When you shop for a new or pre-owned vehicle, one of the earliest decisions you must make is between manual vs. automatic transmission. Both transmission types have benefits and drawbacks that can make it difficult for anyone on the fence to choose between the two.
Learn the main differences between these transmissions — including their benefits and drawbacks — to help choose the best option for you.
Years ago, automatic transmissions were effectively classified by the number of gears they had. It was a three-, four-, or five-speed automatic, and that was about it. Today, most automatic transmissions have gear counts — some as high as 10 or 11 speeds — but there are also several types of transmissions with wholly different personalities.
The traditional automatic transmission is what many drivers have known for decades. They have a set number of gears or speeds — generally five to 10 speeds — that the transmission shifts through to keep the car moving and limit the stress on the engine.
These transmissions use a series of clutch packs and hydraulic pressure to shift through the gears.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) may seem relatively new, but it dates all the way back to 1490 — automakers Daimler and Benz didn't patent it for automotive use until 1886. Even so, it remained a relatively rare feature until Subaru popularized it in the 1980s.
Instead of gears, a CVT uses a system of chains or belts riding on cone-shaped pulleys that move to create nearly limitless gear ratios. These transmissions are known for delivering the best fuel economy.
If you want a manual transmission without needing a clutch pedal, a dual-clutch transmission (DCT), sometimes referred to as an automated manual transmission, is the best middle point.
We'll save you the engineering lesson, but this transmission essentially ditches all the clutch packs and hydraulics in an automatic and replaces them with manual-like gears set on two shafts. It then uses a pair of clutches to shift between each gear quickly, like a manual transmission.
The idea of the DCT has been around since the 1960s, but it took Porsche until 1983 to be the first automaker to use it. Porsche used this advanced transmission in its 956 model. The DCT remained a staple in the supercar and in the high-end sports car realm until Volkswagen brought it to a mainstream road car — the Golf — in 2003.
DCTs add to the manual transmission feel by often including steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters like many race cars have.
Today, many automakers have at least one vehicle with a dual-clutch automatic transmission. This advanced transmission is predominantly used to increase performance and driver seat fun, but some automakers also tune them for fuel economy.
Manual transmissions are effectively the same as they've been for decades — they just have more gears. Today, buyers can find mainstream five- and six-speed manual transmissions, though five-speed manuals are rare and generally limited to low-cost models. There are also seven- and eight-speed manual transmissions, but they're only available in high-end sports cars.
While the basic construction has remained the same for decades, manual transmissions are still evolving. Today, they have available automatic rev-matching for smooth downshifts and brake hold for starting on a steep incline without rolling forward or backward.
Automatic vehicles have officially taken over, as the popularity of stick shift vehicles continues to diminish. But while the dominance of automatic gearboxes is apparent, there’s still room for stick shift. Let’s take a look at how these transmissions perform under different circumstances so you can see where each version shines and falls short.
Because the car controls the shifting, automatic transmissions work flawlessly with all the latest technology, including full-speed adaptive cruise control — automatic cruise control that'll bring the vehicle to a full stop in traffic — and automatic emergency braking.
On the other hand, manual transmissions only work with adaptive cruise control to a certain minimum speed. At that point, the cruise control will deactivate, and the driver must take over by depressing the clutch or downshifting.
Automatic emergency braking poses a different problem for manual transmissions as the engine will stall as the vehicle comes to a stop, potentially interrupting the braking function. Some automakers have made automatic emergency braking work even after the engine stalls, but most of them simply don’t offer it as an option with a manual transmission.
Traffic jams are annoying enough, but you can ease your pain with an automatic transmission. You just press the pedal and go — no clutch pedal or RPMs to worry about. With a manual car, you must work the clutch pedal constantly, which can get frustrating.
In years past, manual transmissions were the gas mileage kings. But modern technology has thrown that on its ear as many of today’s automatic transmissions are more fuel efficient than manuals, especially CVT and DCT units.
