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.
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.”
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.
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.
They are almost always less expensive both to buy and maintain.
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.