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Manual vs. automatic transmissions

If you're in the market for a vehicle and don't know what type to look for, read this breakdown.

Vehicle manual gear shift

The basic types of transmission are automatic and manual. The transmission channels the power that is generated by the engine to drive the wheels. 

Transmissions, or gearboxes, help control a car's speed and torque (rotational force). The higher the speed, the higher the gear needed. Automatic cars shift gears on their own, while manual cars require you to shift gears with the stick shift. 

Let's take a look at each transmission separately.

What is a manual transmission?

With manual transmissions, the driver operates the clutch and decides when to shift gears. With a manual, or stick shift as it's also called, most drivers feel they're more involved with the mechanics of the vehicle and that it is simply more fun to drive.
 
Some other benefits include:
 
  • Fuel efficiency. Cars with manual transmissions are traditionally known to be more fuel efficient since the engines are lighter and less complicated. However, fuel efficiency in most car models varies by only a few miles per gallon depending on the transmission type. 
  • Price. Manual transmissions are generally less expensive for automakers to install, but the sticker price between the two types remains close. One thing to consider is resale value. Fewer buyers may know how to drive a car with a manual transmission, but those looking for a sport or performance vehicle may prefer the manual transmission, which could increase its resale value. In addition, maintenance and repairs are less costly with a manual transmission. Insurance might also be cheaper, as they are less complicated in terms of mechanics. 
  • Less likely to be stolen.  As more vehicles come equipped with automatic transmissions, the "art" of driving a manual is almost a thing of the past. If a thief is looking to steal your car and it's a manual, there's a good chance they'll find a new target.
  • Better control.  Manual transmissions offer the driver greater control over the vehicle since they get to choose what gear to use and when.

What are the cons of a manual transmission?

 
  • Not the best for long commutes.  While manual cars can be fun to drive, you may want to think about your daily commute, if you have one. It's nice to have full control of the vehicle, but after hours on a highway, or in stop and go traffic, you might wish you had an automatic instead.
  • Variety.  There are fewer and fewer manual cars made each year, but the variety is wider than it used to be. You can find heavy-duty trucks, sports cars and sedans with manual transmissions. As of October 2019, just 1.2% of new cars sold for the year had manual transmission , according to edmunds.com.
  • More difficult to drive.  If you live in a hilly area, it can be challenging to operate the gears and a clutch. It involves more thinking, and you need to be careful, especially if stopped in the middle of a hill. You don't want to drift back into a car behind you. You're also likely to stall in a vehicle with a manual transmission.

What is an automatic transmission?

A vehicle with an automatic transmission selects the right gear for you in relation to speed and road conditions. The major types of automatic transmissions are:
 
  • Traditional automatic:  This type of automatic transmission is connected to the car's engine via a torque converter.
  • Dual-clutch automatic:  This automatic transmission type depends on a pair of clutches to engage the gears.
Some benefits of an automatic transmission include:
 
  • Easier to drive.  Because it takes practice to learn to drive a stick shift, most people are more comfortable driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission. They're simply easier to learn how to drive. In addition, drivers can keep both hands on the wheel, allowing for better control.
  • Easier in heavy traffic.  Overall, more work goes into driving a stick shift in terms of starting and stopping. That's normally not a problem, but in heavy traffic, the driver can't get up to a constant speed. Automatic transmissions allow the driver to easily switch between just two pedals for a more comfortable ride.
  • Better to drive in hilly areas.  While automatics might not be as fun to drive over hilly terrain, they're easy to navigate because there is no guess work on what gear to use.

What are the cons of an automatic transmission?

 
  • Not as fuel-efficient.  In the past, automatic transmissions were thought to not be as fuel efficient as manual transmissions, but technology is getting better.
  • Price.  Not only is the initial price higher, it can also be more expensive to fix and maintain. In addition, insurance is sometimes higher on automatic transmissions.

What is a continuously variable transmission (CVT)?

There is also a transmission type called continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT transmission does not have individual gears but does have one gear that is variable for all driving conditions. It uses a belt-and-pulley system to transfer engine power to the vehicle's wheels, allowing for an infinite gradient of ratios.
 
Some benefits of the CVT transmission include:
 
  • Fuel efficiency.  This type has marginally better fuel miles per gallon, especially for city drivers.
  • Smooth shifting.  Unlike ordinary automatic transmissions, drivers will not feel the shift from one gear to the next.
  • Easy to drive.  They produce simple and more efficient power and eliminate the feeling of shifting from gear to gear.
  • Efficient engine speed.  Vehicles with a CVT transmission produce the most efficient engine speed for each driving situation even during rapid acceleration.

What are the cons of a CVT transmission?

Vehicles with CVT transmissions take some time to get accustomed to. Drivers have complained of a low, continuous noise, known as engine drone, that can be bothersome to a select few. The best way to know if a CVT transmission vehicle is right for you is to have a thorough test drive.
 

Which transmission is safer?

Studies haven't really shown which transmission type is safer. Automatic and CVT transmissions do allow you to keep both hands on the wheel at all times, while manual transmissions may require more attentive driving. Your driving habits will play a larger role in your safety. Safety features available for both automatic and manual vehicles can make a difference too.
 
Basically, what it comes down to is driver preference and of course, your budget. Do your research and talk to your local insurance agent to check rates.

The information in this article was obtained from various sources not associated with State Farm® (including State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and its subsidiaries and affiliates). While we believe it to be reliable and accurate, we do not warrant the accuracy or reliability of the information. State Farm is not responsible for, and does not endorse or approve, either implicitly or explicitly, the content of any third party sites that might be hyperlinked from this page. The information is not intended to replace manuals, instructions or information provided by a manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional, or to affect coverage under any applicable insurance policy. These suggestions are not a complete list of every loss control measure. State Farm makes no guarantees of results from use of this information.



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