RAC Cars News


Should you buy manual or automatic?

By raccars Published

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With the variety of new gearbox technology available, choosing between manual or automatic can be tricky.

While manual gearboxes still work along the same lines they always have, automatic transmissions now come in several different varieties. Which one is right for you?

Manual transmission cars

Most people learn to drive in one of these, even if they opt for an automatic later on. The driver uses a floor or dashboard mounted gear stick together with a clutch to select between five or, more commonly these days, six forward gears and one reverse. What has changed is that the number of forward gears has increased in some cases, with certain high performance models now using seven gears.

Manual gearboxes are popular because of the degree of control they give the driver and the feeling of engagement with the car, which purists feel provides a more stimulating driving experience. On the other hand, they are less convenient if most of your driving is around town and much of your time is spent sitting in traffic. The constant operation of the clutch and movement between neutral, first and second gears can be frustrating. Once the more fuel-efficient option, they are being overtaken by some modern automatic transmissions in this regard.

Automatic car transmissions

The automatic transmission has been in use in a similar basic format for about seven decades and sees the driver switch between neutral, park, drive and reverse positions using a lever, knob or buttons, without the need to select the gear or use a clutch. These days the system uses a complex electronic algorithm to select a gear, and a hydraulic torque converter system does the work of the clutch and engages the mechanicals. This takes the form of a pressurised fluid which connects the engine to the gearbox and ensures smooth transitions between gears.

Automatics are usually chosen because they make driving easy. There's less thinking or physical work involved than driving a manual car and modern automatics are silky smooth in action. They don't allow the driver to choose which gear to use quite as easily as their manual counterparts but you can perform a 'kick down' if you find that you need to accelerate, for example when overtaking. Modern paddle shift automatics allow the driver to step up and down through the gears without removing his or her hands from the wheel.

Dual clutch transmissions

These allow the driver to use the car in automatic or manual mode, albeit without the traditional clutch pedal. The change is made using the gear stick or the paddle shift controls. Manual shifting is usually sequential, albeit rapid. The engineering behind these gearboxes is rather complex but they are easy enough to use, with the clutches being computer controlled to anticipate which gear you are likely to select next and the second clutch used to prepare the system for your next command.

This allows for a faster and smoother gear shift than a traditional manual or automatic and saves on fuel. A dual clutch is now a fairly standard feature in many premium vehicles and sports cars. Where this system starts to become harder to understand is when manufacturers use their own brand names for what is essentially the same technology. For example, this system is called DSG in a VW, Seat or Skoda, S-tronic in an Audi, Powershift by Volvo or Ford and PDK by Porsche.

On the surface a dual clutch transmission seems to be all things to all people, but they are of course more expensive both to buy and to repair should anything go wrong. They also tend to perform better at speed than around town.

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