Manual vs. Automatic Transmission: Know the Pros and Cons of Each

Cars get categorized according to all sorts of different specifications and features. We’re talking about things like manufacturer, type (truck, SUV, sedan, etc.), price range, and so on.

At the end of the day, it all depends on what you’re looking for, as there’s something out there for everyone’s specific needs.

Certain aspects are negotiable, like sacrificing a few features you don’t really need in favor of saving some money.

Other stuff you might also be able to live with even though you aren’t really in love with it, such as purchasing a pre-owned vehicle with an interior that isn’t your favorite color.

A car’s transmission, though, is one of those things that can be a deal breaker. Choosing a vehicle you aren’t comfortable with or can’t handle is not the best of ideas, since this can make driving tedious and possibly dangerous.

When it comes down to transmission, you have three choices: Automatic, manual and CVT.

Picture of a manual transmission in a car's interior

In this article, we’ll lay out all the facts you need to know about manual vs. automatic transmission in cars. This will include the inner workings of each one, as well as the pros and cons that each has to offer.

By the time you’re finished reading this article, you’ll know all about the differences (and similarities) between them, as well as which one is more suitable for you.

What is a Transmission?

Before we cover the details of manual vs automatic transmissions in cars, let’s take a moment to start with the fundamentals first. Even if you’re already familiar, it won’t hurt to take a quick refresher course.

In mechanical engineering, the transmission is the middleman between a power source and its specific application. In this context, your engine is the former, and the speed and torque of your vehicle are the latter.

Automotive engines are mighty feats of engineering. Without a system in place, it’s impossible for you to control your vehicle. That’s where the transmission comes in.

Through using gear ratios, it distributes power to the components that are responsible for turning your wheels: the differentials. This way, you have the optimal speed and torque for any driving situation.

For instance, if you’re on the highway, your wheels need to rotate rapidly. However, you won’t need too much torque, as the vehicle is already moving quickly.

In contrast, your car needs a lot of torque to get into motion. Speed isn’t necessary, as you don’t want this motion to be sudden or jerking.

What Are Gear Ratios?

Gear ratios are the heart of the whole operation.

There are multiple gears of varying sizes that move with each other, located in the gearbox. They’re kept lubricated by either oil or transmission fluid.

There are two types of gears: input and output. To calculate the ratio, you take the number of teeth from the output gear and divide it by the same figure for the input gear.

Let’s say an input unit has 20 teeth and the output has 10. The unit with fewer teeth must rotate twice to spin the larger unit once. So, the value of the ratio is 1:2. You’ll typically see this simplified to show how many times the smaller unit has to rotate: 0.5:1.

The ratios are dependent on the gear: for example, first, second, third, etc.

A typical automatic transmission car has neutral, park, forward and reverse selectors. Changing between them is known as shifting gears. This is accomplished through the gearshift knob inside the cabin of your car.

When you’re in neutral and park, the drive wheels and engine are not connected.

Forward selectors keep the wheels rotating at your speed of choice. If you switch to reverse, they spin backward.

Lastly, shifting into park will lock your wheels in place so that they can’t turn.

What Is a Manual Transmission?

With a manual vehicle, you shift the gears yourself by moving the gear stick and shift knob into different positions. Alongside the brake and accelerator pedals, there is a third, which is known as the clutch.

You use a combination of the gearshift knob, gas pedal and clutch to drive. Movement can be smooth or bumpy, based on how well you handle these transitions.

Sidenote: If you have a manual car and want to add some personalisation, check out our guide to some of the best shift knobs on the market.

How Do Manual Transmissions Work?

Rather than overwhelm you with engineering terminology, we’ll try to keep it simple. For the purposes of this article, there’s really no need to over-complicate things, anyways.

This is what happens internally and externally when you drive a manual car:

  • Engaging the clutch.
  • Moving into first.
  • Countershaft spins.
  • Synchronizer collar activates.
  • Start moving.
  • Speeding up.
  • Reversing at a standstill.

