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Automatic vs Manual Transmission: which is best?

It’s the age-old debate: what’s better, a manual gearbox or an automatic one? To work that out, we have to look at what each one offers.

Over here in the UK we love a manual cog-swapper, and Europe, too. In the United States, however, they look at manual, or ‘stick’ as they call it, as being a bit too complicated. We can see why. After all, driving in America is, generally speaking, a far different affair. Their roads are straight and also, in some states, unimaginably long. Their cars don’t need to work through the gears to deal with bends and constant changes in speed.

Of course, you might argue that an automatic is less fuel efficient, and you’d be right to do so. But in the States, where ‘gas’ is still cheap, it’s not really a concern. This is the country that still embraces the V8, remember.

Which is better is irrelevant really. A few years ago, it would have been an easy choice – manual. But gearbox technology has moved on so much that it’s now a case of getting what suits you, rather than the car. 

Automatic vs Manual Transmission: which is best?

With manual transmissions there’s just that – changing gears manually. This means more work for you as a driver, what with the inclusion of a clutch. However, manuals are still (if driven sensibly) better on fuel than automatics. You can have that extra degree of control that you fail to get from an auto.

Manuals also have the potential to be more costly to maintain. An automatic gearbox generally only needs regular maintenance. A manual uses a clutch, and clutches wear out. Plus, the human factor can make that happen far sooner than it really should.

An automatic transmission doesn’t have a clutch. It has what is known as a torque converter. In any car, you need to stop. With a manual, when you do, you just use the clutch to take it out of gear. An automatic can’t do that. It is permanently affixed to the output shaft and flywheel. 

What is a torque converter

That’s where the torque converter comes in. It works by using differing amounts of transmission fluid, which are spun in the torque converter, in turn driving the gearbox. When you come to a stop, the fluid level changes and you can hold the car on the brake without incident. Though if you’ve ever driven an auto, you’ll know it will slowly drive away if you don’t, because it’s always connected.

As for changing gear, a manual is very much down to you. You select your gear, it moves the gear selector which engages the gear you want. In an automatic, the gearbox works by pressurising fluid thanks to the engine revs and the torque converter.

When the pressure gets to a certain point, high or low, the automatic will shift gear accordingly. It’s clever stuff. If you ever see inside an automatic, you’ll notice hundreds of channels – they’re for the fluid to run through and activate the gears.

Both achieve the same end goal, but the automatic does all the hard work for you. That’s why you see them quite often in big, luxury cars. The manual needs you to be more involved. You have to monitor the engine revs and know when to change up or down. It’s a more connected experience, and arguably, it’s a bit more fun, too!

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Anatomy of a manual gearbox