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An Automatic or Manual Gearbox: Which Is Better?

Just a few decades ago the choice of automatic or manual gearbox was a pretty straightforward one.

Automatics tended to have a small number of forward gears and changes were slow and clunky. An automatic gearbox meant that your car was slower, used more fuel and was more expensive to service and repair. The only upside seemed to be that an automatic required a little less effort to drive, and for this reason it was often a staple in luxury cars. So have things moved on at all, and is there now a better reason to buy an automatic?

Everyone is pretty familiar with the concept of a manual gearbox. There is usually a lever by your left leg, and you use it in tandem with the clutch to select your required gear. A manual is usually cheaper to buy and run than an automatic, and the driver is in complete control over which gear the car is driven in. A manual will usually have five gears, but some extend to six or seven. They are typically preferred by driving enthusiasts, who appreciate the greater involvement with the running of the car, but they can get a bit tedious to use in stop-start city traffic.

However, automatics are a bit more complex. For a start, most automatics will also let you change gear manually, and the transmissions have become much more sophisticated. Automatics offer a more relaxed driving experience. You simply stick the lever into ‘D’ for drive and off you go. No need to fiddle with the gears or wrestle with the clutch until your journey is over and you stick the shift into park again. If you do want to override the system, most automatic transmissions will allow you to do so, usually simply by flicking the lever in the direction of the (-) sign to drop a gear or the (+) sign to go up a gear. Some modern systems also have what Jeremy Clarkson referred to as ‘flappy paddle’ switches on the steering column, allowing you to flip up or down a gear with even less effort. These types of gear box are often called Tiptronic.

A traditional automatic has something called a torque converter in place of the clutch. This gives a typically smooth gear change, with the car deciding which gear is best depending on the speed, engine revs and acceleration. These traditional automatic transmissions do tend to be much heavier than their manual counterparts, so they were really only installed in larger cars. Modern versions can have up to nine gears.

The continuously variable transaxle system (CVT) is another more modern take on the automatic. It was first invented back in the 1960s, but it has been refined of late and is now popular in hybrid cars. These transmissions have just a single gear, but a drive belt is altered in size to replicate different gears, and essentially there is an infinite number of ratios. They offer a very smooth drive.

A single automated clutch transmission has something like an automatic gear selector connected to a manual gear box. The clutch is operated electronically, which takes much of the effort out of gear-changing. They can be a little clunky, though, and the system is sometimes slow to decide which ratio to be in. A smoother option is the dual automated clutch system, much favoured by VW and Porsche, which is as smooth as the best automatic and actually faster than most manuals when it comes to gear changes.

Modern automatic gearboxes such as these can actually be more economical than manual transmissions, because the software is constantly looking at fuel consumption and working out in hundredths of a second which is the most frugal gear to be in. As mentioned above, they can even be faster than a manual. What has not changed so much since the bad old days is that automatics still tend to be more expensive both to buy and service. If your budget is limited, a manual may be the best bet, but if you have a little cash to spare, these modern automatics can be tempting.

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