Engaging the Clutch

The clutch sits between your engine and transmission. Every time you change gears, you need to engage this pedal.

To start your motor, you have to keep your foot on the clutch. Then, you switch the ignition—still ensuring your foot is pressed on the pedal.

This way, power is transmitted from the input shaft to the transmission. Your motor will be running without powering the entire vehicle.

Note: most modern vehicles require the clutch to be engaged to start the engine. This isn’t always the case, so many drivers are accustomed to not using the clutch when starting the engine.

Shifting into First

To start moving, you need to switch into first gear while pressing on the accelerator. If you lift your foot from the clutch too soon, the vehicle will stall.

Inside the gearbox, the shifting rod moves the shifting fork into first gear. In turn, first is mounted with ball bearings into the output shaft.

It’s also connected to a gear that is attached to your vehicle’s countershaft. This part is directly attached to your motor’s input shaft; spinning at the same rate as it does do.

Synchronizer Collar Activates

The synchronizer collar plays two roles.

First of all, it allows whichever gear you’re in (first, in this example) to connect into the output shaft.

Secondly, it syncs the selector you’ve chosen to the output shaft speed. Once this happens, your automobile is ready to move.

Start Moving

To get into motion, you need to apply light pressure to the gas pedal while simultaneously removing your foot from the clutch.

Now, there’s power between the transmission and your engine. As long as you didn’t do this too quickly and stall the car, you’ll move forward.

Speeding Up

As you speed up, the process repeats itself with higher gears. Each time you move up (e.g., from first to second, second to third), you must use the clutch.

Similarly, when decreasing speed, you have to do the same.

Pushing down hard on the accelerator in the wrong gear won’t make any noticeable difference in speed. The input shaft will spin rapidly without increasing the ratios needed to drive at a faster pace.

Reversing at a Standstill

You won’t be able to reverse if the car is already moving. This is because the reverse mechanism isn’t consistently enmeshed into the countershaft like the others.

The countershaft cannot be spinning to be able to engage reverse. If you attempt to force this, you can damage the system.

What Are the Pros of Manual Transmissions?

You may be thinking that this type of car sounds challenging to drive, but this isn’t the case for many people.

There are still many upsides you should know about when it comes to driving manual transmission vehicles, most notable of which being:

  • Older models tend to be more fuel efficient.
  • Lower purchase price.
  • Hands-on control.
  • Can enhance focus while driving.
  • Reduced maintenance costs.
  • Ability to drive any car, anywhere.

Older Models Tend to Be More Fuel Efficient

There was a time when automatic vehicles were relatively new and still evolving. They were less efficient, consuming more fuel than their manual counterparts.

If you’re specifically looking for a make and model of car that’s older, this may be worth considering.

Nowadays, both types are roughly the same in terms of fuel efficiency, thanks to advances in technology.

Lower Purchase Price

Usually, you will find that the same model of car is less costly if it’s a manual transmission one.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all manufacturers, but does with most.

Hands-On Control

Some drivers prefer to experience hands-on control while on the road.

This type of transmission is the ideal choice in this instance. When choosing manual, you’ll be directly involved with every gear change; you make all the decisions.

Can Enhance Focus While Driving

There’s no doubt that focus is essential when driving. You can’t let your mind wander from the task at hand, or you’ll end up stalling your car, or – even worse – getting involved in an accident.

One study monitored the concentration levels of adolescents with ADHD while driving. The subjects reported that they paid more attention while operating a manual transmission vehicle.

Plus, their driving habits were safer than those who operated automatic transmission vehicles.

Reduced Maintenance Costs

There’s a reason manual transmission vehicles are also known as standard shifts—they’ve been around for years.

From a repair perspective, the system isn’t too complex. If the entire transmission needs replacing, it will be less expensive.

