Should I Buy a Manual or Automatic Transmission?

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There are a lot of decisions that have to be made when buying a new car. Everything from choosing a make, model, and trim level to deciding if upgrading the stereo is worth the extra money. One of the biggest decisions you will have to make is whether you prefer a manual or automatic transmission. There are definite pros and cons to each, and understanding the basics of these two types of transmissions is key to making the right decision.

When shopping for a new car it is a good idea to test drive both a manual and an automatic if you are on the fence regarding a transmission choice. While a manual transmission will give you more control over the vehicle and may enhance the driving experience, an automatic is easy and convenient.

The transmission that is right for you will depend on a number of factors. Everything from how you drive to the horsepower under the hood to whether you prefer convenience over performance will influence your decision.

Automatic: Automatic transmissions use a planetary system of gears. These gears transfer power to the wheels using a variety of different gear ratios. A planetary gear set uses a central gear that is referred to as the sun gear. It also has an outer ring with internal gear teeth, this is call the ring gear. In addition, there are two or three other planet gears, which allow the gear ratio to change as the vehicle is accelerated.

The drivetrain of the vehicle is coupled to a torque converter, which functions as a clutch between the transmission and drivetrain. An automatic transmission change gears automatically as the vehicle accelerates or slows down.

Manual: A manual transmission has a flywheel that is attached to the crankshaft of the engine. The flywheel spins with the crankshaft. There is a clutch disk between the pressure plate and the flywheel. The pressure created by the pressure plate holds the clutch disk against the flywheel. When the clutch is engaged, the flywheel spins the clutch plate and the transmission. When the clutch pedal is pushed down, the pressure plate no longer applies pressure to the clutch disk, which allows the gears to be changed.

The costs associated with each transmission

There are some very real differences between a manual and automatic transmission and depending on what you are looking for, they can be advantages or disadvantages. Let’s have a quick look at just a few of the major variances between the two systems so you can decide which factors are important to you.

Initial costs: In almost all cases, a manual transmission will be the cheaper option when buying a new car. Savings will vary depending on the vehicle but expect a price cut of at least $1,000 when comparing a manual to an automatic.

Running costs: Again, the manual transmission is the winner in this category. Manual transmissions will almost always get better fuel economy than an automatic. The gap is closing though as automatics gain more gears and become more sophisticated.

Maintenance costs: Automatic transmissions are complicated and contain lots of moving parts and for that reason they tend to be more expensive to maintain. Expect more regular maintenance costs as well as a big bill if the transmission ever fails.

For example, having to replace or rebuild an automatic transmission will usually cost thousands while the cost for replacing a clutch will be in the hundreds.

  • Note: Eventually, an automatic transmission will have to be replaced or rebuilt, they almost never last the entire life of a car.

Manual transmissions are much simpler and will often perform flawlessly over the life of the car, requiring a much less maintenance. In most cases the clutch disc will have to be replaced over the life of the car but in general, maintenance costs are lower. Manual transmissions use gear or engine oil, which doesn’t deteriorate as quickly as automatic transmission fluid (ATF).

Power: There are definite differences in how an automatic and manual transmission transfer engine power to the wheels and that can make one transmission type offer a distinct advantage over the other. In the majority of cases you get the most power out of a vehicle using a manual transmission but there are trade-offs, especially convenience.

Convenience:The truth is that automatics are just easier and more convenient to drive. It pays to carefully consider your lifestyle and driving habits when choosing between a manual and automatic.

Stop and go: A manual transmission can be a pain for people who have a long commute in rush hour traffic. The constant shifting and depressing the clutch pedal can become tiresome. In some cases, especially a vehicle that has a heavy clutch, leg or joint pain has been known to occur.

Learning curve: While driving an automatic is pretty easy and straightforward, there is a definite learning curve with a manual transmission. Beginning drivers can expect to experience missed shifts, jerking, bucking and stalling. In addition, starting off on a hill can be a somewhat scary experience until you become comfortable with the clutch.

Now you are ready for a test drive.

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