Manual vs automatic – the great debate that has raged on in the automotive world since the automatic transmission made its entry onto the scene in the early part of the 20th century. The debate rages on to this day. So, if you’re looking to buy your next vehicle, and aren’t sure which one is right for you, this article is a must-read.

Here, we’ll explain:

What is the difference between an automatic and a manual car?

The main difference between a manual and automatic car is that manual cars require you to change gears yourself using a clutch pedal and a gearstick. Automatic cars will change gears for you. Manual cars, therefore, have three pedals – an accelerator, brake, and clutch.

Automatic cars only have an accelerator and a brake pedal. There is no clutch pedal, and it will change gears automatically depending on the speed you are travelling, how far down the accelerator is pressed and whether the car is driving uphill or downhill.

A typical gear stick from a manual car

A typical gearstick from an automatic car

Should I buy a manual car?

Let’s discover some of the pros of manual cars, and why you should consider it in a manual vs automatic comparison. For a balanced comparison, we’ll also outline some of the cons of manual transmissions.

Pros of manual transmission cars

More control

The driver gets far more control over the driving experience. With a manual car, you decide when to change gear. Many newer cars may provide you with visual prompts as to the most economical shift points. However, the car will never shift for you. You’re in total control of the clutch and gearstick.

Good for driving in ice and snow

They can be better suited to inclement weather conditions such as driving in ice and snow, as you have more control over the car’s power delivery.

Engine braking

Manual transmission cars allow engine braking to be used when coasting downhill. This reduces the need to ride the brakes and prolongs the life of the brake pads as a result.

Faster acceleration (on older models)

Some manual cars offer faster acceleration and higher top speeds. This is particularly relevant in the case of older sports and performance cars, where their manual counterparts are noticeably quicker than their automatic-equipped equivalents. This is often not the case with modern automatic cars, however.

Cheaper to maintain

Manual transmission-equipped cars are generally cheaper and are less expensive to maintain due to their overall simplicity.

Fun to drive

Manual cars are often considered more fun to drive by enthusiasts, but this is really down to personal preference.

Cons of manual transmission cars

More difficult to drive – particularly for new drivers

Manual transmission-equipped cars can be jerky in some cases if the driver does not have proper clutch control skills. That’s because it can be tricky for some drivers to get used to the art of balancing the clutch and throttle in an attempt to achieve smooth gearshifts.

Tiring in heavy traffic

A manual transmission-equipped car can be tiring to drive in traffic, as the driver is continually engaging and disengaging the clutch.

Can be stalled

It is possible to stall the engine in a manual transmission-equipped car when driving it in a rev range too low for the road speed. In extreme circumstances, this can cause damage to the engine/gearbox. The engine can also be revved beyond the redline due to a badly performed downshift (e.g., shifting from fifth into second instead of fourth at high speed).

Should I buy an automatic car?

An automatic transmission-equipped car features an automatic gearbox. A computer (or in the case of older cars, a hydraulic valve body) handles gear shifting duties.

There are several types of automatic transmission, including torque converter, dual-clutch, continuously variable transmission (CVT) and automated manuals, which are particularly prominent amongst small automatic cars.

Some types also allow you to manually shift gears via paddle shifters. However, the computer or valve body ultimately decides if a shift is to be allowed or not. Also, there’s no clutch pedal to learn and use.

Now, let’s look at why an automatic car can be better in this automatic vs manual comparison. We’ll also take you through some of the cons of automatic transmission-equipped cars.

Pros of automatic transmission cars

Easy to drive

An automatic car is much easier to learn how to drive, as there’s no clutch or gear shifting required. They are the easiest way to get behind the wheel and start driving.

Smooth gearshifts

Most automatic transmissions can shift gears far smoother than many drivers. This offers a better ride experience.

Excellent in traffic

An automatic car is far easier to drive in rush hour traffic, reducing driver fatigue as a result.


Some automatics offer paddle shifters for manual gear selection, enhancing the driving experience. Furthermore, the computer will protect the drivetrain by not allowing you to make shift choices that could cause damage. Most automatics will also shift up on their own if you approach the engine’s redline while holding a gear.

Cons of automatic transmission cars

Less engaging

Some say that the automatic transmission driving experience is boring, because there’s no proper engagement outside of the brake and the throttle.

More expensive to maintain

Automatic transmissions are more expensive to service and maintain because of their complexity. Problems and issues can be expensive to rectify, too.

Less overall control for the driver

There is less control with an automatic transmission, as it chooses the gears for you. Furthermore, not all automatic transmissions allow you to engage engine braking when travelling downhill. Hence, you will need to ride the brakes which will wear out the brake pads faster.

Rarer (depending on the vehicle)

If you’re looking for a small, older car, or even a classic or sports car, you’ll find a limited selection here in the UK as most of them came in manual form when new. More recently however, automatics have become much more common as a powertrain option, particularly with the increasing number of hybrid and electric cars.

What is a semi-automatic car?

A semi-automatic transmission, also known as an automated manual transmission or robotised manual transmission, is essentially a manual transmission where the clutch and gear shifting have been automated.

What is the difference between semi-automatic cars and automatic cars?

The main difference between semi-automatic cars and automatic cars is that the basic transmission is still a manual transmission. Hence, it is easier and cheaper to maintain than a full-blown automatic car. The driver can also shift gears at will, and let the system take over when they’re tired of doing so.

However, semi-automatic cars can be jerky as they are using a computer to actuate the clutch. This characteristic can also make them tiresome to drive in traffic and when parking.

A typical gearstick from a semi-automatic car.

Can you drive a semi-auto car on an automatic licence?

As per the DVLA, yes you can, as long as it doesn’t have a clutch pedal.

Which is better, manual or automatic?

There is no one or correct answer. If you’re a keen driver who enjoys driving and wants the most engaging driving experience, choose a manual transmission. If you drive a lot in city traffic and desire the most hassle-free driving experience, an automatic transition might suit you better.

Of course, if you hold an automatic-only licence, you can’t drive a manual transmission-equipped car until you obtain a manual licence. However, if you are already permitted to drive a manual transmission-equipped car on your licence, you can legally drive an automatic transmission-equipped car.

Frequently Asked Questions