Is Manual Really Better Than Automatic?
Author: Carly Augustynowicz
March 22, 2021
I'm going to take a wild guess and say that a majority of the people who clicked on this blog are either one, genuinely interested in learning what transmission is actually better or two, are upset that we would ask a question like this because the answer is obvious, right?
Either way, we're glad you're here.
First, let me point out that I am, and will always be, a manual-loving enthusiast. BUT, with that being said, there are some applications and scenarios where an automatic transmission is better and even safer than a manual.
This debate has gone on since the automatic transmission was invented back in 1921. If you drive a manual, you probably have a strong opinion on this and the same goes with automatic owners.
Each transmission has its own benefits and conveniences, but ultimately, it depends on what your car is used for that determines what transmission is generally better. Let's break it down.
*To note, we're going to be discussing a traditional automatic transmission, not DCT or Dual Clutch Transmissions for simplicity's sake
What's Best For Daily Driving?
This question doesn't have a solid answer and truly depends on your preferences as a driver and how much power your car can put down.
As a general rule of thumb, with a car making over 500 horsepower, I'd argue that an automatic transmission is better over a manual transmission. Here's why.
With a 500+ horsepower car, you'll be able to use your power better with an automatic because you won't need to worry about your RPMs or shifting gears, your car does those things for you.
Anything under that 500 horsepower mark, I think manuals are better. Manual cars give drivers more control over their power and the ability to hold the revs longer since they have full control over the gears. More important than that even, driving manual is FUN.
It's about the driving experience, downshifting under a bridge (come on, everyone does it), and that feeling of control over your car. Those feelings are nonexistent in an automatic.
But then you have the situation of driving in the city vs. driving somewhere less populated like the country, for example. Driving in the city, especially when traffic is bad, is a pain in the a$$ with a manual car. If you know, you know.
You're constantly on the clutch and going from 1st to 2nd to 3rd gear, then back down to 1st and then 2nd and 3rd, and maybe even 4th gear this time, but then the light turns red and you're back to 1st gear and neutral...again. Ughhh. *Que the road rage*
We've all been there. In this case, an automatic car has the advantage. It's annoying for the driver to be in control of shifting gears in the city and it's not great for the clutch, or MPG for that matter.
Despite all of this, it really comes down to preference, lifestyle, and what kind of driving experience you want. If you enjoy driving stick and value the more raw driving experience, driving a manual, even in the city, is well worth it.
If you aren't concerned about how your car shifts or about having control over RPM, an automatic is probably better suited for your lifestyle.
What's Best For Drag Racing?
If your car is built for drag racing, you already know that an automatic is generally better. First, the power most drag cars are making is at or well over 500 horsepower so it's easier to put down all your power and get the best time possible with an automatic.
BUT don't yell at me yet. I've seen plenty of manual cars on the strip that absolutely kill it and get great times.
Talking about time slips, every tenth of a second counts when you're trying to set some records or beat your buddies. Unless you're 100% confident in your shifting abilities, you'll probably lose some time when you shift; it's inevitable.
Plus, we've all heard of the heart-wrenching money shift scenario and NO ONE wants to be in that situation.
If you don't know what the money shift is, this is when someone accidentally shifts into a lower gear when they're booking it down the drag strip. For example, if you're looking for 4th gear but land in 2nd, you're engine is going to make some scary noises.
In a lot of cases, your engine and transmission are toast and will cost you your entire savings to replace it, hence the "money shift" name. My soul hurts even thinking about it...
Like I mentioned before, this doesn't mean that manual cars can't perform well on the drag strip, because I've seen plenty of stick cars that make great passes.
The general consensus is that automatics are easier and more efficient on the drag strip because you basically can't miss or skip a gear when shifting. At the same time, you'll also miss out on using your car's full power and torque output with an automatic.
What's Best For Autocross?
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the autocross community where having an automatic car can possibly limit your performance. So manuals definitely win this category.
The biggest advantage of having a manual car for autocross as opposed to an automatic is the control over your RPMs and therefore keeping your car in the powerband to book it out of those corners as fast as possible.
For most autocross tracks/courses, you're going to stay in 2nd gear and maybe, maybe see 3rd gear depending on the track.
Having this control over your car's gearbox gives you the advantage of your car's powerband in the lower rev range through the corners and into the straights.
If you need more power, you can downshift. If you're starting right off the line, you can rev it all the way to redline and make the decision about when to shift.
Bottom line, a manual car will serve you better for autocross in most cases compared to an automatic. But again, I've seen plenty of automatics on the autocross track who make some great runs.
Like I said before, I will always love the driving manual and feel passionate about the experience of driving manual.
At the same time, I think we can all agree that there are certain scenarios where there's a clear line between manuals and automatics in terms of safety, convenience, and functionality.
Drag strip dedicated cars are more than likely going to be racing automatic, but autocross cars are going to be better off with a manual or at least a transmission with paddle shifters. It's a matter of control and the type of racing for these situations.
For all the daily drivers out there, it depends on what matters to you. Do you want control over what gear your car shifts in? Do you like convenience over experience?
What do you think? Are manuals better far out or do you prefer an automatic? Let us know in the comments what you think!