Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions: Who’s Winning?


And why do American preferences differ from the rest of the world?

Manual vs. automatic gear shift
6 min read

The sibling rivalry between automatic and manual transmissions has raged in the U.S. since automatics were first introduced to the market by General Motors in 1940, and drivers often have strong opinions about which is superior.

At last count, just 3.9 percent of cars sold in U.S. were built with manual transmissions, but in the rest of the world, manual transmissions are still overwhelmingly the top choice. In Europe and Japan, for example, more than 80 percent of cars sold have manual transmissions.

Still, automatic vehicles are becoming more and more ubiquitous in the U.S. Just 30 years ago, 71 percent of vehicles on American roads had automatic transmissions, and today it’s more than 96 percent. Further, Edmunds.com reported that 67 percent of car models manufactured for the 2013 model year were only available with automatic transmissions.

So while die-hard car enthusiasts who love every aspect of driving and people just looking to get from A to B quickly continue to argue over which transmission option is better, we thought we’d offer some updated info about the manual vs. automatic battle and which transmission type wins out in the following three categories:

1: Fuel Economy

When automatic transmissions first came to the market in the 1940s, auto manufacturers selling manual transmissions fought back by touting their vehicles’ superior fuel economy—and they were right. This was due to the heavier weight of automatic transmissions and the inherent drivetrain loss associated, Austin-based mechanic Evan Pokorny says. But, writes Edmunds.com, with the technological advancement of automatic transmissions (namely added gears, which allows the engine to operate closer to its peak efficency longer), the differences in fuel economy are smaller, and in some cases, almost negligible. The manual version of the 2014 Chevrolet Cruz Eco, for example, will save owners about $100 per year over the automatic version—not exactly a windfall. And now in some vehicle models, the automatic transmission actually gets better gas mileage than the manual.

Still, Consumer Reports conducted their own research and found that manual transmissions can, in some models, improve gas mileage by 2 to 5 mpg—a significant difference.

So if it’s fuel economy you’re looking for, you’ll have to compare the automatic and manual version of each year and model you’re interested in.

Verdict: Depends on the model.

example of manual vs. automatic: Nissan Leaf dashboard

2: Performance of Manual vs. Automatic

There was a time, not too long ago, when drivers of serious, high-performance autos wouldn’t dream of choosing an automatic transmission over a manual. The control offered by manual transmissions, the 0-60 acceleration abilities, and the feeling that you’re really driving the car just couldn’t compare to automatics.

With a manual transmission, the driver has greater control: the driver can manipulate the vehicle in interesting ways, like downshifting to slow down, rather than braking. “Manual transmissions are more efficient at allowing more of the engine’s power to reach the drive wheels, which results in faster acceleration in most vehicles,” Pokorny says.

And while sports car enthusiasts in the not-so-distant past might never have considered an automatic, major luxury brands are making the switch. In fact, Ferrari no longer manufactures sports cars with manual transmissions, writes Edmunds. And Fix notes that, “Porsche, Lamborghini, and McLaren all have automatic transmissions in supercars that were once equipped with manual transmissions.” Some of these automakers argue that computer-controlled transmissions can shift faster than any human, actually improving performance. And the semi-manual clutchless shifting many of these vehicles are now outfitted with offers, for many drivers, a good compromise.

But people who truly love to drive—and truly enjoy all of the manual and mental work it entails—still disagree. Ben Stewart at Popular Mechanics writes that, “Shifting a manual transmission is not only more engaging and fun than flicking some dainty little paddles, it also requires more skill and makes the driver a better one.”

Verdict: Manuals.
For people who enjoy the task of driving, the stick shift still wins out. But when ranked strictly on performance, the type and model (and frankly, the fanciness) of the vehicle now has more to do with the results than the transmission type.

ex of manual vs. automatic: Yellow Lamborghini

3: Price

In general, cars with manual transmissions tend to be less expensive—about $8,000-12,000 cheaper, notes Consumer Reports. Shoppers will of course need to compare vehicles on a case-by-case basis, but when looking to save some green, manual is usually still the way to go.

Love to Know adds another wrinkle in the price debate: cars with manual transmissions are on the whole less expensive to repair than cars with automatic transmissions, mostly because automatics are comprised of more complicated technology than manuals. However, as any owner of a manual knows, the clutch will need to be repaired at some point, a fix that usually costs between $500 and $900 dollars. Owners of cars with automatic transmissions won’t need to worry about this particular expense.

Verdict: Manuals.
They are almost always less expensive both to buy and maintain.

ex of manual vs. automatic: Red vintage Chevy Corvette

Manuals win. Americans still don’t care.

