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Manual or automatic? What your transmission says about you

Whether choosing from sedans, SUVs, pickups, convertibles or a 1970s custom van with dragons and wizards, there are many types of cars out there that help express who we are. After all, selecting a car is as much about a lifestyle choice and self-expression as it is about getting around town. But we want to take it a layer deeper to ask: What about transmissions? Why do some people go for one transmission over another?

What is a transmission?

First, let’s start with defining what a transmission is. In basic terms, a transmission is the collection of mechanical components that transmit power from the motor to the wheels. It can also be referred to as a part of the drivetrain.

There are two types of transmissions: manual and automatic. Manuals, also known as stick-shifts or sticks, have been around since the early 20th century, when cars were first invented and known as horseless carriages.

Later came automatics. Automatics were introduced in the early to mid-20th century and became popular as a premium feature during the post-war golden age of American automobiles. Over time they’ve become the go-to choice for most.

The set up

One of the big differences between the major types of transmissions is the set up for the driver, starting with the pedals. Manuals have three pedals: gas, brake and clutch and the driver operates the gearbox directly with the stick shifter to select six-or-so gears manually.

Automatic transmissions, on the other hand, have only two pedals: gas and brake. The shifter operates “automatically,” without a clutch. You may be familiar with the initials "PRNDL." It stands for park, reverse, neutral, drive and low. When an automatic is in drive, the gears essentially shift themselves.

Who likes manuals?

In general, manual enthusiasts say a stick shift set up gives them more control over the vehicle. In the US, some sports car enthusiasts tend to like manual transmissions. In addition to providing more control over the car, drivers say a stick provides a more tactile experience as you up-gear and down-gear. Frugal drivers might also be attracted to manuals because these cars tend to cost a bit less than automatics and typically get better gas mileage on average, though today’s on-board computers that control automatic transmissions drive the best fuel efficiency according to some.

Interestingly, in rugged parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, drivers of pickups and SUVs tend to prefer manuals to help manage rugged terrain. Putting a four-wheel drive truck in first or second gear can help when going up or down steep hills, over dirt roads and through muddy surfaces. Also, European drivers tend to default to manual transmissions for most cars. In fact, it’s hard to find an automatic, even at car rental agencies.

Who likes automatics?

Most US drivers default to automatics for every kind of car. Sedans, sports cars, SUVs included. In Latin America and the Caribbean drivers tend to prefer automatic transmissions for sedans and city driving, especially in the mega cities with heavy traffic.

How to choose the right transmission style

Weighing the pros and cons of an automatic transmission and a manual transmission is a good place to start. Let’s start by breaking down the realities of driving a stick.

Pros of driving a manual or stick

  • Driving a stick shift gives you more control since you control gears, thus making it easier for you to slow down and/or stop.
  • Less maintenance. The only part that usually needs replacing is the clutch, which shouldn’t happen until the end of your car’s life, depending on how many miles you rack up.
  • Usually cheaper than automatic cars.
  • More engaging, hands-on ride.

Cons of driving a manual or stick

  • Big learning curve for people who learned on automatic.
  • Can get bothersome in stop-and-go heavy traffic.
  • Dangerous on hills if you’re not experienced.
  • Models may not be as modern from both an aesthetic, technological and safety perspective.

Pros of driving automatic

  • Easier to drive, especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
  • Better selection.  Most cars on market in the US are automatic
  • Considerably smoother ride.
  • Potentially better gas mileage.

Cons of driving automatic

  • Since an automatic is more complex, it may require more maintenance. 
  • Typically, more expensive.
  • Considered not as “fun” to drive by those who know stick.

Your transmission horoscope

Here’s our diagnosis: Manual owners may prefer a sense of control and the beauty and solitude of remote locations. Automatic owners may prefer to go with the flow and seek out convenience and ease of use.

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