Automatic vs manual gearboxes

Help with choosing your car's transmission: automatic vs manual gearboxes

BuyaCar team
Mar 16, 2018

Here in the UK, we’ve traditionally been manual users. Pretty much since the invention of the motor vehicle, we Brits have preferred to tell the car what to do. Generally, in most other countries, and especially in America, automatics far outweigh manuals though.

But the tide here is turning. Thanks to technological innovtations, automatic gearboxes are becoming better and better. Most modern automatic gearboxes are nearly as frugal as their manual counterparts too.

And Brits are wising up to the charms of autos, at least according to sales statistics. More than 600,000 automatics were registered in 2016 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, up by 50 per cent from 2013.

Manual lovers will tell you that the control they have over their car is inherent in their enjoyment of it, while automatic users will explain how easy it is to drive in heavy traffic without a pesky clutch wearing out your left leg.

But which one is best for you?     

Manual gearbox

What is a manual gearbox?

It’s a gearbox that you change yourself. You select different gears using the gearlever and a foot-operated clutch, which separates the engine from the gearbox to avoid the gears grinding when you change them.

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Manual gearbox advantages

A manual gearbox gives you complete control over the gears you use and when you select them. So, for instance, if you can see you need to slow down for a junction, you might remain in the same gear rather than changing up to a higher one as an automatic might.

With practice, you learn to be in the right gear for the speed the car is travelling at, so saving fuel, and reducing wear and tear on the engine and the car’s mechanicals. A manual gearbox is also a relatively simple device that rarely gives trouble. It’s also cheap to make which is why manual cars are less expensive than automatics.

Manual gearbox disadvantages

It can take a lot of practise to get your changes right without ‘crashing’ the gears or picking the wrong one. Operating a manual gearbox is just one more thing to think about.

The clutch eventually wears out and can be expensive to replace. It’s still possible to slip up and buy a car with five gears that’s less economical and noisier at speed than one with six.

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Automatic gearbox

What is an automatic gearbox?

Generally the term ‘automatic gearbox’ refers to a design that uses a complicated arrangement of mechanical parts to change gear without any driver input.

If you want more performance, you push the accelerator and the gearbox changes down a gear. 

Automatic gearbox advantages 

Simply, it saves you the trouble of changing gear yourself. Because there’s no clutch pedal you can rest your left foot and use your right to brake or accelerate. 

If you want to get a move on, an automatic will launch itself from the traffic lights quickly because drive is instant and there’s less loss of momentum between gear changes. Also, you can select a Sport mode that makes the gearbox more responsive or even change gears manually using the shift lever or ‘paddles’ on the steering wheel.

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Automatic gearbox disadvantages

Automatic gearboxes can be inefficient and reduce fuel economy. Automatics are complex, too, and can be expensive to repair.

Types of automatic gearbox

Hydraulic automatic gearbox

This type of automatic gearbox has been used for decades and uses what's called a torque converter to operate. 

Hydraulic automatic gearbox advantages

These gearbox shift smoothly and you can barely tell when they move from one gear to another in the very best - such as those used in Jaguars and Land Rovers

Hydraulic gearbox disadvantages

This type of automatic can be inefficient, increasing fuel consumption. It can also be slow to react when you want to accelerate and need it to change to a lower gear.

Dual-clutch transmission (DCT)

Also called an automatic, this type of gearbox is a popular fitment on Volkswagen Group vehicles where it’s called DSG or on Audis, S tronic. It uses two conventional clutches to engage and disengage drive while selecting the gears, all of it automatically.

Some systems have as many as seven forward gears. You can select different performance modes to change the way the ’box operates and, like a hydraulic automatic, change gears using the shift lever or on sporty models, steering wheel paddles.

Advantages There’s no clutch pedal, so you can rest your left foot. Changes are much faster than a manual. Because it’s a mechanical rather than hydraulic system, it’s more efficient. Not only that, because changes are controlled by a computer, the gearbox is always in the optimum gear, which also increases efficiency and saves fuel.

Disadvantages Because it’s mechanical rather than hydraulic, a DCT isn't as smooth as a traditional automatic gearbox. It can be slow to engage first gear, too, resulting in a jerky ‘launch’. They are very complex and there have been reliability issues in the past.

Semi-automatic or automated-manual transmission

This type of automatic gearbox uses sensors and actuators to operate a clutch. It’s a popular fitment on Peugeot and Citroen cars where it’s called the Efficient Tronic Gearbox, or ETG for short. It relies on highly complex electronics to function but its advocates claim it feels more direct than even a DCT system while delivering similar levels of fuel economy. Like other automatics it can be manually operated using the shift lever or steering wheel paddles.

Advantages There’s no clutch pedal so you can rest your left foot. You can use it just like a manual gearbox. It an efficient system that can help to save fuel.

Disadvantages It’s very complex and changes can be jerky because the system takes its time to select the next gear. They’re rare, too.


Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

This system uses two moving cones and a rubber belt riding over them to achieve a kind of infinitely changing gear ratio. It’s quite simple but not very widespread. That said, it’s common in hybrid cars

Advantages It’s efficient. A car with a CVT gearbox is often just as economical as one with a manual. For example, the Nissan Qashqai 1.2 DIG-T 115PS manual and Xtronic CVT each do 50.4mpg. A CVT is easy to drive because there’s no clutch pedal to operate.

Disadvantages A CVT isn't as responsive as a DCT gearbox. Because of the way it operates, it sounds like it’s stuck in the same gear with the engine just getting noisier. It can be tiring on long journeys.

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