Manuals win in two of the three comparison categories and tied in the other. So why are manual transmissions on the way out in the U.S. while holding steady in the rest of the world? The answer seems to be a combination of factors: the sheer volume of traffic in the U.S. makes manuals less practical (the stop-and-go of heavy traffic is more laborious when shifting is involved), and automatic cars are seen as (and marketed as) a luxury in the U.S., which means buyers are more attracted to them. But perhaps the biggest factor is the cost of gasoline (or petrol, if you will). Because of government subsidies, the price of gasoline is substantially lower in the U.S. than it is abroad, making small changes in fuel efficiency between transmission types really stand out—a gallon of gas in Europe can cost ten dollars or more, depending on the market.

Yet while manuals may take up a much smaller share of the market in the U.S., Americans do still seek them out. If you’re shopping for a vehicle with a manual transmission, check out Thrillist’s comprehensive and regularly updated list of all cars in the U.S. with manual transmissions.

  • deadlock

    Correct analysis. In Europe, fuel economy plays more important role. Driving manual is also often seen as macho (although not in higher end or luxury cars). America is bigger and more spread out, I guess driver comfort trumps everything else. Modern automatics have more gears which make them efficient but there’s still inherent loss of energy involved coupled with additional weight. However, the added comfort is enough to offset these disadvantages while in Europe the decision is not that easy, especially if you can save roughly $2000 (plus servicing costs) when buying a new car. For instance, where I live the country is mountainous with narrow twisty roads. Manual allows me to anticipate what kind of gear will be needed – it simply offers more control. However, it makes much less sense during daily commute on a highway.

  • Becky Price

    Good article on manual vs auto. But I have an automatic car. Above all, this is a good information. Thanks!

  • Da Homie Yosh

    I have to chip in and say in Japan and possibly Korea, automatics rein supreme there. Most cars sold and driven are automatics and young people would rather get an automatic license just because the driver education process is so hectic and long. So automatic are not only easier but because most cars sold and driven are automatics.

  • r Negoro

    Manual is definitely cheaper to maintain, buy and better on the fuel. It however depends on how you drive it, if you keep using gear 1 and 2 only while blasting your rpm, then you won’t get a good mileage. Automatics are also the choice for most people because it’s easier to sell out.

  • mickV

    Just get the automatic…. if you think continuously fiddling with that thing on the floor makes you seem ‘ macho ‘ you’re a brainless ‘ zombie ‘. Even more funny, when you’re driving a four banger with no power…you’re an embarrassment.

    Automatics… shift them into gear and forget about them. They have overdrive for higher speeds. A fluid change every so often ( opinions vary widely from extreme to extreme on this.. every manufacturer, mechanic and garage has a different opinion ) and they are good for 100K to 300K.

    Manual – Clutch, throw out bearing and other wear and tear.

    In america 97 percent of the drivers choosing automatics should tell you something…. the few who choose manuals because of cheapness or think they are the ‘ Marlboro Cowboy ” need a romantic fantasy check…or just stop watching all them fantasy car commercials on tv.

    Now I will concede the specialty cars for race car drivers where split second shifting gains you a competitive edge…. just show me your track card and you’ll get an exemption.

    • Aaron Talos

      “if you think continuously fiddling with that thing on the floor makes you seem ‘ macho ‘ you’re a brainless ‘ zombie ‘”

      Do you paint everyone with a ridiculous brush because the cognitive load of a third peddle taxes your brain too hard? Driving a manual transmission could help with that. Here’s evidence:

      Manual Transmission Enhances Attention and Driving Performance of ADHD Adolescent Males
      Pilot Study – Daniel J. Cox, Mohan Punja, Katie Powers,
      R. Lawrence Merkel, Roger Burket, Melissa Moore, Frances Thorndike, Boris Kovatchev

      http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1087054706288103

      “In america 97 percent of the drivers choosing automatics should tell you something…”

      That tells me the same thing as the percentage of people in America who voted for trump, believe climate change is a hoax, and that dinosaurs are God’s way of testing faith.

      Percentage of people who do or believe something isn’t the proof you think it is.

  • Lord Set

    If you’re doing in-city communiting and the “speed” way is never really speedy, Manual is not the practical way to go. I drive a manual and all the shifting/peddling stop go traffic plus maneuvering around many other cars all going different speeds is added stress and a pain in the butt, though perhaps I just don’t enjoy driving enough to understand the feel
    or satisfaction of a manual, I’m the practical type not the Top Gear
    type. And the fact in town you’ll always be in the lowest gears means you’ll never get the touted gas mileage. Now on the highway they do perform very well fuel-wise compared to many autos, if you have a 5th and 6th you can slip into. One seldom cited plus to a manual is if your battery dies all you have to do is give the car a push and it will start up. In the US most non performance manuals you find are the pared down “economy” version of something, “tin cans.” But if you have the option of getting the auto trans with a few more useful accessories (like air conditioning) and better quality materials that hold up better then usually you’re getting a much better deal going for the next level above the manual base model. Cars for most of us are a long term investment involving more than just the price tag, if you’re just buying cheap without investigating if it’s really best bang for the buck on multiple factors and can’t get your money back when things go wrong, you’re not getting the best deal you could get, manual or not.