Manual transmissions – where drivers must shift gears themselves using a third pedal on the floor (the “clutch”) of the vehicle and a stick shifter located between the front seats – are rare these days. Most consumer vehicles sold today come with automatic transmissions, where the driver simply puts the car into “drive” and the gears shift automatically as the vehicle accelerates and decelerates. However, many car enthusiasts, industry analysts, and mechanics still prefer manual transmissions, claiming that shifting gears for yourself is the only pure way to truly operate a motor vehicle.

For a long time, manual transmissions were pretty standard in vehicles – teenagers were required to learn how to “drive stick,” and stalling out at a red light was basically a right of passage. Automatic transmissions were typically sold as a luxury upgrade until the 1980s — but not anymore. According to a report from U.S. News, only 18 percent of Americans today know how to drive a manual transmission. Most vehicles sold now do not even come with a manual transmission option. A driving school that teaches new drivers how to drive a manual vehicle is almost unheard of.

Here are the differences between a manual and automatic transmission, and how they impact a vehicle’s performance.

How Each Transmission Works

A transmission uses gears to provide speed and torque, and, ultimately, power a vehicle and help it to accelerate. It also keeps the engine’s RPM from getting too high (also known as “redlining”), which is dangerous. The transmission is composed of several interlocking gears that are located beneath a gear shifter. The changing of the gears helps the vehicle to accelerate and manages the torque created by the vehicle’s velocity.

Changing gears is a necessity. The only question is, who changes the gears – the driver or the vehicle? In a manual transmission, the driver changes gears using a clutch and a stick shift. In an automatic transmission, the gears change seamlessly and automatically as the vehicle’s speed accelerates. An automatic transmission is easier to operate, but many people claim a manual transmission is more fun to drive.

With an automatic transmission, the driver usually only puts the vehicle in “drive,” “reverse” and “park” – and sometimes “neutral.” With a manual transmission, a driver is responsible to shift into four, five and sometimes six different gears when driving forward, as well as put the vehicle into reverse, and neutral when it comes to a stop. Manual transmissions are more work for drivers, but you could argue that they provide a greater control over the vehicle.

Which One is Better?

One transmission is not necessarily better than the other. There are benefits to each transmission, though, and it really comes down to personal preference. Manual transmissions tend to get better fuel economy than automatic transmissions, and, on average, cost about $1,000 less today than an automatic transmission when buying a vehicle new. However, advances in engineering are narrowing the gap in fuel economy between the two transmissions and many automotive manufacturers no longer make a manual transmission option for their vehicle models.

Manual transmissions tend to have faster acceleration, but that is dependent on smooth shifting from one gear to the next. When a driver shifts improperly or gets the timing off, it can lead to the grinding of gears or cause the vehicle to stall, which can lead to an accident. An automatic transmission typically has four or five speeds, while a manual transmission comes with five or six-speeds (or more, on higher end performance cars). Most race cars today use a manual transmission (often using paddle shifters on the steering wheel instead of a typical shifter), since it provides greater speed and performance. On the other hand, most consumer vehicles rely on the more stable and mistake-free automatic transmissions.

In terms of repairs, it can be more expensive to replace the components of a manual transmission, such as a clutch pedal and gear box. Also, mechanics today work on vehicles with automatic transmissions much more often than they work on manual transmissions. Keep in mind that there is a “semi-automatic” option for some high-end vehicles. This is an automatic transmission with the option to switch over to a manual mode. Semi-automatic transmissions are mostly found in high-performance cars, but they do exist on some expensive luxury models too.

The Rise of The Automatic Transmission

Motorized vehicles all started off with manual transmissions. Henry Ford’s Model T, developed in 1908, used a two speed (plus reverse) transmission that was operated manually by the driver using pedals. In 1934, General Motors developed a “semi-automatic transmission” that was less difficult to operate than a fully manual transmission. However, this semi-automatic transmission still used a clutch to engage the engine with the transmission.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, various car companies such as GM and Chrysler experimented with different types of automatic transmissions and gave them names such as “Hydra-Matic” and “Dynaflow,” but these were crude by today’s standards and usually sold as an expensive upgrade to standard manual transmissions. By the early 1980s, though, technology had advanced to a point where manufacturers could include automatic transmissions as a standard option. The price point between the two types of transmission narrowed significantly. It turned out that the automatic transmissions’ ease of use appealed greatly to the majority of consumers. Nevertheless, for many drivers, there is nothing like the exhilaration you get from shifting gears manually at high speed.


Devon is a writer, editor, and veteran of the online publishing world. He has a particular love for classic muscle cars.