Manual or Automatic: Which Is Best?

If you’re in the market for a new car, the question of whether to buy a manual or automatic may well be on your mind. Each has their pros and cons, so today we’re going to look at how they compare on everything from driving experience to running costs.

What’s the difference between manual and automatic?

Let’s start with a look at the practical differences between manual and automatic cars, as these take a little getting used to if you’ve only ever driven one or the other.


If you learned to drive in the UK, the chances are that you’ll have learned in a manual car. This is the traditional configuration with a gearbox and clutch, requiring you to use your left foot to depress the clutch every time you want to change gear. You need to change gear to match the speed at which you’re driving, with lower gears often also being required for steep uphill stretches when the car has to work harder.


Automatic cars, on the other hand, don’t have a clutch, and as the name suggests, they will change gear automatically. This means you only have two pedals - the brake and accelerator - and the car will select the best gear based on how fast you’re going and how firmly you press the accelerator. The gear stick that you’d recognise from a manual car is still there, but rather than having the traditional configuration of five or six gears to choose from, it typically has four modes that you can cycle between:

●    ‘D’ - Drive
●    ‘N’ - Neutral
●    ‘P’ - Park 
●    ‘R’ - Reverse

You’ll have ‘Drive’ selected for your whole journey, unless you need to reverse or park, so you won’t have to do much with the gear stick. There are different kinds of automatic gearbox - you might hear terms like single or twin automated clutch, for example - and some offer a smoother experience than others. If you’re thinking of buying an automatic, it’s worth trying out a few different kinds to see which you get on best with.


There’s also another kind of gearbox, known as the semi-automatic. This is an automatic gearbox that gives you more control over which gear you’re in by using electronic controls in the form of ‘+’ and ‘-’ signs. The so-called ‘flappy paddle gearbox’ that you might have seen in some supercars (Ferrari, for instance) is an example of this kind of gearbox; the driver can change gears up or down using paddles attached to the steering wheel. For some car enthusiasts, this kind of gearbox offers the best of both worlds: the smoothness of an automatic with some of the control of a manual.

Why choose a manual car?

Manual cars tend to cost less to buy than automatics, but may be less fuel efficient depending on the model, which means they may cost more over the life of the car. However,so if you’re on a budget then it’s more likely that you’ll find a manual car within your price bracket for the initial purchase. Manual cars also have the added advantage of giving you complete control over which gear you’re in, giving you a more hands-on driving experience. 

If you’re a keen driver, you might prefer this sense of control over your car; you may prefer to make your own decisions on gear selection, rather than letting the car do it all for you. A manual gearbox keeps you more involved in the driving process, which can be better for staying focused on longer journeys. There’s more skill in driving a manual car, and achieving smooth gear changes in a manual car brings a sense of satisfaction that you wouldn’t have with an automatic.

One thing manual cars aren’t so good for is when you’re sitting in traffic a lot. If you commute around a city, for example, you’ll be doing plenty of stopping and starting, as well as crawling along at low speeds. Not only can it become exhausting when you’re continually having to change gear in these circumstances, but it also causes wear on the clutch.

Why choose an automatic car?

There’s no doubt about it: automatic cars are significantly easier and more relaxing to drive than manual cars. You no longer need to worry about selecting the right gear, and your left foot can be at rest the entire time. Not only that, but without the need to use your left hand to change gear, you’ll be able to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, which is safer and keeps you more in control of the vehicle.

Your workload is therefore greatly reduced in an automatic, particularly at moments when you’d normally have to be doing a lot of gear-changing, such as when you’re accelerating or when you’re slowing down as you approach traffic lights. This also makes for a much smoother driving experience, and you can perform hill starts and drive at slower speeds without worrying about stalling the car or riding the clutch. When you lift the brake pedal on an automatic, it will start creeping forward of its own accord, making it perfect for inching along in traffic jams. Some models will have ‘auto-stop’ to prevent this from happening.

If you’re learning to drive for the first time, you would probably find an automatic car easier to learn in. Bear in mind, however, that if you learn in an automatic, you won’t be licensed to drive a manual car. If you learn on a manual car, you’re automatically licensed to drive automatic cars as well, so if you want to be able to drive both (useful for when you’re hiring a car on holiday, for example; especially in America, where the majority of cars are automatic), it’s best to learn on a manual.

Automatic versus manual cars: the running costs

We end with a brief word on costs. Automatics typically cost more to buy than manual cars, but these days they are often also more fuel efficient, which means that they could potentially save you more over the life of the car. However, they also cost more to repair owing to their relative complexity. If you’re looking to keep your running costs down, take a look at some more of our tips  on reducing the day-to-day costs of your car.

Whether you end up opting for a manual or an automatic, make sure you’re covered with the right car insurance to ensure you’re protected should something unexpected happen to your new car.

Go back