Expenses & benefits of a stick shift vs an automatic?
March 12, 2004 10:07 AM   Subscribe

My family has always owned manual (stick shift) driven vehicles. I currently have a manual but am going to be in the market soon for a new vehicle. What are the advantages/disadvantages of each type? It seems to cost more for the convenience of an automatic, but doesn't one also end up paying more for repairs and maintenance?
posted by sharksandwich to Travel & Transportation (48 answers total)
 
I don't think the performance/cost advantages are as significant as they were a few years ago. It seems to me it comes down to preference.

Those who enjoy the thrill of driving seem to prefer a stick. I had a stick for years and, while I liked it at first, the morning bumper-to-bumper commute makes an automatic a lot more desireable. I see no reason to ever go back to a stick.

I think it really depends on what sort of driving you do.
posted by bondcliff at 10:12 AM on March 12, 2004


I learned how to drive in an automatic, but much prefer a stick, as I've got a lot more control over the car. There's more of a "direct interface" between the driver and the vehicle's power train.
posted by mrbill at 10:20 AM on March 12, 2004


The advantage to a manual is that you're almost never stuck as long as you can push the car somewhere, since you can almost always get it started that way (this has been extremely useful to me on more than one occasion due to dead batteries or faulty starter motors). I also prefer them as a general rule, they're nicer to drive.

The only real advantage to an automatic, in my opinion, is driving in traffic, which can be a real headache (legache?) in a stick. If I did most of my driving in city/commuter traffic, I'd definitely consider an automatic.
posted by biscotti at 10:31 AM on March 12, 2004


I think it's bunches easier to sell a manual, so you'll probably recoup some of the initial cost at resale. I've always had manual transmissions myself. I feel like I have a little more control and power when I need it. In heavy, stop and go traffic it can be a drag through.
posted by willnot at 10:34 AM on March 12, 2004


Sorry -- I meant easier to sell an automatic.
posted by willnot at 10:35 AM on March 12, 2004


Technology seems to be nibbling away at most of the previous advantages of a stick: reliability, fuel economy, flexibility, and even to a certain extent, fun-factor. For commuting there is no way I would want a stick on my daily driver, traffic being what it is. If you never see stop-and-go traffic, that would not be a big deal. I would want a stick if I had some old sports car that might need to be 'bump started' from time to time. But an unreliable car is a luxury, so it's back to an automatic. Another factor for some folks: who else will be driving? Since I no longer care much for the 'thrill' of driving a car (motorcycles take care of the thrill), I don't always want to have to drive; since my wife cannot drive a stick, we would not be able to trade duties, as we often do.
posted by cairnish at 10:39 AM on March 12, 2004


Put me down in the its all in the 'preference' category (and certain vehicles beg for one or the other).

Personally, I couldn't imagine driving an automatic. Even in bumper to bumper traffic I prefer a stick and the extra control. I'd probably fall asleep with an automatic.

And before I got married, ability to drive a stick was a requirement for my future wife.

No matter how much "technology seems to be nibbling away" at the advantage of manuals, for a certain part of the population they'll never be able to touch the one real reason people still drive sticks...fun. Otherwise stick shifts would be a thing of the past.

And before I got married, ability to drive a stick was a requirement for my future wife.

You could say I'm biased. =)
posted by justgary at 10:52 AM on March 12, 2004


Many automatic transmissions start to fade after about 100,000 miles, often requiring repairs in excess of $1,000.

Manual gearboxes, if treated properly, can last more than twice that long. Of course, the clutch isn't designed to last forever, but it can usually be replaced for far less than the cost of an automatic transmission.

If you enjoy spirited driving, an automatic transmission will suck the life out of it. Even Manu-matics are clutchless, robbing the driver of the thrill of nailing a perfect heel-toe downshift.

cairnish is correct that automatic transmissions have in some respect narrowed the gap, but they still lag manual transmissions in fuel economy and performance.
posted by trharlan at 10:55 AM on March 12, 2004


I don't buy the argument about automatics being any easier in traffic. Unless you're driving a vehicle with an insanely heavy clutch, it takes little actual energy to use it, and what energy you do spend you save through such benefits as not having to struggle the constant forward creep that a slushbox has.

