Similarly to the discussion around petrol versus diesel, a lot of the argument to choose a car with a manual gearbox over an auto does not hold much water these days. It used to be argued that manuals are more economical, more reliable and more fun to drive because the driver could control engine power at will – until you drive an auto such as the DSG found on a Golf GTI and most Audi models. And is it any coincidence that you are hard-pressed these days to find a new Porsche with a manual box?
While it is true that you could control engine power better by manually selecting gears, most modern autos also allow for manual upshifts and downshifts by way of the gear selector on the centre console or paddles mounted in the steering wheel. It allows full manual mode of the car, without the cumbersome operation of a clutch. Gearshifts are much smoother and vastly quicker.
Do you spend many hours stuck in stop-and-go traffic? The clutch legs on a manual get quite a workout, you hardly move out of first or second gear and wear on the clutch plate and other components could result in you facing a clutch overhaul bill sooner than you may think. In an auto car, there is no need to concentrate on when the traffic moves or not – you simply heel and toe between the accelerator and the brake. Ah, how relaxing!
Technological advances have made autos more fuel efficient than manuals because engine speeds and actual gear choice are matched electronically to ensure the best power delivery with the least amount of fuel used. While there are still automatic cars available today with ‘only’ four forward gears, ‘boxes with 7, 8 and even 10 speeds are increasingly common, so gear ratios can be matched more evenly. Continuously variable transmissions (CVT boxes) have no set number of gears. Instead, gears run up and down a cone continuously to best match engine speed with acceleration or cruising requirements. Higher-end cars allow for the gearbox setting to be manually tuned to be more sporty or economical, depending on your driving preferences.
It is true that manual boxes are cheaper to build and maintain than an auto. The typical new price variance between a manual and auto in the same model series is about R10 000 for Japanese and Korean cars, but much more on European-sourced cars (but then resale values are also slightly higher.)
Then there is the question of driving ease. If you live in a hilly area and often have to pull away on an incline, juggling between the clutch, brake and accelerator pedal and have to release the handbrake, don’t even think twice about getting an auto. The risk of stalling the car reduces to zero. Also, having both hands on the wheel at all times makes for a compelling safety argument.
One negative about an automatic is that you cannot roll-start a car with a dead battery – you better not leave the lights on!
Essentially this is another matter of personal choice. Our suggestion: if you are familiar with only one over the other, take the alternative for a test drive in a similar model and see how you cope. You may feel you have missed out on something spectacular all along!