Ability to Drive Any Car, Anywhere

In Europe, manual vehicles are the clear winner. In 2012, only 2.6 million automatic cars were produced, as opposed to 11.6 million standard transmission vehicles.

Should you decide to travel or move abroad, keep this in mind. You will also find that renting a car tends to be easier: if automatics aren’t available, you’ll be able to manage and get by.

Besides, you have the advantage of being able to drive almost any vehicle out there.

Imagine you’re the passenger in a car where the driver needs a break or needs you to take over for emergency health reasons. As long as you’re covered by insurance, you can take over without a problem.

What Are the Cons of Manual Transmissions?

Despite the positives they have to offer, there are downsides to driving manual transmission vehicles, which is to be expected.

Despite the fact that controlling the vehicle requires constant attention and focus, the drawbacks are:

  • More difficult to learn.
  • Not disability-friendly.
  • Risk of stalling.
  • Effort-intensive for extreme driving conditions.

More Difficult to Learn

You have to learn to coordinate very well, releasing and engaging the clutch while working the gas. At the same time, you’re going to be shifting gears, handling the brake and accelerator, and steering.

There’s a balancing act involved in this, and it takes time to adapt to handling all these activities at once.

All that said and done, you may not master driving as quickly as you’d like.

Not Disability-Friendly

Individuals with physical impairments will find that these vehicles aren’t exactly disability friendly.

As a matter of fact, this problem is one of the main factors that prompted the invention of automatic cars.

It’s tricky to operate all three pedals if you have limited mobility in one or both legs. You need to keep one hand on the wheel at all times.

Switching gears one-handed leaves the car momentarily without a driver. Considering you’ll be changing your speed often as you drive, this can be very dangerous.

Risk of Stalling

When you’re starting out, stalling will likely happen frequently. This is a natural part of the learning process as you get used to working with the clutch.

Some people can brush off these incidents without an issue. For others, though, holding up traffic or taking too long to get your car moving in public might be too much stress to handle.

Effort-Intensive for Extreme Driving Conditions

Braking or changing gears means careful engagement and disengagement of the clutch.

Do you find yourself trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic every day? Does the area you live in have a lot of slopes?

These conditions won’t allow you to sit back and relax. You’ll be obliged to keep one hand on the gearshift knob and your foot on the clutch almost constantly.

If this sounds frustrating or unbearable to you, a manual transmission car won’t be suitable for you, and you’ll be better off driving an automatic.

What Is an Automatic Transmission?

The description is in the name, really: These models do the bulk of the work for you, shifting gears as needed. Your only job is to handle steering, braking and accelerating.

How Does an Automatic Transmission Work?

When driving a manual transmission vehicle, you’re in control of the gear ratio. With automatic cars, it’s out of your hands.

Hydraulic systems are the most common. We’ve detailed the simplified principles of how automatic transmission cars work below:

  • Switch on the ignition.
  • Begin to accelerate.
  • Automatic shifting.

Switch on the Ignition

Once you turn the key in the ignition, the torque converter takes action. This component serves the same function as a clutch.

It disconnects the transmission from your motor so that there is power without motion. The torque converter also multiplies your car’s torque output.

Begin to Accelerate

As you accelerate, the turbine within the torque converter spins a central shaft.

This shaft, attached to the transmission, spins the first set of planetary gears.

Automatic Shifting

The magic of automatic shifting occurs thanks to planetary gears, consisting of the sun in the middle and surrounding “planets.” An external ring encircles them all.

The planet gears orbit and spin around the sun, and are constantly enmeshed with the ring, which has internal teeth.

Brake pads, brake bands and clutches are connected to the planetary system. The brake bands are operated hydraulically, while clutches can be powered electronically, hydraulically, mechanically, or all three. There’s also a ‘neutral safety switch‘ that ensures the car can be started safely in neutral, with no chance of the car starting while in drive or reverse.

These parts hold some gears stationary, while allowing others to move. This is determined by the speed and torque required. One single planetary system has five forward drive levels, as well as reverse.

