Manual vs Automatic: Which Is Better?

Automatic cars are getting ever more popular. Over in the USA just 4% of cars were manual. Here in Ireland and most of Europe it’s a different story, where there are two-thirds more manual cars than automatics. But that trend is starting to change and many people switching cars each year are considering the change themselves. But is one better than the other, and which should you get?

How do they work.

Manual cars, also called stick shift in popular culture, are far more common across Europe. They have a numbered gearstick in between the two front seats ranging from 5 to 6 gears, plus another called R for reverse. You have three pedals at your feet, the brake and accelerator and also a clutch pedal on the left. When you move into first or between a gear you press the clutch pedal down which temporarily disconnects the gears from the engine, allowing you to change into another gear. As you release the clutch the engine will reconnect to the new gear and continue powering your car. This might sound difficult and complicated to master but it becomes second nature to all drivers very quickly.

Automatic cars work exactly the same way, with just one difference. There’s still a clutch inside the car which needs to be pressed to allow the new gear to be selected. The only difference is the car decides when to change and changes that gear for you. There’s no clutch pedal at your feet as you don’t need one. Instead of a gear stick in between the front seats there’s a gear selector. This will have P for park, N for Neutral, D for Drive and R for Reverse.

Which is easier to drive.

When you first learn to drive a manual it can be hard to get the balance of the clutch right and not stall the car. It’s often the most frustrating part but that’s mostly because it’s the first thing you have to learn. Once you get the hang of it they become second nature and you can get into any car with a manual and immediately know the feel of using the clutch.

However automatics are easier to learn at the start. Only when you start or want to reverse do you need to worry about changing gears, which is as simple as pushing the selector forward or back.

Which is more efficient

Automatic cars used to be less fuel efficient, and this is still the case if you’re thinking of buying an older used one. The heavier automatic transmission as well as slightly dumber computers deciding when to change gear regardless of road condition meant a manual car was anywhere from 5 to 20% more efficient when driven correctly.

These days the tables have turned decisively. Modern automatic cars, and especially hybrids, have very smart computers trained with years of driving to know exactly when to change gears and can do it much quicker than before. For most people an automatic car will be more fuel efficient.

Which is more expensive.

Automatic cars hit your wallet two-fold. They’re more expensive to buy than a manual, often by €1000 or more as the cost of the larger, more complex transmission really bumps up the price.

On top of this an automatic car requires more frequent and more expensive maintenance than a manual. As a manual is a fairly straightforward piece of kit the maintenance for it is common and well understood. For an automatic most of the components are hidden away inside the automatic transmission and need more work just to get at them.

Which should I choose?

Which to choose depends a lot on your driving. If you’re often stuck in long stop-start city traffic it can be a pain, figuratively and literally, to constantly clutch and change from neutral to first gear and back again, for up to an hour straight. This is where an automatic car really shines. In this traffic you can leave an automatic in drive, and use your brake pedal only. The car will slowly move forward on its own when you release the brake.

On top of city driving an automatic has another benefit, easier hill starts. The dread of any novice starting off they’re tricky to master. Releasing the clutch and getting on the accelerator while releasing the handbrake at exactly the right time. With an automatic just put the car in drive and let go of the brake and the car will move forward.

Although this issue is becoming less common these days as many cars have hill-start assist, which will hold the car for you momentarily while you get on the accelerator.

Final thoughts

For most people an automatic is the simplest and easiest option. But it does leave you with less control over your car. An automatic might shift up a gear just when you want to shift down and overtake, leaving you stuck with no acceleration. This isn’t an issue for most people who aren’t racing drivers or hell-bent on getting to work just one minute quicker.

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