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Manual or automatic? Choosing the right gearbox for you

Picking the right gearbox is key for a comfortable drive.

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One of the important decisions you’ll need to make about your next car is whether to choose a manual or automatic gearbox.

Most people have a pretty clear idea of their preference, but if you can’t make up your mind, this simple guide will help you decide.

Manual gearboxes - how do they work?

For British drivers, the manual gearbox (you’ll also see it referred to as a transmission) has traditionally been the default choice – especially as automatic cars tend to be more expensive. 

We all know how a manual gearbox works. Push the clutch pedal in, then change gears using a gear lever, usually placed in the middle of the centre console.  

The number of gears has increased in recent years, so modern cars now tend to have five or six forward gears as well as a reverse. A greater choice of gears helps make the car run more efficiently, saving fuel.

Why choose a manual gearbox?

Many drivers prefer a manual gearbox because it means that they are more involved in the process of driving and they can decide when to change gear. This means they can adapt to the driving conditions as they see them – for example, if they need to drop down a gear to accelerate or overtake.

On the other hand, changing gear manually does create more work, which can be tiring in stop-start traffic.

Another plus is if you learn to drive and pass your test in a car with a manual gearbox, it means that you can drive any car – manual or automatic. However, if you choose to sit your test in an automatic car, you’ll only have a licence to drive automatic cars.

Automatic gearboxes - how do they work?

An automatic gearbox is pretty much what it says on the tin: it changes gears automatically, so the driver doesn’t need to worry about it. 

You just select D (for Drive) and the car moves off when you release the brake; if you want to reverse, move the lever to R, or to P (for Park) when you come to a stop.

There’s also a Neutral gear, which you can use when you’re stationary, as most automatic cars tend to ‘creep’ forward in Drive mode, even if you’re not pressing the accelerator.

Why choose an automatic gearbox?

Automatics offer a number of advantages over manual cars.

Convenience is an obvious one. With one task taken care of, drivers are able to concentrate more on the road so driving requires less exertion, which can be important for older drivers. 

What many people don’t realise is that modern automatics are also often engineered to maximise efficiency, so they can offer better fuel economy than a manual, saving the owner of the car money.

They can also emit less CO2, so the car tax you pay will be lower.

Types of automatic gearboxes

Buyers can choose from three types of automatic gearbox. There's the conventional automatic gearbox, and a more modern dual-clutch gearbox that offers semi-automatic function, so drivers can override it using a manual mode.

There's also the Continuously Variable Transmission gearbox, found mostly in Japanese and hybrid cars, which tend to be less efficient, fuel-wise.

Hybrid and electric cars

The latest hybrid and electric cars only use automatic gearboxes, as these work best with the complex technologies of low-emissions cars. In fact, the motors used by electric cars only need one gear, so there’s no gearbox, as such.

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