I'll admit that Austin's traffic jams don't stack up to LA's or New York's, but I've never had a problem in even the worst rush hour snarl-ups with my stick.

The primary advantage of an automatic is, as has been mentioned, resale value. More people are willing to buy a car with an auto, and are willing to pay more for it.

OTOH, while modern automatics are making some gains in terms of responsiveness, they, especially in a low-powered car, still sap horsepower. If your car is already saddled with a less-than-stellar engine, you're doing it no favors by further choking it with a torque converter.

Me, I plan to be driving stick until I'm physically incapable of doing so.
posted by jammer at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2004


We drive stickshifts and enjoy them, but I must admit that when we rent cars, it feels ok to not have to shift (that and using cruise control, which couldn't happen on a manual). It just feels like getting a car with an automatic is the kind of thing that "old people" do, and I won't surrender my youth!!!! (Now where did I put my bifocals again???)

The cost thing is a wash, according to cartalk. The maintainence thing to focus on is not so much the gearbox as the clutch. Those suckers are expensive these days! It was a thousand bucks to replace the clutch and resurface the flywheel on my wife's Subaru.

It may be that we're insane to get manual transmission cars in San Francisco, the land where burning through a clutch in 40,000 miles is not all that unusual.
posted by jasper411 at 11:23 AM on March 12, 2004


The thing I hate about automatics is the "constant forward creep" that jammer speaks of. What's worse is when you're sitting at a light, foot on the brake, and the A/C compressor kicks off, delivering a surge of extra power to the engine, forcing you to press on the brake harder after lurching forward suddenly. Doesn't happen in a manual.

The fun-factor is important to me -- I love to drive, and I love my manual. I couldn't imagine owning a car without one, unless it had something else that made it fun to drive -- like a Prius, or something.

On preview: jasper411, my stick shift car (a 2003 Corolla) has cruise control.
posted by crawl at 11:27 AM on March 12, 2004


I'd probably fall asleep with an automatic.

Exactly. I live in the Chicago suburbs (i.e., traffic hell), and I still don't think I'd ever buy an automatic. I see people who talk on cellphones for leisure (as opposed to those who have to for work) and the whole culture of driving around in a vehicle the resembles an office, complete with TV, DVD player, etc. as a result of automatics making driving effortless and, ultimately, boring. A manual transmission underlines the fact that driving is an activity that benefits from attention.

Also: more control over the engine, the ability to engine-break, better in the snow, etc.

Of course, I intend for my next car to be larger than a subcompact, and many larger cars don't come in manual any more.
posted by goethean at 11:30 AM on March 12, 2004


I would agree with a lot of what other people have posted here. There are days when I love my manual, especially when it comes to going up hills and doing 'finesse' stuff in my 'am. Of course there is no point to driving a sweet 70's 'am if you don't have a stick. I shudder to think that they even make manuals!

At the same time, when I'm stuck in bumper to bumper for 10 miles, and my left foot is about to fall off, I kind of wish I had an automatic.

Take a test drive!
posted by chaz at 11:34 AM on March 12, 2004


I've always owned manuals. I'm a big fan of the "fun-factor" in driving a vehicle with a manual tranny. Even in cars with less chutzpah, the downshift-around-the-corners maneuver is more fun and, IMO, safer. Further, if you're doing any kind of work with your vehicle (i.e., towing, ripping out stumps, snow-driving etc.), it is very preferable to have a stick shift. It's getting harder and harder to get a manual in newer vehicles... even in pickup trucks, which seems silly to me.

