Manual vs automatic cars: which are better?

Arguing about whether automatic or manual cars are better can be a little like debating mp3 players vs vinyl. We cut through the noise and asked the experts which is best.

Is there any advantage to manual, or is it peer pressure?

By Remy Maisel

Obviously, both have their strengths and weaknesses, but by the end of the argument, you like everyone involved a little less.

But when it comes to your choice of vehicle, getting the decision right is a little more important than worrying about whether you lost some audio quality. 

In the UK, most people drive manual cars – but this is changing fast. Between 2007 and 2017, there was a 70.5% rise in the number of automatic models, putting 8.4 million on the road (40%) as of April 2017. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, people are attracted to the comfort and simplicity of automatic cars 1.

Manual cars

When you drive, for your car's engine to work efficiently it needs to change gears to accommodate your speed. As you drive faster, you move into a higher gear. This is true of both manual and automatic cars.

Personally, I’d advise people to learn in a manual if they can.

The main difference between an automatic car and a manual car is that a manual has three pedals – the brake, the accelerator, and the clutch. The driver presses the clutch while manually changing gears using the gearbox. Automatic cars change gears, too, but they do it (you guessed it!) automatically. 

Phill Tromans, photo courtesy of AutoTrader

Most British drivers learn to drive in manual cars 2. This is because manual cars are still the most common type of car in the UK, especially when it comes to smaller cars – though automatics are rising dramatically in popularity, according Phill Tromans, Senior Road Tester at AutoTrader. “Most volume cars and smaller cars are still manual, but larger and luxury cars are increasingly automatic focused.

“Personally, I’d advise people to learn in a manual if they can,” says Phill. “It’s still the most common type of gearbox in the UK, and if you’re qualified to drive a manual then you can drive an automatic too.” But it doesn’t work the other way around – so drivers who learn and pass their test in an automatic car will have to upgrade their licence to drive a manual 3.  

It used to be common knowledge that manual cars were cheaper and more fuel-efficient. However, this isn’t necessarily true today. “Some modern cars are only available with automatic gearboxes, and there are different types of automatic that use different technology. Some are more efficient than the equivalent car with a manual transmission, and some aren’t,” says Phill. 

These days, manual gearboxes are also sometimes associated with high performance or luxury vehicles. But Phill doesn’t believe that manual cars are particularly higher performing than automatics. “It depends on the car,” he says. 

And in terms of driver performance? “What gearbox you use has no impact on how good or bad a driver you are. Many people just enjoy having more mechanical involvement in their driving. Basically, it all boils down to what you feel the most comfortable with. While I’d recommend passing your test in a manual if you can, because it gives you options in the future, there’s no right or wrong – it depends on what kind of car you want and what kind of driving you’ll be doing.”

Automatic cars

An automatic car typically has four modes: Park (P), Reverse (R), Neutral (N), and Drive (D). Since you don’t need to change gears, there’s no clutch – just the brake and the accelerator. That means you essentially only need to think about whether you’re going forward, backward, or stopping – the car will decide the rest. 

You cannot stall in an automatic car, since you don’t need to choose a gear and use the clutch. So if you’re driving in heavy traffic or other difficult conditions, an automatic might be the way to go. 

“For motorway slogs, or if you want to make driving as easy as possible, then automatics can seem a preferable choice,” agrees Phill. “But they can sometimes cost more to buy and be more complicated to repair if anything goes wrong.”

Although automatic transmissions are less likely to fail because the gears shift more smoothly, when they do fail, the fix can potentially be more expensive. But it’s not all bad news. According to Martin Smith, our Motor Technical Claims Manager, “There’s a common misconception that all automatics, generally speaking, cost more than manuals to insure. Automatics are becoming more and more commonplace, and the cost of the technology is coming down.”

Martin explains that every new car gets a rating from the Association of British Insurers (ABI), which is based on extensive research into its safety and performance. This is bundled into factors about individuals’ driving history, information about where they live, and so much more to calculate that driver's premium. “The transmission type will be one small factor in the rating.”

Jim Doran, a driving instructor with the Lanes School of Driving for 20 years, teaches both manual and automatic – but says he tries to stay away from manual “as much as I humanly can.” 

According to Jim, 15-20 years ago there was a stigma associated with automatics, because they were a lot more expensive to buy and insure, and could be difficult to find abroad. “If you went on holiday to Spain or whatever and asked for an automatic, they’d look at you like ‘What are those? We only do cars’,” says Jim. 

“But that’s not true anymore. The world has changed. I call the manual 20th century, and I call the automatic 21st century. Bottom line, unless you need to drive a manual vehicle for your job or some reason, why do it? Look, we’ve got Google now – can I then persuade you to get the books out and flick through all these pages to find an answer? You’ll get the same results, you’ll find it, but is it harder? Of course it’s harder! So why do we not try and make life easier for ourselves?” 

Jim also believes that automatic cars are safer to drive, though he says not everyone feels this way. “It’s one less thing to think about – I’m a complete advocate. Quite a lot of my students are single mums, their boyfriends or husbands had left, they have two or four kids, and he had done all the driving and now they have to be a taxi service for their kids. So they have to learn to drive, and of course they want to learn in an auto. So I might have a handful of 17-year-olds that won’t, but at least half of my students now learn in an auto, and the reason they do is because by and large mum and dad have got autos in the driveway.” 

Jim acknowledges that he teaches in an affluent part of England, which may be part of the reason automatics are more common. But he says that 50% of his client base are teenagers driving automatics, when it used to be a handful 10 years ago. 

Some students do still learn manual, but Jim says the only reason they do is peer pressure. “That’s all it is! It’s complete and total peer pressure. It’s a manly thing.” And why do people who drive manuals pressure others to learn? “The only reason this bloke who’s learning manual wants this person to learn manual is he wants him to suffer to the same extent as he did.” 

Although some students who have learned in automatic cars have said they would come back and learn manual at some point in the future, none of Jim’s student’s have ever done it. There are still reasons that a few people need to learn, so Jim will teach them – but he doesn’t feel, as someone who drives an automatic professionally, that it’s a choice anyone needs to make. “The world’s changed. They all know. I mean, our company runs a car hire company as well as a driving school, yeah? Well, we’ve got autos now. We’ve got about as many autos as we’ve got manuals. The world has changed.”

The cars of the future

Martin says that, in time, automatics will probably dominate – but this change will probably be slow. “Unless you’re only ever going to own or drive new vehicles (lucky you) throughout your driving career, electing to take an auto test rather than a manual might limit your vehicle choice.” But still, automatics are becoming more and more commonplace, so they’re now as efficient as a manual and don’t cost significantly more. 

“When we look at hybrid cars, you’ll find that tech doesn’t work with a manual because the car needs to be in control of the speed range,” says Martin. “In 2, 3, 4 years’ time when we get to the first cars which are capable of conditional automated driving, they will be automatics – because there won’t be anyone to change the gears.”

It’s hard to predict exactly what driving will look like in the future. According to Phill, fully electric cars don’t generally need a gearbox at all. 

“There will definitely be a much larger proportion of electrified vehicles in the future, both hybrid and full electric,” says Phill. “The source of the electricity may well change, with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles touted by many as the way forward. But there will be many factors that influence exactly what happens, from government support and infrastructure to ease of use and consumer acceptance.”