Manual vs Automatic

In 1948, the first car with a fully automatic transmission was released.  Since that time, automatics have taken hold of consumer demand over their trickier and more attention needing counterpart, manual transmissions.  Most consumers don’t even bother learning the techniques of the stick shift in their entire life because they don’t need to.  I was lucky because my parents got me a nice, cheap manual the winter I got my license.  Well, they got it because I scorned stick and swore I’d never drive it and my father knew I’d have to learn if I didn’t want to ride my bike through two feet of snow everyday (my Dad in a nutshell).  Still, I learned how to maneuver a manual at a young age and even regret not learning it sooner.  That is not the way of the world, though, and automatics dominate the market to the point where stick is only used for racing or out of some undying habitual loyalty to the old age of automobiles.  That doesn’t mean one is better than the other, does it?  Well, I’m glad you asked (or rather I asked for you), because I’ve crunched the numbers and read the research.  I can tell you which switch to itch or what gear to grind, but what I want to do is explain the key differences between manual transmission and automatic and let you decide for yourself.  After all, it’s all what you are comfortable with.

The debate has raged on for decades and those more gear-head inclined seem to be savoring the flavor of the stick shift more than the average everyday commuter.  For those not seasoned in the art of clutch shifting, all it really is is an extra pedal and a knobby thingy set in beside the driver’s and passenger’s seat that clicks the engine into different gears for different inputs of gas into the engine.  Your vehicle needs to start at one gear (1st) and work it’s way to another or rather, can’t work at one gear (2nd) when it reaches a certain speed.  It’s all about managing your torque, which is the thing that accelerates your vehicle.  Each gear is designed for different set of RPMs (Rotations Per Minute) and that is what the torque is used to do.  The more torque, the more rotations, the more horsepower used, the faster your car goes.   When in a lower gear, your going to use less torque, but in 5th or 6th gear, you’ll be at your fastest so you’ll need a significant increase in torque for you’re car to run properly.  Failure to shift will kill your transmission because you’re not applying the right amount of torque to the speed and output of your engine, so it won’t be able to sustain.

I hope that last paragraph explained standard transmission at least enough for you all to follow along.  What you need to know about automatics is that the transmission is entirely different because you don’t have to shift and lock your tranny into a specific set of RPMs.    It works by adjusting several gears within to deliver the best torque as you accelerate.  The primary difference between the two types that an average consumer will notice is that manuals tend to expend less gas.  They require less gear shifting because they lock in where as automatics constantly change.   In a gas crisis this little fact could be enough to push those comfortable with stick shift in that direction.

Automatics are significantly easier to drive and provide drivers with the luxury of paying more attention to the road.  Granted, by the time you master the art of manual driving, it will come almost second nature to you, but automatics are crucial in traffic because you don’t have to hold down the clutch every time you move an inch.  Plus, manuals roll back when you let off the gas and that can be a pain when you’re stopped on a hill.  Conversely, automatics do not give you the same control over your engine.  Stopping is easier in a manual because you downshift back to previous gears which will slow you down gradually.  They are good for bending turns and handling and whether it’s off the line or in transit, they offer quicker shifting for higher acceleration and overall faster speed.  That is why all of NASCAR has a form of manual shifting and why all Paul Walker’s cars are too fast and too furious.

Automatics also cost more because manufacterers and dealerships know consumers don’t want to bother with shifting.  Buying sports or performance vehicles, however, is a bit of a waste if they are automatic.  Not enough grit or quickness to them.  Paddle shifting is something that has become rather popular for those who don’t want to deal with a clutch but want to shift that fancy sports car.  It basically does all the same things as a standard, just with a quick tap of a paddle built into the steering wheel.  These are semi-automatic because you won’t need to clutch down and shift, you just shift, but you still need to shift.  They are a more advanced form of manual in my book.  One last thing that needs to be noted is that when your car battery dies in an automatic, you need to jump start it.  For a manual, you throw it in neutral, push it, pop the clutch (throw it into gear) and fire the engine up.  It’s a lot more hassle free.

It’s hard to say what is right for you if you only know one way.  When I drove manual in my first two cars, I couldn’t wait to get an automatic and not have to deal with shifting.  After years with an automatic, I miss the control a standard gives and the competitive feel from hitting those gears just right and receiving that little extra push.  Manuals are downright fun to drive when you don’t have to deal with hills or traffic or traffic on hills.  Automatics are carefree and simple.  What it comes down to is what you prefer.  I suggest you learn both and decide for yourself.

Tyler Baker; OSM Writer

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