One of the big questions to ask yourself when looking for your next car is whether you want a manual or automatic gearbox. In which case, you may well be wondering exactly what the difference is between the two, what the pros and cons of each are and whether there are different types of automatic gearbox. To help you answer all that and more, here’s our no-nonsense guide.
What’s the difference between a manual and an automatic gearbox?
In a car with a manual gearbox, you change gear yourself. In an automatic, the gearbox changes gear for you.
With a manual, there’s a clutch pedal to the left of the accelerator and brake, and a gear stick between the front seats. You change gear by simultaneously pressing the clutch and shifting the gear stick, working your way up and down the gears as necessary.
By contrast, an automatic changes gear for you. There’s just the accelerator and brake pedal, and a gear selector between the front seats or behind the steering wheel. When you want to start driving, you simply shift the gear selector to D (drive), or R (reverse). Once on the move, you don’t need to touch the gear selector again until you want to change direction or come to a stop and want to shift into N (neutral) or P (park).
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What are the pros and cons of manual and automatic gearboxes?
Manual gearboxes can give you more control over the car because you decide which gear is needed at any given moment. They’re great if you enjoy driving because the process of changing gear makes you feel more involved with the workings of the car. Cars with a manual gearbox also tend to be more fuel-efficient than automatics and often cost less to buy.
The main advantage of an automatic gearbox is that it makes a car easier to drive because you don’t have to put in the physical effort of changing gear. That could be crucial if you do a lot of town driving or have restricted movement. Some cars aren’t even available with a manual gearbox, like a luxury car or a hybrid. On the other hand, some automatics tend to be less fuel-efficient than the manual equivalent and can cost more.
Is a manual or automatic car better?
That depends on your priorities. If you really enjoy driving and enjoy the engagement factor of changing gears yourself, or want a lower purchase price, a manual car may be better for you. But if you want a car that’s less effort to drive and don’t mind paying the higher price, an automatic should suit you well.
Is an automatic or manual gearbox more reliable?
As a rule of thumb, the simpler a car is, the more reliable it’s likely to be. A manual gearbox is a less complex piece of hardware than an automatic, which can have all sorts of electronics and hydraulics that change the gears within the gearbox. That said, there are lots of makes and models of gearbox and many variables that can affect reliability. Whether you have a manual or an automatic, having the car serviced regularly is key to making it last.
Are there certain cars that are more likely to have a manual or automatic gearbox?
Generally speaking, cars that cost more than £40,000 when new are likely to have an automatic gearbox. There are two main reasons for that: cars at that level have more powerful engines that tend to work better with an automatic, and buyers with that kind of money to spend tend to prefer them. All hybrid and electric cars are automatics too. But there are exceptions in the £40,000-plus bracket, particularly sports cars that focus on being fun to drive.
Below that £40,000 point, it’s more likely that a car will have a manual gearbox. Again, there are exceptions because automatics are increasingly popular, so there are lots of lower-cost options. But at this price level, an automatic is likely to be available as an option, rather than a standard feature.
What different types of automatic gearbox are there?
Though all automatic gearboxes are broadly the same in how you operate them, there are actually several types of automatic gearbox that work in different ways.
The most common is the torque converter gearbox, which uses hydraulics to change gear as smoothly as possible.
Continuously variable transmission (CVT) gearboxes don’t have gears as such. Instead, they have belts that move up and down a set of cones as the car’s speed rises and falls, effectively giving a limitless number of gears.
Automated manual gearboxes, as the name suggests, are essentially the same as a manual but have electric motors that change gear for you when needed, so there’s no clutch pedal. Dual-clutch gearboxes work in much the same way but have two clutches – including one that’s always primed to change into the next gear which results in a faster, smoother gear change.
What is a semi-automatic gearbox?
You might occasionally see automated manual and dual-clutch automatic gearboxes referred to as semi-automatics, because they combine elements of both manual and automatic gearboxes. They’re automatic in that they don’t have a clutch pedal and use electric motors inside the gearbox to change gear automatically. Otherwise, they are mechanically the same as a manual gearbox.
Can I change gear in an automatic?
Most automatic gearboxes have a function or mode that allows you to change gear yourself if you want to, using buttons or levers, known as paddles, behind the steering wheel or with the gear stick. How you get into manual mode depends on what kind of gear selector your car has.
If your car has gear-changing buttons, you simply push them to change gear as needed. The button with a ‘+’ sign shifts up a gear, the button with a ‘-’ sign shifts down. It’s the same principle with paddles, which are usually mounted on the back of the steering wheel.
If your car has a stick selector, you move it into the position marked ‘M’ (manual) or ‘S’ (sport). There will also be ‘+’ and ‘-’ signs indicating which way you move the stick to change gear when needed.
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