Automatic vs Manual – The Ultimate Guide

In the old days it was simple: keen drivers bought a car with a manual gearbox and people who didn’t care about cars and driving bought an automatic.
We cant remember when this started to change, but change it has. Hell, Ferrari doesn’t even offer UK customers a manual option anymore, something that has been driven by consumer demand – no one wants a manual Ferrari now. If the best sports cars on the planet are better with an automatic gearbox then what hope is there for the rest of us who prefer to change gears manually?
Here are the pros and cons for each, helping you to decide which cog-changing option will suit you the best.

Purchase price

Automatic cars do cost a bit more to buy. Take, for example, the Audi A1 Sportback that we drove recently. If you choose the 1.4-litre TFSI engine (and you should, by the way) it costs 15,585 with a six-speed manual gearbox. If you choose the seven-speed S tronic automatic gearbox then you’ll pay £17,035, a premium of £1,450.
If you move up a size and look at the Ford Mondeo its a similar story: The Zetec 2.0-litre TDCi costs £20,895 with a six-speed manual gearbox and £22,395 with PowerShift Auto.
On a high end car, such as the 3-Series, the difference is around £1,500.
So, you will generally have to pay more for a car if you tick the automatic gearbox option.

Residual value

Weve seen that you have to spend more to buy a new car that will change gear automatically; now well look at whether you will get that premium back when you come to sell it.
If we take the Audi A1 1.4 TFSI 3-door, we can see that after two years and 20,000 miles one with a manual gearbox would be worth about 13,500 sold it privately, having depreciated by 3,400. The same car, fitted with an automatic gearbox, is worth 14,200 having lost just over 4,000.
The Ford Mondeo is a similar story. A Zetec 2.0-litre TDCi saloon from 2010 with a manual gearbox option depreciates by 12,124, while one with an automatic gearbox loses 13,034.
You can see then that an automatic depreciates at about the same rate as a manual car, allowing for the higher initial purchase price; you lose a bit more cash, but as a percentage the figures are about even.
S-Tronic gearbox

Fuel economy

In the old days cars with a manual gearbox gave better fuel economy. Auto boxes just werent as efficient as they manual siblings, meaning that they wasted fuel, lots and lots of fuel. Is this still the case?
A modern Audi A4 2.0TDI with a manual gearbox, as an example, returns 62.8mpg on average according to Audis official figures, while the automatic multitronic gives 58.9mpg. The Hyundai i30 is an even more extreme example: 76.3mpg for the 1.6CRDi manual and 51.4mpg for the automatic.
So no, automatic gearboxes aren’t always as efficient as manual gearboxes. However, sometimes they can be more efficient!
For example, the Porsche 911 will do 34.4 mpg with the PDK auto, and only 31.4 in the manual. The Alfa Romeo Giulietta with its fancy new TCT auto-box gives around 7mpg more than then manual equivalent.
There are also examples where they are equally frugal, the Audi A1 1.4 TFSI and BMW 118d both quote the same mpg figures for manual and auto variants.
But, please do bear in mind that these figures are absolutes, given under strict test conditions with every parameter tightly controlled. The trouble is that the world isnt like that. In real-world use you probably wont see such an extreme difference.

Insurance

Choosing a manual or automatic gearbox can affect your insurance premiums, but only because of the price you pay. As autos are generally more expensive then they often cost a tiny bit more to insure.

Reliability

No difference at all. Please dont let reliability alter your perspective. If you service both types according to the manufacturers recommendations youll be fine.

Driving pleasure

Ah, the easiest category of the lot, I hear you cry; manual gearboxes give a delicacy of touch, a level of control and a sensory experience that cannot be rivalled by any slushbox.
Perhaps. But pretty much every modern auto box is fitted with manual controls too, whether they be flappy-paddles behind the steering wheel, or a manual gearlever that you push and pull (or both), so you will be able to override the auto option. This means that you can thrash them to your hearts content on twisty country roads and sit back and relax in town or on the motorway.

Performance

You might lose the odd tenth of a second in the 0-62mph dash if you let the car do the gear changing – but if you override it and change gear manually then there will be nothing in it.
In fact, unless you race cars for a living then Ill bet that you can change gear more quickly by pulling a flappy paddle then you ever can by manipulating a clutch, accelerator, and gear lever at the same time.
Again though, there are exceptions, using the new 911 and Alfa Giulietta again, these cars fitted with the latest types of auto gearbox are actually marginally faster.

Conclusion

Modern automatics really can be every car for every situation: refined and relaxing to drive when you want to waft around town, and hard-core, redline screamers when you want a fast blast across country.
Yes, theyll cost you a bit more to buy initially, and in most cases use a bit more fuel, but for ease of use and yet also having the option to put a smile on your face, they cant be beaten. Who’d have predicted that twenty years ago?
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