However, I just bought a late model van (2000 VW EuroVan, no manual transmission option in the States) and I have to admit that I'm looking forward to driving cross country, in cruise-control, with an idle left leg.
posted by maniactown at 11:43 AM on March 12, 2004


My shitty old 1991 Plymouth Laser has cruise control, and it's a stick. I'm at 160,000 miles, the synchros are trashed, the clutch is almost starting to slip, but I still love using the ol' manual. Half the fun is double-clutching while upshifting. Makes you feel like a race car driver.
posted by zsazsa at 11:45 AM on March 12, 2004


that and using cruise control, which couldn't happen on a manual
i have a 2002 doge neon with a manual transmission and it has cruise control - engaging the clutch knocks off the cruise just like tapping the brake.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2004


By the way, I believe automatics can be a major cause of gridlock. Drivers of automatics have to use the brake more often to slow their car down, turning on their brake lights. The people behind them see red lights and brake, and it goes on and on down the line. In a manual, you can just downshift to burn off some speed, keeping your brake lights off and keeping the people behind you from freaking out. I've heard from some sources that engine braking is bad, though. Is there ever a solid answer to these things?
posted by zsazsa at 11:50 AM on March 12, 2004


Many automatic transmissions start to fade after about 100,000 miles, often requiring repairs in excess of $1,000.

Do not underestimate this. Automatic transmissions are hugely complex pieces of machinery. When the automatic tranny in my old Probe blew, I was looking at about a $2000 repair to a $750 car.

Clutch swapouts aren't cheap either, but they're not likely to break $1000. And -- and this is important -- you know that a clutch swapout is approaching, so you can save a bit, or schedule it for when you're relatively flush. Your automatic tranny will just go blooey when it's gonna go blooey, congratulations, here's your gigantic surprise bill.

But it's still mostly a matter of preference. While everyone clearly should prefer a manual, you'll still be in decent company if you don't get one.

And my 97 Prelude with a stick has cruise control. So did the '85 Z I had a while ago... stupid damn car blew a camshaft not a month after I had the timing belt changed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:08 PM on March 12, 2004


Geez, zsazsa, that's a testimonial, as the 5-speed in the Laser (well, in my '90 RS Turbo) was one of the most unpleasantly notchy manual transmissions I've ever driven. Rutinely downshifting for engine braking is probably a bad idea (brake bads are consumables, clutches less so, trannies are not) but using the gear you're already in is fine. I do it all the time in heavy traffic.

And, jasper411, you want to check your facts. Cruise control has worked just fine in the last five stick-shifts I've owned. And the last clutch job I paid for (4cyl 626) came in at $600; far, far less than the cheapest auto tranny rebuild

Lastly, I wonder how many fewer barrels of oil we'd be buying from various and sundry authoritarian regimes if everyone drove stick.
posted by mojohand at 12:10 PM on March 12, 2004


Gotta agree with this statement: If your car is already saddled with a less-than-stellar engine, you're doing it no favors by further choking it with a[n auto transmission].

I drove a 1988 Chevy Nova (basically, a Corolla) with an automatic transmission for 10 years, and it was severely underpowered. When I replaced it with my current 1998 Corolla, I got manual. The manual transmission definitely gives me the power and control I never had with my previous car.
posted by tippiedog at 12:21 PM on March 12, 2004


I've owned an automatic '80 prelude and a manual '98 Saab 900. I'll never go back to an automatic. Never never never. Of course, I live in rural Oregon, so my idea of a good drive is making my bi-weekly 60 mile drive across the mountain ranges on those 20 degree corners. Especially when there's snow, I really am thankful for second and third gear and the miracle that is downshifting.

I owned my prelude for 4 years. Her transmission blew out; it cost me $1800 to replace it, then I ended up selling her a year later for $750. Even in my super-spendy-auto-parts Saab, there's no way a clutch job will cost me more than $600.

