Automatic or manual

What is a transmission?

This is the mechanism by which the power is transmitted from an engine to the wheels of a motor vehicle. You’ll probably refer to it as the ‘gears’ or ‘gearbox’. A transmission is needed because there is a redline – a maximum revolutions per minute (rpm) value – over which a car cannot go without exploding and narrow rpm gauges where horsepower (the power of the engine) and torque (the twisting force that causes rotation) are at their maximum. The transmission allows the gear ratio between the engine and the drive wheels to change as the car speeds up and slows down.

What is manual transmission?

This can also be known as stick-shift, stick, straight drive or standard transmission – in the UK it’s the gear-boxes we are most used to, the ones that require a pressed down clutch pedal to change. These have about several settings including first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and reverse gears plus neutral position in the middle. However the arrangement pattern for these settings can vary depending how many gears you have and in the case of the reverse gear. Mostly they resemble a sort of ‘H’ format. In most cars you should be able to select one of these gears at any time, as long as you hold the clutch down. In manual cars you are shifting gears so that the engine can stay below the redline and near the rpm of its best performance – you know when this is, because the car makes a grating or impatient sound.

What is automatic transmission?

Commonly abbreviated as AT, this is an automobile gearbox that can change gear ratios automatically as the vehicle moves. This means that the driver doesn’t have to do it manually. Look on most automatic cars and the ‘gear stick’ will have about four or five settings including parking, reverse, neutral and drive. Some models have manual overdrive but this is not often used. While some cars have continuously variable transmissions that allow them to move over a range rather than between set gear ratios. AT is very popular in the US – possibly because of the long straight roads and the desire to ‘cruise’ along them. It has also been poplar in Asia since the 1990s. While UK drivers traditionally prefer manual cars, more AT cars are coming onto the market and being snapped up – Nissan, Toyota, Citroen, Honda and Ford all do small affordable models that don’t mirror the cliché of the big, corporate automatic car. Some are even said to be more economical and better for the environment too.

Which one should I choose?

It really depends on you: how you like to drive, where you drive and for how long. An automatic transmission is said to be easier to operate as you don’t need to use both feet or have a ‘tree’ of gears but some say it’s not as satisfying to drive, especially on country roads. With manual you may feel you have more control of the car, power and purpose, moving up gears as you go faster. On the other hand, many city drivers prefer automatic as it can alleviate the tiredness and strain than can come from constant shifting of the gear and clutch while waiting in traffic. However, automatic cars require more brake usage to avoid a car’s tendency to creep forwards. On fuel consumption, automatic cars are said to be less efficient as they require more power to operate. Automatic cars may also need more regular and complex servicing plus if the battery dies they are stuck – with a manual you can at least push start it.

Can I drive any car in the UK with an automatic licence?

Do be aware that if you pass your test in an automatic car then you will not be able to legally drive a manual car in the UK. If you take your test in a manual car then you can drive a manual or an automatic vehicle. This applies to drivers from other countries too. If you want the choice of both, you can always retake the test.

Related information:

Learning to drive

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