The differences between an automatic gearbox and a manual one are massive, but for many people it is all a bit of a mystery and by not knowing they could be missing out on a better car and better driving.
The inner workings of an automatic gearbox are certainly complex, so much so that for most people it is largely pointless even trying to understand. From a home servicing point of view, even the most advanced DIY mechanics are likely to leave and automatic box alone so it is certainly one best left for the professionals.
Essentially there are a few different ways an automatic gearbox can work but the results are the same so it is best to focus on what it does not how it does it. For the uninitiated an auto (automatic gearbox) simply selects the right gear for the car at any given moment when you are driving along. Most people understand that far but often no further. Faced with an auto gear stick in a car may lead people to wonder what the D, P, R and N letters all mean. It is simple, D is for drive, you select this when you want to move off. P is for park, you use this alongside the handbrake but it will stop the car rolling on its own. R is reverse and N is for neutral. There are only two pedals; stop and go! the brake pedal is usually quite large to make sure you know the difference.
The advantages of an auto are many; traffic jams become very easy because there is no need to be on the clutch all the time, the car can just creep forward then stop again. Day to day driving becomes very relaxing because the car chooses the gear for you and you don’t need to lift a finger.
The Disadvantages; autos are generally less economical, this is because they will actually change gear far more often than you would in a manual and if driven a little harder can really burn through the fuel. They are also heavier than manual cars which can contribute to lower fuel economy.
Accelerating to overtake or out of a junction can be challenging for some people, to get an auto to really “go” you must put your foot all the way down to what is know as, the “kick down”. This used to be a button on the floor but newer cars just have a sensor, it will tell the gearbox you need to go fast and choose the very best gear for the job. If you only gently put your foot halfway down the car will only gently respond; be brave and the car will work for you.
The final disadvantage is repair costs, because cars are so much more reliable than they used to be this is not as big an issue as it once was but if you are looking at older used cars then it is a consideration. If an auto gearbox breaks it will cost more than fixing a manual car.
In general, almost all drivers know how a manual box works. Our friends in the USA find them a little tricky and refer to them as “stick shifts” or just “stick”, this is because nearly all cars in the US are autos. These days you may find 6 speed manuals are getting very common, this can confuse people who remember 4 speed boxes but using them is very simple and 6th gear can be fantastic for long motorway runs.
The advantages for a lot of people are simple; they have complete control, they know how to use them and they are cheaper to fix. They can prove a little better when it comes to economy but this very much depends on the driver. The manual box is the traditional option but for the hardened drivers it will always be the only choice, the ability to choose the gear yourself is too important.
The disadvantages very much match the advantages of the auto; the clutch can be too much for some people, especially in traffic jams. Choosing gears can be a struggle if you are not confident and the actual act of changing gear can just be too much hassle if you want a very uncomplicated drive.
So which is best for you? Well as always, you have to add up your requirements and tastes and choose what is right for your circumstances. Autos are fantastic and sadly many people are almost scared to try one, just ask your local dealer to take you on a test drive and show you before you make your choice. Once you get one and you like the feel you may find an auto is the right way to go. However, for the pure driving experience, and in order to have a less complex car the manual will always be a favorite.
If you can afford 2 cars then perhaps one of each wold be the way to go! A nice big automatic cruiser like a Jaguar XF and a nippy little manual town car like a Fiat 500. who wouldn’t want the best of both worlds?
This post really only touches on the different types of gearboxes on offer these days, keep an eye out for a guide to paddle shifts, double clutches and more!