By the way, what is double-clutching? Also, does downshifting (with engine braking) really hurt my car? My understanding is it's just fine, as long as you don't ride the clutch after making the shift.
posted by Happydaz at 12:36 PM on March 12, 2004


A simple primer on double-clutching/heel & toe clutching
I never did learn to double clutch in my stick shift, seeing as it had no tachometer. Sure did make things fun learning to drive a stick shift on feel alone. I have also heard from "car enthusiasts" that engine breaking puts excess stress on your engine. I know my truck felt like it was going to explode when I attempted to engine break.
posted by jmd82 at 1:07 PM on March 12, 2004


I like automatic bestest, because unlike most of the people in this thread, I want driving to be a forgetable experience. The less work and sooner I can get out of a car the better.
posted by corpse at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2004


The thing I hate about automatics is the "constant forward creep" that jammer speaks of.

Wait -- a car with a manual transmission doesn't move forward when the engine's idling? That just seems so wrong to me.

Automatic transmissions are hugely complex pieces of machinery. When the automatic tranny in my old Probe blew, I was looking at about a $2000 repair to a $750 car.

The Probe had a hugely complex transmission even considering it was an automatic. I too needed a rebuild on my Probe's trans -- except I needed it twice -- and the guy who did it told me that it was the most complex transmission used in a passenger car at the time.

I know my truck felt like it was going to explode when I attempted to engine break.

That's because you were breaking instead of braking. Obviously breaking your engine will reduce its life dramatically.

I'll weigh in in favor of the automatic. You put the car in gear and forget about it. This allows you to concentrate on driving, not operating your car, and greatly increases the enjoyability of driving.
posted by kindall at 1:28 PM on March 12, 2004


I like to drink and drive, so I prefer the automatic.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:53 PM on March 12, 2004


I prefer a stick, but one potential drawback is that you can't drive a stick with a broken limb. You could drive an automatic with a broken arm and a broken leg, in theory.

Sticks still have an edge over automatics for performance and efficiency, but on many cars these days, the stick only gets 1 or 2 mpg better (though there are a few where the difference is pretty significant).

The next phase, which we're seeing on a few high-end cars, is paddle-shifting manuals (also called sequential transmission), where the clutch is electrically actuated and you can even put the transmission in automatic mode. Best of both worlds, I'd imagine. Until something breaks.
posted by adamrice at 1:53 PM on March 12, 2004


I've had the use of 2 Rover 800's courtesy of Dad. First was a 2 litre manual, second was a 2.5 V6 automatic.

The manual 2.0 was hands down the faster car if you wanted it to be. The automatic transmission in the V6 stifled the ability to really get the engine to do what you wanted it to. Revs get limited, gear changes are slower and you can't have the gear you want (or need) always at the exact moment you want it.

Auto is sweet in traffic jams, but that's about it.

The only friend I know who has an automatic is an accountant who looks like Harry Potter.
posted by Frasermoo at 1:54 PM on March 12, 2004


In a manual, you can just downshift to burn off some speed, keeping your brake lights off and keeping the people behind you from freaking out.

I see your point, but brake lights are there for a reason: to alert drivers behind you about your decreasing speed. I'd rather have people freaking out behind me than rear-ending me.
posted by blue mustard at 1:56 PM on March 12, 2004


Stupid Sexy Flanders - good point well made.

As for paddle shifts, they have alot of work (and cost reduction) to do before they replace a stick. Change times are crap with sequential boxes/paddle shifts on anything costing less than the price of a luxury yacht.
posted by Frasermoo at 1:59 PM on March 12, 2004


A manual transmission underlines the fact that driving is an activity that benefits from attention.

I think manuals are safer because you have to pay more attention to driving.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:20 PM on March 12, 2004


It may be that we're insane to get manual transmission cars in San Francisco, the land where burning through a clutch in 40,000 miles is not all that unusual.

