration

Automatics can accelerate faster because there’s virtually no time between gear changes. As long as the driver keeps pressure on the gas pedal, the car can zoom through the first three gears in a matter of seconds. 

Manual vehicles briefly slow down as they change gears, no matter how skilled the driver is. You have to activate the clutch, move the stick shift to the right spot and release the clutch, causing the vehicle’s acceleration to pause with every switch.

Automatic vs. Manual: The Final Verdict

Based on the advantages and disadvantages we discussed, manual vehicles take the slight edge over automatics for their control, better fuel economy and cheaper vehicle options. Automatics are more convenient to drive, but they don’t quite measure up in terms of practicality and functionality.

With that being said, everyone has personal preferences. Your dream car probably only has one transmission option. Your situation at home might benefit more from one or the other. Manuals are better in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect. Find the best car that suits your needs, no matter what transmission it has.

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