Automatic Vs. Stick

By Chandra Orr

January 22, 2010 6 min read

Manual, automatic, manumatic, twin-clutch, CVT. Confused?

If you're shopping for a new vehicle, prepare yourself. With the modern array of available transmission styles, it's no longer a simple question of stick vs. automatic -- and much of the decision comes down to driver preference.

"Ultimately, the choice in transmission depends on the driver, the driving style, the vehicle and the drive itself," says Brian Gluckman, media relations manager for AutoTrader.com.

*Traditional Stick

Prefer to feel the power of the engine? Sports car aficionados have long praised the manual transmission for putting the driver in control.

"The real benefit of manual transmissions is a feeling of being more connected to a vehicle, more engaged in the driving process," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com.

On the flip side, that means no more coasting through rush-hour traffic.

"You can't just sit back and let the car do the work. You have to operate the gear shift level and clutch pedal on a constant basis," Brauer says.

Manual transmissions are typically less expensive than automatics -- drivers can save $500 to $1,200 -- but they require more maintenance in the long run.

"The manual transmission is simpler in design, so it's less expensive to build and sell initially, but the clutch has to be replaced on a regular basis, though that time frame is totally dependent on driving style," Brauer says.

With normal wear, expect to rebuild the clutch at about 100,000 miles.

In the past, manual transmissions offered better fuel efficiency and quicker acceleration, but advances in modern automatics have leveled the playing field, Brauer says.

*Modern Automatics

Invented in the 1930s by General Motors, automatic transmissions made their first appearance in the Oldsmobile line. They were revolutionary at the time, but modern automatics have little in common with their early ancestors.

"Earlier automatics were basically designed to upshift on a simple algorithm based solely on engine and vehicle speed, with no adjustments for driver behavior," Gluckman says.

Thanks to modern computers, today's automatic transmissions are a whole lot smarter, able to "learn" a driver's behavior and adjust the shift patterns accordingly.

"If a driver is more aggressive with the throttle, the vehicle learns to hold a lower gear longer, giving the driver access to more power from the engine," Gluckman explains. "The same is true if the driver is a featherweight trying to maximize fuel economy."

Automatics earn their stripes for ease of use and are favored by commuters facing the daily grind of stop-and-go traffic. Plus, the long-term cost savings can be considerable.

Automatics typically cost more to purchase but require less frequent maintenance than their manual counterparts.

"Automatics are more complex and expensive but also pretty much maintenance-free unless there is a major malfunction," Brauer says. "They can run for well over 100,000 miles with no repair costs at all."

*Alternative Automatics

Most drivers opt for automatics for sheer convenience, but not all are created equal. In addition to the standard system, manufacturers offer continuously variable transmissions and direct-shift gearbox transmissions.

"CVTs don't actually have fixed gears like a traditional automatic but in fact use a system that allows for an infinite array of potential gears, theoretically maximizing both performance and efficiency," Gluckman explains.

Subaru introduced the first continuously variable transmission. Since then, Nissan, Honda, GM, Ford and Toyota have used the system.

"The downside of the CVT is that some drivers complain of an elastic feeling in the drivetrain, almost like a rubber band, though as CVTs have improved, these complaints have become much fewer," Gluckman says.

The direct-shift gearbox -- or twin-clutch transmission -- offers similar flexibility. Used by Volkswagen and Mitsubishi, DSGs employ two separate manual gear systems and clutches that work as one unit.

"You have lightning-fast shifts because the next and theoretically ideal gear is always preselected and can be obtained at a speed unobtainable by a human shifting a manual transmission," Gluckman says.

The twin clutch results in a faster car with better gas mileage, but because of the additional parts, DSGs are often pricier than traditional automatics.

*Manumatics

Can't decide? A manumatic transmission -- aka autostick -- blends the convenience of an automatic with the control of a manual.

Originally introduced by Porsche as the Tiptronic, manumatic transmissions now are found on a multitude of vehicles, even economy cars.

"Essentially, this feature gives the driver more control over what gear the transmission selects, allowing the driver to override the computer and select a lower or higher gear based on road conditions," Gluckman explains.

Most manumatic systems employ fail-safe features that prevent drivers from selecting gears that would damage the engine. Otherwise, drivers have nearly full control over the shifting patterns, Gluckman says.

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