Manual vs Automatic Cars: The differences

25th Jun 2021

Two pedals or three?

It's a debate that continues to split many drivers, especially petrolheads; which is better, an automatic gearbox or a manual one? And what exactly are the differences?

The main difference is that in a manual car there are three pedals. The left pedal operates the clutch, whilst the middle controls the brake, and finally on the right you have the accelerator. In an automatic or semi-automatic car you just have two pedals. The left for the brake and the right for the accelerator.

Manual and automatic gearboxes also have numerous pros and cons, read on below to discover them, as well as some information regarding some cool cars that feature them.

The Manual Gearbox

BMW Manual Gearbox

Usually, those who appreciate and prefer a manual gearbox tend to be keen drivers who like the feel and involvement a manual transmission brings to a car.

There is something pure about changing the gears yourself in a manual car. The biggest difference when compared to an automatic is the fact that you have an extra pedal (the clutch), therefore your left leg and left hand are responsible for making the car operate, whilst in an automatic, your left leg is made redundant in operating the car entirely.

Some cars even suit a manual gearbox better due to their characteristics, power and size. Examples include the Porsche Cayman, BMW M2, Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i30 N. All of these cars are celebrated as being focused drivers' cars where the manual operation of the gearbox adds to the enjoyment of the driving experience.

Pros of a manual:

  • High engagement
  • Less expensive than an auto
  • Rarer than an auto (performance cars)

Cons of a manual:

  • Can be annoying in stop-start traffic
  • More work and concentration needed in the drive
  • More common in cheap cars than an auto (as cheaper to make)

The Automatic Gearbox

Automatic BMW Driver

Automatic gearboxes of old tended to be slow, jerky and rare when compared to the manual gearbox. As technology has progressed however, so has the automatic gearbox.

Modern automatic transmissions are now smooth, seamless and hugely popular. Most automatic gearboxes in today's cars are semi-automatic too, which enables the driver to change gear 'manually' via paddles which are located on the back of the steering wheel without the need for a clutch.

Automatic transmissions are more pleasant in traffic and allow the driver to be more relaxed as a whole when driving, hopefully allowing them to concentrate more on the road.

Some cars offer so much power that an automatic/semi-automatic gearbox allows them to deploy all the power to the road. Auto gearboxes also mean 0 to 62mph times are usually faster than their manual counterparts.

Automatic gearboxes are typically the standard in luxury and high-end cars, but there are plenty of small automatic cars, too.

Pros of an auto:

  • Automatic, easy to use
  • Quieter at speed
  • Faster acceleration in modern cars

Cons of an auto:

  • No engagement
  • Sometimes can stutter
  • More expensive to buy than manual

Manual vs Automatic

Happy Driver

The clue is in the name when it comes to the differences between automatic and manual gearboxes.

Automatics do all the work for you, unless you opt for a semi-automatic where you can change gear via paddles when the mood suits, or simply let the car do all the work. This ensures for a more relaxing and smoother drive. Even with a semi-automatic, you still don't have to operate a clutch making gearshifts faster and almost seamless.

A manual gearbox is far more engaging and is usually only offered in low value cars or expensive high performance cars. The quality is very different however. Cheap cars feature a basic manual, whereas performance cars feature a manual gearbox which may include a short-shift feature making the action smoother and quicker.

  • Manuals are more engaging - sought after in performance cars
  • Automatics offer more comfort - easier to live with, effortless operation
  • Manuals are less expensive - normally found in entry-level superminis etc.
  • Automatics are easier to operate - accelerate and brake, no need for clutch operation

Cars with both gearbox choices

Ford Mustang Driver

Some manufacturers offer a manual or automatic gearbox option with certain models in their range. This means the car has the potential to appeal to more buyers.

Everyday cars like the Vauxhall Corsa and Peugeot 208 offer manual and automatic gearbox choices in their latest models, whilst used performance cars such as the Ford Mustang are also available with manual or automatic gearboxes.

The superminis mentioned will suit a manual gearbox as their compact nature means they will be a doddle to drive around town. The performance cars mentioned will be more of a workout to operate in traffic due to their high performance nature, but will be more entertaining on a B-Road than their auto counterparts.

Automatics in both types of car will use less fuel on a motorway and will also tend to be quieter at speed due to their automatic gearing.

Automatic or manual, find your preferred choice with Evans Halshaw

As with many things in life, making the choice between a manual gearbox and an automatic one all depends on personal preference.

Both versions have their pros and cons, and it will all depend on what you use the car for. An automatic car will be easier to live with on a daily basis, whereas a manual car will provide more fun if only used at the weekend for example - as will be the case with many performance cars.

No matter what your preference, you can search our new and used car offers and select a manual or automatic gearbox via the search functionality, allowing you to find your perfect new or used car.