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Manual vs automatic: which gearbox is right for you?

Carlton Boyce / 07 June 2016

Is it time to ditch the gear stick in favour of an automatic transmission?

A lot of people are put off buying an automatic car because they’ve never driven one before and are scared they won’t know what to do
A lot of people are put off buying an automatic car because they’ve never driven one before and are scared they won’t know what to do

Keen drivers used to buy cars with a manual gearbox, leaving the automatic gearbox to those motorists who were too lazy or too incompetent to change gears themselves.

Used to. Past tense, because the modern automatic gearbox is light years ahead of the old three-speed slushbox we all cursed, back in the day. 

But that prejudice and bias remains to this day, despite an awful lot of evidence that they are a better option for most drivers in most situations.

But how do you know whether you are ‘most drivers’ and whether your motoring falls under the category of ‘most situations’?

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Do you enjoy driving? 

If you don’t enjoy driving, and see a car as a means of getting from A to B with as little fuss as possible, then you should buy a car with an automatic gearbox.

If you love the open road and dream of buying a two-seat sports car to roar off into the distance with a loved one sitting beside you then you might want to consider buying a car with a manual gearbox. 

Unless you want a Ferrari, in which case you’re stuck with an automatic anyway. (Or a McLaren, or a Lamborghini, or a Nissan GT-R.)

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Do you drive on the race track?

If you drive your everyday car on a race track for whatever reason then a manual gearbox might be your best bet for the most tactile possible interface between you and your car.

You’ll probably be slower than an identically equipped automatic car, but if fractions of a second are your thing then you’ll be manually changing gears in an automatic gearbox anyway…

Are you on a budget?

Cars with an automatic gearbox are generally more expensive to buy than the equivalent car with a manual gearbox.

They used to be more expensive to run too but fuel consumption figures are now much closer: the Ford Focus automatic is about 10% more expensive to run than an identically equipped car fitted with a manual gearbox. For a motorist travelling 8,000 miles a year that means paying an extra £1.75 or so a week in fuel costs.

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Have you ever driven an automatic?

A lot of people are put off buying an automatic car because they’ve never driven one before, and are scared they won’t know what to do.

The best advice I can give to those new to driving a two-pedal car is to say that your left foot should remain planted on the floor at all times, leaving your right foot to do all the braking and accelerating.

So who should buy a manual gearbox?

The short (and only slightly facetious) answer is no one. Modern automatic gearboxes are so much better than those of even five years ago that there is no logical reason to buy one anymore.

Even if you do still enjoy changing gear yourself then most offer an override option, either by way of flappy paddles behind the steering wheel or by pushing and pulling the gear lever itself. 

Most also offer a couple of different modes, with one being optimized to save fuel by changing gears early while the other will hang on to lower gears for longer to give the best possible performance.

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Using an automatic as a manual

So you can drive an automatic car in much the same way as you can a manual. 

In my automatic Subaru, for example, I can select second or third gear before I start to overtake for maximum torque and acceleration, slipping the gearbox back into ‘Drive’ after I’ve completed the manoeuvre.

Or, on a very steep hill that I drive regularly, I’ll select second gear so that the gearbox doesn’t automatically change up leaving my car’s engine gasping and the gearbox hunting between the two gears.

By driving in this way I’m getting the best of both worlds; relaxed wafting when I’m not pressing on, and maximum performance and control when I am.

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Four-wheel-drives are also much easier to drive as an automatic than a manual. Die-hard off-roaders might disagree but I maintain that unless you enjoy the palaver of winching yourself out of a muddy bomb-crater you are better off letting the car make the decisions as to which gear you are in and concentrating instead on making sure that your steering and throttle inputs are perfect.

Classic cars

In my view, the sole exception to the auto-only rule is that of classic cars, where older automatic gearboxes tend to sap power and steal a lot of the joy of driving. 

In this case you can feel free to enjoy perfecting a perfectly executed hell-and-toe down change with a clear conscience.

Everyone else should at least try driving a modern automatic. I promise, you will thank me.

Browse our motoring articles for more tips and useful information.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.