What Are the Pros of Automatic Transmission?

A few advantages of going automatic are obvious; while some others you may not have thought about before.

The pros of driving an automatic transmission vehicle are as follows:

  • Easier to handle.
  • Safer for less confident and senior drivers.
  • Less likely to stall.
  • Great for difficult driving conditions.

Easier to Learn

Automatics are undoubtedly easier to learn.

There’s less multitasking—all you have to do is get used to handling the car itself, and you should be good to go (as long as you know how to drive, of course).

Safer for Less Confident, Disabled and Senior Drivers

Some people never come to enjoy driving. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if this your circumstance, why make things more difficult by having to work with a manual transmission?

On the same note, as we age, our physical abilities take a dip. Joint pain and stiffness, arthritis and related conditions can impact driving skills.

We’ll start to need all the help we can get, and it’s safer to drive an automatic car in these circumstances.

Disabled individuals will also find that automatic transmission vehicles are infinitely easier to drive.

Less Likely to Stall

The risk of stalling is (almost) nonexistent if you’re driving an automatic transmission car.

Remember, the transmission is handling the gear changes for you, and it’s not the other way around. It’s much less likely to make a mistake than an inexperienced driver is when trying to operate a clutch.

Great for Difficult Driving Conditions

In traffic, you can let your mind drift off instead of keeping your hands and feet engaged at all times. Stopping and starting repeatedly won’t be as tiresome.

Uphill driving won’t be any different from going over flat ground—or at least, not for you. The transmission will be regulating everything for optimal torque and speed.

What Are the Cons of Automatic Transmission?

It’s not all butterfilies and rainbows when driving automatic transmission vehicles, though.

The downsides that you need to be aware of are:

  • The purchase price can be higher.
  • Older vehicles may be less fuel conservative.
  • Costlier maintenance if something breaks.
  • Inability to drive manual transmissions.

Purchase Price Can Be Higher

Some car manufacturers may charge extra for the privilege of having an automatic transmission.

In some cases, your dream model may be out of your price range unless you opt for a manual.

Older Vehicles May Be Less Fuel Conservative

Don’t forget that this transmission type has undergone significant advancement over the years.

If you buy an older vehicle, it may not be as economic fuel-wise.

Costlier Maintenance if Something Breaks

We only skimmed over the surface of how this transmission works. However, you may have already noticed that it’s far more complicated than its manual counterpart.

This won’t bode well if something malfunctions or breaks down. Repairs and replacements will almost always be costlier.

Inability to Drive Manual Transmissions

Many people across the United States choose to learn and stick with automatic transmissions.

Unfortunately, if you’re one of those people, chances are you won’t be able to handle a standard shift if the situation arises and you have absolutely no other choice.

When you travel to manual-friendly countries, renting a car could be troublesome. Automatics may be unavailable, or might cost more than you’re able to spend.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmission: Wrapping it Up

If you’ve made it this far, you now know everything you need to know to help you choose between a manual or an automatic transmission in the next car you’re going to buy.

Even if you’re not in the market for a new vehicle at this time, it’s still good knowledge to learn about all the differences and similarities between the two.

One is not necessarily worse or better; at the end of the day, it varies based on your specific needs and what works best for you.

Drivers who want to have as much control over their vehicles and enjoy a challenge may prefer to operate manual transmission vehicles.

On the other hand, those of you who want a car that does most of the work for you will most probably prefer to operate an automatic transmission vehicle.

Regardless of which of the two you end up choosing, we believe it’s extremely important for everyone to at least learn how to drive a manual transmission vehicle.

You never know when you’ll need to do this because you have no other choice in the middle of an emergency, and if you’re not prepared for it, you’ll be in trouble.

At the bare minimum, we recommend new drivers give standard shift a chance. You may find the alternative more appealing, but at least you’ll have given it a try!

Kyle Palmer

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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