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Automatic vs. ManualOn the surface, the key difference between an automatic and manual transmission is that the latter lets you shift gears by yourself, while the former takes care of gear-shifting for you. The information below will help articulate the distinction between the two and explain why understanding it is essential.

Manual Transmissions

These days, manual transmission-based engines are relatively rare and mostly found in niche enthusiast vehicles. That, then, begs the question of why someone would prefer manual transmission. There are two main reasons: Complete control and mechanical simplicity.

Manual transmissions use a driver-operated clutch pedal to disengage the engine from the driveshaft, allowing the driver to shift and select any gear they want. Manual transmission enthusiasts take it as a point of pride to become so fluid with their shifts that it becomes completely second nature.

And thanks to the complete manual control over gear selection, manual transmissions have much less complexity compared to automatics. This means there is less to break, and there are no computer controls that will become obsolete, unsupported, or impossible to replace or repair in the future.

Automatic Transmissions

Throughout most of automotive history, torque converter-based automatics have offered reliable, durable operation without the need to worry about clutch pedals and gear-hunting with a stick for every shift.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, manufacturers realized that computer-controlled manuals with no clutch pedals could offer superior performance and efficiency compared to both older automatic transmission designs and manual transmissions alike, providing:

  • Quicker shifting than what any human was capable of
  • More gears than could fit in an H-pattern manual
  • The choice of shifting via steering column-mounted paddles or letting the computer do the shifting

The technology would soon filter from luxury and performance vehicles to everyday passenger cars, resulting in traditional manuals largely fading from the market.

Today, automatics have simply advanced to the point where they generally offer higher performance thanks to more speeds, closer ratios, and faster shifts. Drivers who want as little interaction with their vehicle as possible, or those who prefer the fastest and most consistent performance possible, will turn to an automatic transmission.

A Note on CVT and Electric Transmissions

Another type of transmission is continuously variable transmission (CVT), which uses belts held between pulleys that can change width. There are no specific gears, and the transmission can produce any ratio it wants for the best acceleration and fuel economy. From the perspective of the driver, CVT acts essentially the same as an automatic.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a bit more interesting because the majority have no gears whatsoever, connecting the electric motors straight to the drive wheels instead. A few, such as the Porsche Taycan and the upcoming Mercedes G580, have two speeds to increase range and off-road traction. Rarer still are EVs such as the Hyundai Ioniq 5 N, which simulates an internal combustion engine vehicle with a paddle-shifted automatic transmission.

Which Transmission Is Right for You?

Most people prefer automatic transmission for its simplicity of use, fuel efficiency, and performance benefits. But if you want total control over your shifts, there are still plenty of manual transmission-equipped cars to choose from.

Summary: Manual transmissions let drivers control all shifting, while automatics can shift on their own. Which one you prefer will ultimately come down to how much control you want out of your driving experience.

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