Manual vs Automatic Gearbox

Manual vs automatic cars: which should I buy?

Is a manual or an automatic car the right choice for you? Here’s our guide to the key differences and the pros and cons of each.

Evolving tastes and technical advances mean that more cars than ever are available with automatic gearboxes and there are a huge range of brilliant used automatic cars to choose from. But what’s different about an automatic car? Is it better than a manual? Should you consider buying one and what types of automatic gearboxes are there? To help you answer all these questions and more, here’s our no-nonsense guide.

What’s the difference between a manual and an automatic car?

In a manual car you change gear yourself. In an automatic, the car changes gear for you. 

With a manual, you’ll have a clutch pedal and a gear lever. You change gear by simultaneously pressing the clutch pedal and shifting the gear stick, working your way up and down through the gears as necessary. 

An automatic car, by contrast, changes gear for you. There are just two pedals and when you want to move off, you simply move the gear selector into ‘D’ (for Drive) – or ‘R’ (for Reverse). Once the car’s in ‘D’, you don’t need to touch the gear selector at all if you don’t want to. 

What are the pros and cons of manual and automatic gearboxes?

Manual gearboxes give you more control and if you enjoy driving that might be appealing because it’ll make you feel more involved in the process. Manual gearboxes are mechanically simpler, so a manual car almost always costs less to buy than an automatic. 

The main benefit of an automatic gearbox is that it’s easier to use, since you don’t have to worry about whether you’re in the right gear. They also require less physical effort because you don’t have to push a clutch pedal in and out all the time or move the gear stick around. 

Traditional automatic gearboxes tend to give you slightly worse fuel economy (and therefore higher CO2 emissions) than a manual gearbox. Some automatic cars can change gear more efficiently than a human, however, which in turn makes them more fuel-efficient than their manual equivalents.

Is an automatic or manual car better?

That depends on your priorities. Automatics tend to work better if you do lots of driving in slow traffic, because you don’t have to work the clutch all the time. Likewise, automatics can take some of the stress out of city driving, where constant stopping and starting is often the norm.

You might also find manuals difficult to drive if you have a health condition or disability that restricts movement in your left leg. If that’s the case, an automatic will probably be worth the extra expense.

Is an automatic or manual gearbox more reliable?

Some automatic gearboxes will last for decades and possibly outlive some manual gearboxes. On the whole though, automatic cars are a little more complicated and the extra electronics and mechanical parts they require mean there’s more that can go wrong. Generally speaking manual cars tend to last longer, although that isn’t always the case. As with any car, proper maintenance plays a key role in longevity.

Are there certain cars that are more likely to have a manual or automatic gearbox?

Yes. Automatics are still considered a bit of a luxury, so as a general rule the more luxurious the car the more likely it is to have an automatic gearbox. You’ll also find that electric and hybrid cars are, almost without exception, fitted with automatic gearboxes. By contrast, lower-cost cars tend to come with manual gearboxes, as do some sportier cars.

Why are some cars only available with an automatic gearbox?

In the case of electric and hybrid cars, it’s because an automatic gearbox is much easier to combine with the electric motors used. With the more luxurious models, the vast majority of buyers want an automatic so there’s no business case for manufacturers to make manual versions.

What different types of automatic gearbox are there?

A traditional automatic gearbox has something called a ‘torque converter’ that uses hydraulic fluid to allow it to shift smoothly between pre-defined gears. This type of gearbox has been around for a long time and these tend to be the smoothest yet least fuel-efficient automatic option. Confusingly, car manufacturers often have their own name for this type of gearbox – BMW uses the name ‘Steptronic’, for example, while Audi goes with ‘Tiptronic’.

As an alternative, some (often smaller) cars are available with an ‘automated manual’ gearbox. This is exactly what it sounds like. The starting point is a standard manual gearbox but instead of you operating the clutch and changing gear, the car’s electronics do it for you. From inside the car, you operate it just like a traditional automatic – there’s no clutch pedal, and a normal automatic gear selector. This type of gearbox is usually a cheaper and more fuel-efficient option than a traditional automatic gearbox but they often aren’t as smooth, especially if you want the car to accelerate in a hurry. Manufacturer names for this  type of gearbox include ASG (Seat,Skoda,VW), AGS (Suzuki) and Dualogic (Fiat). 

What is a semi-automatic gearbox?

Another option you might see is a “twin-clutch” or "semi-automatic" gearbox. This goes by brand names such as DSG (Seat, Skoda,VW), S-Tronic (Audi), PDK (Porsche) and DCT (Kia). This works in a similar way to an automated manual gearbox, but gets around its key flaws by having a second internal clutch. As a result, it can get the next gear ready for you, so that it changes gear very quickly. This type of gearbox is quite common among sporty cars, and often gives better fuel economy than a manual equivalent. They’re generally not quite as smooth as cars with a ‘traditional’ automatic gearbox.

Finally, there’s a CVT gearbox, which stands for “continuously variable transmission”. These don’t have individual gears at all. Instead, a system of belts and cones inside the gearbox allows them to vary the gear ratio continuously. This makes for smooth, seamless acceleration and fuel-efficient driving. It causes the engine to rev constantly during acceleration, however, so this can lead to more noise in the interior than with other types of gearbox. Brand names for CVT automatic gearboxes include Multitronic (Audi), Xtronic (Nissan) and Direct Shift (Toyota).

Can I change gear in an automatic?

Yes. Most automatic gearboxes, regardless of type, allow you to select gear ratios manually using the gear selector or buttons or paddles on the steering wheel (or steering column). You might want to drop down a gear for faster acceleration, for example, or to help when going up or down a steep hill.

Many automatic gearboxes also allow you to select different automatic modes (such as ‘sport’ or ‘winter’ settings) to give you a bit more control over how and when changes are made.

Hopefully our guide will have helped you to work out whether you want to buy an automatic or a manual as your next car. You’ll find a huge range of both for sale at Cazoo and you can use our search tool to narrow down your choice. Just click on the ‘Gearbox & Engine’ tab and you can choose to look at only manual cars or only automatic cars. Find the right one for you, then buy online and either have it delivered to your door or choose to collect it from one of our Customer Centres.

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