The first time I visited San Francisco was in a 1966 "three-on-the-tree" Ford who's gear shift linkage broke just before I hit the Gold Gate bridge. I decided to sell the car for scrap, so I had to keep driving back and forth across town using only second gear while I tried to get my paperwork in order. Starting on those hills wasn't much fun, though it must have been scarier being behind me.
posted by timeistight at 2:43 PM on March 12, 2004


Thanks for the corrections - I had never seen a manual with cruise control, so I thought it didn't exist. One question I have is how it works if you're going along at a slow speed in 2nd, and then hit the "restore" setting to get you back to 65. Do you just keep shifting up through the gears as the engine speed cranks up?

As far as the cost of the clutch is concerned, we comparison shopped and everything - the cost for fixing the clutch on the Subaru was $1000 ($2 grand if the dealer did it)! Maybe the all wheel drive thing makes it more expensive, but even my old piece of junk 84 Nissan was about $600 for the clutch.

I'm waiting with fear and loathing to see how my VW beetle's clutch will do. It's a really cute car, but repairs are really expensive - you can't even replace the *%#@! headlight yourself, as it involves taking the whole wheel well off and costs $140 (fortunately covered under warranty!)
posted by jasper411 at 3:37 PM on March 12, 2004


Weighing in late, I'd have to go with the manual. 1) as mentioned before, less complexity to break (plus I can change a clutch on my own, even with a broken leg) 2) it doens't allow you to fall into complacency while driving. Personally, I'm a shitty driver - I probably have an average of an accident and two tickets every year due to inattention. However, since I got my CRX with a manual a year and a half ago, I've had no accidents, no close calls, and no tickets, with just as many miles per year, only most of it's city driving now. Driving the stick forces you to pay more attention to what the hell you're doing.
posted by notsnot at 4:18 PM on March 12, 2004


Quick rant: If you're getting a sports car, for god's sakes get a manual. There's no point in getting a performance car and then saddling it with an automatic transmission. People who drive automatic Porsches should be ridiculed.
posted by brool at 4:52 PM on March 12, 2004


This allows you to concentrate on driving, not operating your car, and greatly increases the enjoyability of driving.

I couldn't disagree more.

The 'enjoyability' of driving is opinion of course, but just look at this thread. Most of those who prefer automatics don't care about the fun of driving. The just want to get from point A to point B, so an automatic is the perfect choice.

Driving an automatic takes away half the driving experience.

Driving a standard makes you more involved in the actual driving of the car. Automatics allow you to eat, drink, and turn pages in your book while driving.

Honestly, I've never heard before the opinion that driving an automatic is more fun. I'm sure those people are out there, but that opinion would have to be in the minority.
posted by justgary at 5:18 PM on March 12, 2004


Cruise control on a manual disengages under three circumstances: brake pedal motion, clutch pedal motion, or RPMs too low (=too slow for the current gear).

Which, if you think about it, answers the questions about getting back up to speed: to wit, you do it manually until you're back at speed, and hit resume.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:59 PM on March 12, 2004


I prefer manuals. I learned a driving style that uses engine braking to some degree and I find automatics rob me of a useful tool.

If you have a towbar and a trailer, I must say that reversing is easier with an automatic.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:25 PM on March 12, 2004


" I wonder how many fewer barrels of oil we'd be buying from various and sundry authoritarian regimes if everyone drove stick."

None. In fact, we'd burn more.

Look, half the fun of driving a stick shift is taking the RPMs up close to redline before you shift. No one I have ever known shifts at the optimum shift points for fuel mileage, even if they have one of those idiot lights on the dash that tells them when to shift. No, no, we all like to think we're Mikka Hakkinen and wind it out until it screams.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

:)
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:27 PM on March 12, 2004


I have a 1980 Toyota Corolla 5-speed with a hemi-4 cylinder 3tc that did not get an oil change for 150k miles. I got it for free, changed the oil and got new plugs and wires, and it still has a header leak.


I will soon put in a 5 point seatbelt and take it out to the dirttrack. If it were an automatic, the car would have been thrown away years ago.
posted by Keyser Soze at 3:47 AM on March 13, 2004


I was a confirmed manual zealot, thought autos were for wusses, I liked the control of a manual, etc. Then I had to get a car quite quickly and the only options available were auto. Now I don't think there's much to choose between them. In fact auto wins for tight space manouevering/parallel parking, hill starts in traffic and at lights, general commute/about town activity, making quick entries from side streets/petrol stations etc. onto busy roads.

