Manual vs automatic cars: which is better?

Cameron Tait

29 Jul 2021

1/5
Manual, automatic, DSG, sequential, Steptronic, Multitronic, CVT – what does it all mean and which is best? We're here to help explain which is the right choice for you.

It's easy to get confused when it comes to gearboxes. Manual gearboxes come with different numbers of gears, sure, but they all pretty much operate in the same way. It's the numerous different automatic gearboxes on offer that can be tricky to get your head around. DSG, Multitronic, Steptronic, sequential, Powershift, S tronic – the list goes on and on.


So, what are the key differences between manual and automatic cars? And which one should you go for depending on the type of driving you do?


What is a manual gearbox?


A manual car is where you have to manually change gears, with the car offering zero assistance if you can’t quite figure it out. That means if you set off in first and don’t manually change gear, you’ll continue heading down the road bouncing off the rev limiter.


Manual cars come with three pedals: accelerator, brake and clutch. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the third can be a little confusing for lifelong automatic drivers.


"Because you're actively involved in the process of changing gear it's naturally more mechanical. If you enjoy driving, especially in a performance-orientated car, you'll probably prefer a manual gearbox."


You’ll need to press the clutch and release the accelerator every time you want to change gear. After activating a new gear, you then need to release the clutch while at the same time gradually increasing the power as you look for the bite point.


It sounds difficult on paper and takes some getting used to, but the manual gearbox is still the most popular transmission in the UK despite a lot of new vehicles only being offered with automatic transmissions.


Because you're actively involved in the process of changing gear it's naturally more mechanical. If you enjoy driving, especially in a performance-orientated car, you'll probably prefer a manual gearbox.


So what is an automatic car then?


Simply put, an automatic transmission changes gears so you don’t have to. There’s no clutch pedal, as a computer activates that for you, so all you need to worry about is the accelerator and brake pedals.


Automatic cars are not all the same, but most have a small lever in the centre console that can be used to select different drive modes. These are typically:


P – Park

R – Reverse

N – Neutral

D – Drive


Some will even come with a manual option that lets you override the computer. It’s not nearly as accurate or as engaging as a real manual gearbox, but it can help you control the car better when going for an overtake.


"All-told, more and more cars are being sold in automatic form because they're easier to drive, often more fuel-efficient these days and work best with the latest safety radar tech."


It’s also worth noting that you can take a special automatic licence when taking your driving test. It’s handy for those who struggle to find the fun in driving, but it means you won’t be able to drive a manual car in the future. However, a manual licence does cover you for an automatic car.


All-told, more and more cars are being sold in automatic form because they're easier to drive, often more fuel-efficient these days and work best with the latest safety radar tech.


What about a semi-automatic?


A semi-automatic gearbox allows you to override the car’s automatic ‘box and change gears yourself, usually through a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel. The semi-automatic gearbox has changed significantly over the years, with some people simply referring to them as automatic transmissions given how refined they are in auto mode.


Examples of semi-automatic transmissions include the dual-clutch gearbox (DSG) primarily used by the Volkswagen Group, as well as BMW’s DCT and McLaren’s SSG.


Like an automatic box, there’s no manual clutch in a semi-auto. Changing gear is as simple as pulling a paddle, with changes being near-instant. You’ll often find these gearboxes in performance cars like the Porsche 911 GT3 RS and the McLaren range.



So automatic is easier and therefore better, right?


Well, that really depends. Automatic gearboxes are incredibly handy if you just want to get from points A to B as easily and trouble-free as possible. They’re also nifty in traffic and when moving around a city, as you don’t need to keep engaging and releasing the clutch.


While they’re convenient and smooth, they can sometimes be less fuel-efficient as the equivalent manual and they’re not always as responsive to ‘manual’ gearchanges as a semi-auto. Crucially, though, some people find automatic cars aren’t as engaging as manual models.


And that leads us to the benefits of manual transmissions. Yes, they’re beloved by driving lovers because they offer a greater sense of engagement, but some people simply like a manual ‘box as it gives them more control over the vehicle. And, with the right person behind the wheel, they can be more fuel-efficient than an auto.


But many find manual cars too complicated and unnecessary, and it’s hard to argue with them. If you’re not a fan of driving, an automatic gearbox might be the option to go for.


The semi-auto gearbox, meanwhile, is a bit of a jack of all trades. It offers a better manual override and can be put into a fully automatic mode. And, for lovers of performance cars, a vehicle equipped with a semi-auto will be faster around a circuit than one fitted with a manual ‘box.


In summary, a manual is the best option for driver engagement, an automatic is perfect for those looking for a simple driving experience and a semi-auto provides smooth gear changes with the option to shift manually.


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Cameron Tait

29 Jul 2021