There are still some simpler automatic transmissions that lag in fuel efficiency compared to their manual counterparts, but these are generally in inexpensive entry-level vehicles and older cars.
Consumer Reports testing back in 2015 found some manual cars got significantly better fuel economy — 2-5 mpg better — than their automatic counterparts.
Basic automatic transmissions have gotten far better at delivering crisp manual-like shifts, and some manufacturers argue they shift faster than any human can shift a manual. Despite that valid argument, for car enthusiasts, driving a traditional automatic or CVT just isn't the same.
An exception is the DCT, which has a driving feel that's a near carbon copy of a manual transmission. And with its shifts taking mere milliseconds to complete, they're actually far superior to shifting your own gears.
That said, automotive purists love the manual transmission for a reason: They're simply a more exciting driving experience. You feel a mechanical connection with the vehicle, giving you the experience of being part of the machine doing the work as you row through the gears and work the third pedal.
With a manual transmission, you're in full control of the gear changes. Need to slow down? Just downshift. Want to have peak horsepower and torque at the ready for merging onto the highway? Keep it in a lower gear as you travel up the on-ramp.
A manual transmission can even help in snow and ice because you can use a carefully timed downshift to slow the vehicle down before hitting the brakes. This limits the potential for sliding while braking on snow and ice, especially when combined with good winter tires.
And if you're a weekend warrior who likes to hit the race track, a manual transmission gives you the control you need to keep the engine at the correct rpm at all times.
With a traditional automatic transmission, you can choose the range you like via the shifter, but it doesn't deliver those shifts as immediately as a manual does. DCTs give a little more control, but the vehicle's computer may still chime in and override the gear if the rpm gets too high.
If you know where the gas and brakes are, you’re ready to drive with an automatic transmission.
This is a stark contrast to manual transmissions, which often require weeks or months of practice to get just right. Until you get it right, plan on stalling a manual transmission vehicle often.
To make matters worse, not all manual transmissions are the same. For example, some have clutches that engage at higher or lower positions. Also, some newer cars will hold the brakes while you shift your foot from the brake to the accelerator on an incline, keeping you from rolling backward. Others lack this feature and start rolling back toward the vehicle behind you when you move your foot.
In general, you can expect to pay a $1,000-$2,000 premium on a new car with an automatic transmission compared to the same one with a manual. However, some automakers offer manual transmissions as "no-cost" options in new cars — typically performance vehicles — so there’s no cost difference between an automatic and manual.
If your transmission fails, you can expect to pay $2,000-$4,000 for a remanufactured unit — CVT units tend to sit at the higher end of that scale. If you have a luxury vehicle, like a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz, you could find yourself looking at up to $10,000 for a remanufactured transmission.
As for manual transmission maintenance, you still have oil in the transmission that most manufacturers recommend changing every 48,000-96,000 km. The upside is manual transmissions are simpler, so changing the manual transmission fluid is generally half the cost of an automatic transmission fluid flush.
If your manual gearbox fails, a remanufactured unit typically costs $1,500-$3,000.
Whether you prefer the excitement and control of a manual transmission vehicle or the ease of an automatic car, we have them both at Clutch. And as Canada's first 100% online car buying experience, you can find the perfect vehicle from your living room, favorite coffee shop, or anywhere else you have internet access.
You can complete the purchasing process online, and we'll deliver the vehicle to you. Plus, you get a 10-day risk-free return period. If you don't love your new car, you can return it for a full refund or exchange it for a different vehicle within 10 days of delivery.
All our vehicles have also been through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process to ensure the car is in top shape. This thorough process allows us to offer a 90-day or 6,000 km warranty on all vehicles purchased through our online system.
Got a trade? We take those too. You can get a no-obligation trade-in estimate online. (Plus, we also buy cars.)
Check out our vast inventory of quality pre-owned vehicles to find the automatic or manual transmission vehicle that suits you best.