There was a time when automatic gearboxes were only chosen by a small minority. Aside from those who bought large luxury saloons, the main demographic for self-shifting cars were the elderly. As recently as ten years ago, most were slow-witted and inefficient (the gearboxes, not old people), but things have moved on significantly.
Many manufactures are singing the praises of their automatic gearboxes, with some dual-clutch systems able to not only shift faster than a human ever could, but return marginally superior fuel economy figures too. Some brands hardly bother with manuals at all: Ferrari don’t sell a single manual model, and news that Jaguar will offer a manual in the F-Type is considered quite a big deal these days.
So which gearbox should you choose for your next car?
Typically automatic gearboxes have been for those who weren’t really interested in driving. If you wanted driving pleasure, you’d buy a manual. Now though, things have changed. The ultra-fast shifts that some auto transmissions offer means the likes of the PDK-equipped Porsche 911 is quicker than the manual version. The gap is only a tiny tenth of a second during the 0-60mph dash, but in everyday driving the difference becomes more apparent.
When driving quickly, whether on a twisty road or a circuit, a manual gearbox requires much more effort than an auto. You need to simultaneously brake, depress the clutch, shift the lever and, potentially, blip the throttle with each downshift to match engine and road speed. In an auto, the same process requires just a flick of a paddle, and the rest is worked out for you. This is the main reason why driving purists prefer a manual – it takes more skill to master. It’s so much more rewarding when you get everything just right.
On top of this, an auto is easier to manage the rest of the time. Nobody enjoys driving in traffic, yet an auto’s ability to creep by itself combined with the lack of a clutch pedal makes the whole rigmarole much less of a faff. The very best boxes shift very smoothly, and in a very quiet car, it is often difficult to work out when it changes gear at all.
Due to their complexity, you’ll almost always have to fork out extra for an automatic gearbox. Prices vary from one manufacturer to another (and indeed, one model to another.) Generally, if you want the car to do the shifting for you you’ll pay around £1,500 for the privilege – auto transmissions from the likes of Ford, Mercedes and BMW are all around this price range. Some charge more than that: Porsche’s cost £2,200, while some Audi models charge up to £2,900.
Your choice of auto or a manual rarely has a big effect on residual values, though some more luxurious brands such as Mercedes will be more desirable on the used car market if you go for the auto.
In the past, an automatic gearbox would harm a car’s fuel economy, but the more intelligent software and extra ratios used in modern systems means this is rarely the case. We would like to stress at this point that manufacturers’ claimed figures are not always entirely accurate, but at least they allow us to get a representative idea of which is best.
When looking a typical model from BMW, the 320i saloon, the manual achieves a claimed 53mpg, compared to the auto’s 52. CO2 emissions are so similar that both cars fall into the same tax bracket. Some autos offer superior economy to their manual counterparts. For example, Porsche claim that their PDK equipped 911 Carrera not only is marginally quicker in a straight line, but is also more economical to the tune of 3mpg.
However, due to the initial outlay of the auto, it could never be considered a financially sound purchase – at that rate, you’d have to drive over 154,000 miles further in the auto to recoup the £2,200 extra on the purchase price. You’re probably not buying a Porsche based on value for money anyway, so to put it differently, at claimed fuel economy figures you’d manage an extra 45 miles from the 911’s 68-litre tank.
From a financial point of view, it is still cheaper, both initially and in the long run, to go for a manual gearbox. If you’re a driving purist, then the decision will be easy too.
For everyone else, if you’re willing to accept the extra initial outlay, then an auto makes a lot of sense. They shift smoothly, they’re easier to drive, and there is little to no difference in performance or economy. Who wouldn’t want to make things easier for themselves?