Difference Between Automatic and Manual Cars

Updated December 2, 2019
Female hand on automatic transmission car lever

Before you go to the dealer to buy your next new or used vehicle, it's a good idea to have a clear understanding of the differences between automatic and manual cars. Both types of vehicles have advantages and disadvantages and doing your homework will help you pick the one that's best for you.

What Is the Difference Between Automatic and Manual Cars?

When you shop for a car, you have many decisions to make, including body style, color, engine type, and transmission. As with any major decision, it pays to spend a little time researching your options, especially when it comes to choosing a transmission style. Wondering whether you will be better off with a manual transmission or an automatic transmission? Your driving habits and personal preferences will help you decide.

Shifting in an Automatic and Manual Car

The primary difference between an automatic and a manual transmission is the method the car uses to shift gears. In an automatic transmission, the car decides when you shift and automatically changes gears for you. In a manual transmission car, you are responsible for shifting gears using the clutch and gas pedals.

About Shifting

Shifting, whether it's done by the driver or by the car itself, is an important part of driving. As you increase speed or rev your engine, your engine's RPMs also increase. You've probably noticed that there is a gauge on the dashboard called the "tachometer." This gauge shows the RPMs for your engine and has a scary-looking red area, which is fittingly called the "red line." In order to protect your engine, you need to change gears before the tachometer needle reaches the red line area. In an automatic transmission, the car does this for you.

Advantages of Automatic Transmissions

For a lot of everyday drivers, and especially for those first learning to drive a car, an automatic transmission represents the simplest driving experience. There are several advantages associated with driving an automatic.

Ease of Driving with Automatic Transmission

Because of how an automatic transmission does the shifting for you, it can make for an easier drive.

  • Rather than worrying about shifting gears, an automatic transmission allows you to keep your focus on the road. For some drivers, driving an automatic is less distracting.
  • Depending on where you live, an automatic might be the most practical choice. If you find you frequently end up in rush hour traffic, an automatic clearly wins out. Driving a manual transmission in stop and go traffic is simply fatiguing.
  • Automatics are also easier to drive if you live in an area with steep hills, inclines and winding roads.
  • For brand new drivers, an automatic car is much easier to learn how to drive compared to using a stick shift which has more "moving parts" to coordinate and can take longer.
  • Most, although not all, manual cars do not have a cruise control option, which is a desirable feature for drivers who need to be the car for long hours.

Speed Differences With Automatic Transmission

In newer automatic transmissions, the car will shift itself faster than you could shift a manual. This can be helpful anytime you need to accelerate quickly, such as when you merge onto a freeway.

Less Likely to Stall in Traffic

Another advantage of an automatic transmission is the reduced possibility that your car will stall in traffic, such as when you're waiting at a stop sign or light. Though it can happen with an automatic car that needs maintenance, it's not as likely as with a manual car.

Availability of Automatic Transmission Cars

Manual transmissions are becoming harder to find, particularly in the U.S. car market. 80% of car models in 2019 were only available with automatic transmissions.

Disadvantages of an Automatic Transmission

While there are many pros to owning an automatic car, they do have their disadvantages:

  • They're generally more expensive to buy and maintain compared to their manual counterparts.
  • Learning how to drive automatic only can be a problem if you visit a country and rent a car where manual transmissions are your only, or most common, option.
  • They can encourage less focus on driving compared to driving a stick which can result in car accidents.
  • They may cost more in fuel economy but this will vary by vehicle.

Advantages of Manual Transmissions

Just as some people love their automatic transmissions, there are also die-hard fans of manual cars. Even though manual transmission vehicles can be more complicated to drive, there are several important advantages that go along with owning a stick shift.

Hand on car's manual stick shift

Budgetary Benefits of a Manual Transmission

There are a number of factors involved with owning a manual transmission car that make it cheaper overall than an automatic.

  • Manual transmission cars can get better gas mileage though this is frequently becoming less the case with new improvements on automatic car technology. Because the driver controls the RPMs of the engine, the car does less revving and uses less gas. The difference in gas mileage is usually between three and five miles per gallon and drivers on average can save between five and 15% on fuel. However, this varies by vehicle and you can find newer models where the automatic version gets better gas mileage.
  • It's often less expensive to repair your manual transmission car. Automatics represent more complicated technology, so they often cost more to service. However, depending on how you drive, you may need to replace your car's clutch at some point.
  • When you buy a new car, a manual transmission is generally a cheaper option. Buying a stick shift can save you several hundred dollars on the purchase price of your car.

Better Handling and Vehicle Control With a Manual Transmission

Driving a manual transmission gives you more ways to control your car. If you want to slow down without using your brakes as much, you can downshift and let the engine help slow the car. This can save wear on your brakes and tires, but it requires practice.

Manual Transmission and Speed

Because a driver has more control over the vehicle, an experienced drive can go faster, which is why manual transmissions are most often used by race car drivers. Manual cars are also often lighter than automatics which can be a factor in increased speed of the vehicle.

Safer From Theft

Since automatic cars are the predominantly used type in the U.S., there is some believe that a manual car isn't going to be as attractive to car thieves. Of course if you own a specialty model with a high market value, this won't be the case, but your average "every day" manual car may not be very lucrative if stolen.

Disadvantages of Manual Transmissions

There are a few drawbacks to owning a manual car compared to an automatic.

  • Manual cars are becoming harder to obtain in the U.S. car market which is largely focused on automatic cars.
  • They are harder to learn how to drive and require more concentration and hand/feet coordination. They may not be the best choice for new drivers or drivers who become physically tired faster, such as older adults or people who need to drive long hours for work.
  • They'll have less resale value as fewer people will know how to drive a manual car and won't want to spend the time to learn.

Is an Automatic or Manual Car Safer?

There's no real data showing that one car is safer than the other. Safety more likely can be gauged by the individual driver.

  • If driving is stressful for you, such as for new drivers or drivers in heavy stop-and-go traffic, an automatic is possibly safer because it's easier to drive.
  • On the other hand, a manual transmission driver might argue that their car is safer because they have more control of the vehicle, but this requires practice and experience. If you are a good manual driver, you may be able to handle difficult weather or roads better than an automatic driver.
  • An automatic car could be less safe because you don't have to focus as much when driving compared to a manual. This can lead to distracted behavior and accidents. Automatic drivers can also use one hand to do other tasks in the car, like looking at a cell phone or eating, which can cause an accident.

Keep Your Options Open

It's good to know the major differences between automatic and manual cars, but ultimately your buying decision will probably come down to personal preference. Both types of vehicle will get you where you need to go, and all it takes is a little practice to learn to drive a manual car. If you choose to buy an automatic, you may want to learn to drive a manual car as well. Knowing how to drive a stick shift is an important life skill that comes in handy in emergencies.

Difference Between Automatic and Manual Cars