Motoring Advice

Why should I buy Manual v Automatic?

Feb 22, 2017

Why should I buy Manual v Automatic?

Many years ago, my car-mad grandmother (we used to call her Granny Mansell - seriously) averred to me that one should simply never buy an automatic gearbox, because to do so was to deny oneself the sheer pleasure of changing gear. Of interactive driving. Of being in total control of one's vehicle.

Back then she was probably right. Automatics were, by and large, the preserve of larger, more luxurious cars and were perceived as slower and thirstier than manuals.

Today, though? Different story, really. The fact is that automatics have caught up in so many ways that it might actually be better to go for one now than a manual, certainly in newer cars.

Of course the first thing to consider is price. A manual gearbox is standard fit for most new cars and adding an auto will always cost you extra. Volkswagen's DSG transmission is in the region of €1,200 extra for most of its models while BMW will charge you more than €2,000 for the prospect of having someone else (ok, 'something else') do your gear changing. Worth it? On the BMW, or a similarly priced premium model, absolutely: second hand buyers expect their luxury cars to have self-shifters, so the extra outlay in buying will be recouped at resale time. In cars like a Volkswagen, or a similar Ford, Toyota, Opel etc. it's a less certain choice. An increasing cohort of buyers prefer automatics, but most will be just as happy with a manual and won't be keen to pay the extra premium.

Of course, it doesn't help that there is now more than one breed of automatic. The old-style torque converter auto is probably best represented by German firm ZF's near-ubiquitous eight-speed unit as found in many BMWs, Audis, Jaguars and others. It's exceptionally smooth, so much so that you'll often struggle to tell when it has changed up or down, and is so efficient now that it can actually improve both the emissions and fuel economy figures of your car, overturning the old prejudice about autos being thirstier.

The other primary type of automatic is the dual-clutch gearbox, as popularised by Volkswagen and its DSG system, but now common to almost all car makers. These use computer controlled clutches and two gear ratio shafts to change gear with lightning speed, improving both acceleration and often economy. Not all dual-clutch gearboxes are equal however. The best will save you fuel and reduce emissions, but some will make it worse; some are far less smooth and refined than the best traditional automatic; and some require a great deal of extra maintenance to ensure reliability.

Finally, there's the CVT, or Constant Velocity Transmission. Instead of gears and cogs, these use belts and pulleys to, theoretically, hold an engine at its most efficient speed while altering the transmission ratio to suit acceleration or cruising. They're most often used in hybrids (all Toyota and Lexus hybrids use a CVT) and are great around town, but can be tiresome on the open road, forcing the engine to remain running at high rpm when you ask for meaningful acceleration.

(Incidentally, for those wondering, pure electric cars don't generally need a gearbox - they drive the wheels directly from the spinning of the electric motor, and simply use a single reduction gear to bring the high rpm speed of that motor down to sane levels for wheel speed.)

So, as we asked at first, which is better? No easy answer unfortunately. The gaps in performance between automatic and manual have become blurred, so if you're especially concerned about fuel consumption, check the spec sheet of any car you're looking at carefully to see which gearbox option is the better performer. Remember the rule of expensive cars - the higher the price the more it will need an auto to do well at resale time, and beyond that go with your own preference. Do you like to sit back and let the car do the work? Or, like my dear departed grandmother, do you prefer to come over all Fangio and take full control yourself?