Manual wins for driving up hills/twisty roads (and I live up a hilly twisty road).

In a manual, you can just downshift to burn off some speed

Burn off your clutch, too ;)
posted by carter at 9:11 AM on March 13, 2004


Re: engine braking. My parent's Rabbit got on the order of a half-million kilometers. No clutch problems. My old Chevette did over 250k km, no clutch problems. My Nissan NX, beaten to hell and back, is over 235k km, no clutch problems. All these cars were subjected to engine braking as the main means of adjusting speed gradually.

I don't believe for a moment that engine braking is any significant factor in clutch life, at least not if it's done by a competent driver.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 AM on March 13, 2004


In fact auto wins for tight space maneuvering/parallel parking, hill starts in traffic and at lights, general commute/about town activity, making quick entries from side streets/petrol stations etc. onto busy roads.

Again, and maybe this has to do with how people drive manuals, but I'm amazed at those statements.

In heavy traffic, if you know what you're doing, its MUCH easier to zip in and out with a manual. Quick entries? Much quicker with a stick, unless you have difficulty using a stick. And if you're car is underpowered a manual for quick entry is a must. Hills? Again, no problem unless you're in frisco. I never even think about being on a hill.

Really, maybe this all has to do with how well someone can use a clutch. Driving a manual gives you better control of the car period, unless you don't want to deal with or don't know how to use a clutch. Then go automatic.
posted by justgary at 11:28 AM on March 13, 2004


fff, justgary, I used to think *just like you* until I started driving an auto ... go on, try it! Just once ...

*evil cackle*
posted by carter at 12:59 PM on March 13, 2004


Carter. I drove automatics for years. I never even learned to drive a stick until I had to work at a cabinet shop (8 years after I started driving). We delivered cabinets, formica, etc.

4 trucks. 1 automatic. I quickly learned to drive a stick so I wasn't left with the automatic. Same engine and it was death to drive.

Just take one of your examples. Getting out of a service station quick. Give me two of the same cars/same engine and I'll take the stick any day. I don't even see how there's a debate on that one.

Zipping in and out of traffic? Stick gives you more control.

If people don't want to be bothered with a stick? Great. For ease of use no worries point and steer automatic is the way to go. But it does give you more control over a vehicle if you know how to use it.
posted by justgary at 1:40 PM on March 13, 2004


Evil cackle what, carter? That I'll come to like automatics?

I've driven automatics: rental vehicles, friend's cars, the occasional work vehicle. I have uniformly found them gutless and clumsy: when I stomp on the gas, I expect the car to react now!. Automatics don't.

With downshifting and engine braking, my vehicle is always in the correct gear for hauling ass even as I slow down. With double-clutching, my vehicle is always at maximum torque when I'm accelerating. My car is always under my close control, ready for my smallest input, driving at prime.

Can't do that with an automatic. With an automatic, you're just the dummy steering the wheel. With a standard, you're an active driver.

This has been an interesting thread for me. I'm looking at a new vehicle purchase, having outgrown my sporty T-top coupe. I'd been considering an automatic, but I'm realizing quite well that my enjoyment of driving comes largely from being a driver. Automatic just ain't gonna do it for me.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2004


Oh, you're all talking about new cars ... At the moment I switch between a '91 auto sedan, and an '88 4 cyl manual pickup. They seem about the same to me in performance terms. I know nothing about new cars. ;)
posted by carter at 7:16 PM on March 13, 2004


A four-cylinder pickup truck is going to have about as much pep as a cup of warm milk, regardless its transmission type.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:48 PM on March 13, 2004


Buy a Toyota Prius already. They only come in automatic, so no difficult choice to make about that.
posted by Goofyy at 9:00 AM on March 14, 2004


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