Manual versus automatic cars: The pros and cons

KATIE RODWELL
Finance Writer · 23 April 2021
For decades we have heard comparisons and commentary around manual versus automatic cars, but has the pendulum finally swung in favour of the automatic? Are manual cars destined only to be popular with those looking for a budget option and rare car collectors?

What are the pros and cons of choosing automatic over manual transmission, and do we take them into account when purchasing a new or used car?

Canstar spoke to motoring experts who shared their views on the pros and cons of automatic and manual transmission cars.

This article covers:

What is the difference between a manual and automatic car?

The terms ‘manual’ and ‘automatic’ refer to a car’s transmission or gearbox, which is the system that transfers power from the engine to the wheels.

As its name suggests, a manual car requires the driver to manually shift through the gears according to the car’s speed and the amount of power required. In an automatic, the car does the gear changing for you.

Not that long ago, automatics were considered a luxury, however, recent from Toyota showed that demand for manual Corolla hatches dropped by 80% in the four year period from 2015-2019. Just 1.5% of Corolla hatch buyers opted for a manual transmission in the first half of 2020.

What are the pros of manual transmission?

A lot of car enthusiasts prefer a manual transmission because it’s often viewed as the purest way to enjoy driving.

“Manual cars allow plenty of driver-car engagement, offering drivers more control over how the car operates,” said Susannah Guthrie of CarAdvice. “Manual transmission is particularly enjoyable in sports or high-performance cars and the increased control can also be beneficial in off-road scenarios.”

Motoring expert Elise Elliott agree. “I am a huge fan of manual cars. There is something literally more hands-on to the driving experience. I believe it makes you a better driver and makes the driving experience more fun and enjoyable,” she told Canstar.

Typically, manual cars are also more affordable to purchase than automatic cars, according to car insurance provider, Budget Direct. We take a more indepth look at the cost of both manual and automatic cars below.

What are the cons of manual transmission?

On the downside, manual cars typically require a little more effort to drive than automatics. For example, they can be harder to manage in stop-start traffic as they have more potential to roll-back than an automatic, and require more steps to get moving, explained Ms Guthrie. If you drive mainly in an urban setting, this could influence your decision on whether to buy a manual or automatic car. “Additionally, if you misjudge the correct gear for the amount of revs the engine is generating, the car can stall, meaning it turns itself off in traffic, a sensation that can be disconcerting.”

It’s also worth considering the potential resale value of a car, and that manuals don’t typically hold their value as well as automatics, according to Ms Elliott.

“If I were forced to pick some cons I would say it’s hard to buy a new manual car now as driving such vehicles is a dying art. Because of this, resale value of manual vehicles is poor – except for classic performance cars, of course.”

What are the pros of automatic transmission?

Automatic cars require less input from the driver and are thus viewed by many to be easier to drive, according to Ms Guthrie. An inexperienced driver may find navigating steep inclines of hills difficult in a manual transmission and an automatic car can do this work for you. Similarly, they are much easier to use in heavy traffic, as the car looks after the change in gears required when constantly stopping and starting.

Another potential benefit is the ability of automatic cars to generally retain a better resale value than their manual counterparts. “While they [automatics] are usually more expensive, it could be argued they retain a better resale value down the line because the demand for manual cars is steadily declining,” said Ms Guthrie. Interestingly, she advised this decline in demand for manual cars is dependent on the type of car, and certainly isn’t a rule.

According to Ms Elliott, modern automatic twin clutch gearboxes are both faster and more economical.

What are the cons of automatic transmission?

Automatic cars are typically more expensive than manual cars and the driver may feel less in control of how the car performs. Both Ms Guthrie and Ms Elliott agreed that, at times, this can detract from the fun factor of driving.

Are automatic cars more expensive than manual cars?

Generally, automatics are more expensive than manual cars. Traditionally, manuals were cheaper to buy as they cost less to build and didn’t require complicated engineering like an automatic transmission, according to Brisbane-based car dealership, Motorama.

Ms Guthrie agreed.“Manual options tend to be offered at the lower end of a model range line-up. They’re typically the entry-level offering in the range, and thus have a lower starting price, irrespective of the other standard equipment and features they have.”

At the time of writing, a new Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport (two-litre petrol in glacier white) with manual transmission starts at $27,282, while the automatic version of the same car is over $1,500 more expensive, starting at $28,827, according to the manufacturer.

Although manual cars were once viewed as more economical than automatics, when it comes to fuel consumption, new automatic cars are becoming more efficient and the gap is closing, according to Ms Guthrie.

When it comes to regular servicing of your car, she explained that transmission servicing for an automatic used to be over shorter intervals, meaning it was more expensive over time. Now those intervals are becoming longer and some automatic transmissions are even “sealed for life”, meaning they don’t require regular maintenance.

Is there a difference in the safety features of manual and automatic cars?

Active safety features are broadly available across both automatic and manual cars. However, a manual car may mean missing out on things like ‘stop-and-go’ cruise control or full-stop autonomous braking, according to Ms Guthrie.

Another important factor is understanding the restrictions on your licence if you only learn to drive an automatic. In some states, you will need to take an additional manual licence test before you can legally drive a manual car, according to Ms Elliott.

“Imagine being in an emergency situation and the only vehicle to hand was one that came with gears,” she said. “Owning a manual car also comes with the benefit of knowing you can drive a manual if you have to. Also, from a safety point of view you are less tempted to take risks and fiddle with your phone when both hands are occupied.”

Is there a difference in the performance of manual and automatic cars?

When it comes to performance, both Ms Guthrie and Ms Elliott agreed that while manuals were once regarded as quicker, advances in technology and tuning now mean that an automatic is often as quick, if not faster, than a manual car. In a recent evaluation of the performance of both manual and automatic cars, Cars.com credited the technology improvements in automatic cars with making them faster at gear changes than humans can manage in manual transmissions.

Does it cost more to insure a manual or automatic car?

When insuring a manual or automatic car, the type of transmission on your vehicle shouldn’t affect your premiums. Kirsty Sheppard from PD Insurance said, “it’s not a risk rating factor that we capture at PD Insurance and we are not aware of it being a rating factor elsewhere.”

Real Insurance advises that when assessing risk it rates vehicles based on the claims history it has for that particular make and model, and the value of the vehicle. It says its decisions are not based on the type of transmission.

Main Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock.com


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