Five Myths About Stick Shifts: Manual vs Automatic Transmissions

Manual Transmissions Aren't Always Cheaper, More Fuel-Efficient


  • Shifter Picture

    Shifter Picture

    Vehicles with manual transmissions generally are more fuel-efficient than their automatic counterparts, but not always. | June 26, 2012

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The stick shift hasn't yet gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo, but it's definitely an endangered species. As of August 2013, just 3.9 percent of new cars sold for the year had manual transmissions.

Cars with stick shifts and clutches have their ardent defenders, but some of the reasons they cite for their superiority and desirability aren't supported by facts. Here are five myths about stick shifts:

1. Cars with manual transmissions always get better fuel economy than cars with automatics.
In the past it was pretty much a given that vehicles with manual transmissions would be more fuel-efficient than their automatic counterparts. But as automatics become more advanced and gain additional gears, they are often now overtaking manuals in terms of fuel economy.

For an example of when the myth is based in reality, there's the fuel-sipping 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Eco. The manual version gets 33 mpg combined (28 mpg in the city/42 mpg on the highway). Equipped with an automatic transmission, the Eco is slightly less fuel-efficient: 31 mpg combined (26 city/39 highway). The manual will cost you about $100 less per year in fuel, according to fueleconomy.gov.

With the 2014 Ford Focus, it's the six-speed automatic version that performs better, getting 31 mpg combined (27 city/37 highway). (If you spring for the Super Fuel Economy option package, which also uses the six-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy rises to 33 mpg combined [28 city/40 highway].) A Focus with a conventional manual transmission can't match the automatics. It gets 30 mpg combined (26 city/36 highway).

There are other examples as well. For the 2014 Versa, Nissan actually offers three transmissions: a five-speed manual, a four-speed automatic and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The manual and automatic get the same combined fuel economy (30 mpg), but the CVT blows both of them away with 35 mpg. And it's not just economy cars where you can find this trend: A 2013 BMW 328i sedan will get the same combined fuel economy (26 mpg) whether you opt for the manual or automatic transmission.

2. A car with a manual transmission costs less than the same model with an automatic.
In most cases, the manual version of a car will indeed cost less, but in some instances, it's the same price as an automatic. Examples include such GM vehicles as the 2013 Buick Regal GS and 2013 Cadillac CTS-V. Among BMWs, the manual is often the same price as the automatic. Further, you can't always get the car you want with a manual transmission: 67 percent of 2013 model-year cars came only as automatics.

3. The coolest sports cars only come with manual transmissions.
This depends on your definition of "cool sports car." The seventh-generation 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and many flavors of the 2014 Porsche 911 offer a choice of a manual or automatic transmission. But if your choice is the 2014 Porsche 911 GT3, which Edmunds editors call "the baddest Porsche on the block," you can only get an automated manual transmission. The same goes for the 2014 Jaguar F-Type the 2013 Maserati GranTurismo, 2013 Lamborghini Aventador and the 2013 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. No manual gear shifting ballet for you.

It's no loss, says Ken Hill, a professional racer, driving educator and vice president of operations for Automotive Adventures in Bellevue, Washington. "Some people are stuck on the mindset that a driver is faster with a manual box," Hill says. But there's a reason why some major performance-car manufacturers, including Ferrari and Jaguar, no longer offer traditional manual transmissions, he says. "They just aren't as good."

4. If your dream car comes with a standard manual transmission, you can always get an automatic as an option.
Like the previous assumption, this one isn't true either. A small group of cars (mostly sporty models) only come with manuals. The list includes the Audi TT RS, Fiat 500 Abarth, 2014 Ford Focus ST, 2014 Ford Shelby GT500, Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen Golf R.

5. Teenagers really, really want to learn to drive stick shifts.
Not so, says Hill, who teaches teen driving programs. Because there are so few manuals out there, young people don't get exposed to them, and so they have little interest in learning how to drive them, he says.

"It's a complication they don't need," Hill says. "Kids have the advantage of not being burdened with nostalgia." And as a result, he adds, "Ninety-plus percent are perfectly happy with the automatic they have access to."

The Theft-Deterrent Theory: Myth or Reality?
There's one argument in favor of stick-shift cars that doesn't have a ready true-or-false answer. The theory is that because fewer people know how to drive stick shifts these days, cars equipped with them are less likely to be stolen.

Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks car theft trends, says he's not aware of any data to support or refute that idea.

"Some thieves might be thwarted in their attempt to steal a car with a manual transmission, since many thieves possess varying levels of intellect," Scafidi says. "That very personal element is also a factor in the degree of expertise necessary to overcome some of the more sophisticated security systems.

"Most car thieves are just not that swift and therefore resort to stealing older, easier targets," Scafidi says. "But there are those in the car thief ranks who are quite capable of making off with anything that they intend to steal."

Stick Shift Realities
When the argument in favor of the stick shift is based on how much fun it is, it's undeniable. Stick-shift savvy also comes in handy if you're a passenger in a manual-transmission car and the driver is incapacitated in some way. And it's helpful if you're stuck somewhere and the only car available is one with a stick.

If you want to learn this skill, our story and video, "How to Drive a Stick Shift" is a good place to start. And that's a fact.

Most Recommended Comments

By alex_y
on 08/02/12
11:28 AM PST

This article is based on published 'facts' and not at all based on real world experience with current production manual transmission vehicles. 1. The EPA published values indicate that manual transmission and automatic transmission fuel economy is very close. What this doesn't point out is that EPA fuel economy is calculated via a formula based on spec sheet values for the vehicles. At no point does the EPA drive the cars and test their actual economy. It turns out that the EPA formula makes a very poor estimate of the actual milage that can be expected from manual transmission vehicles. Generally you can expect 10% higher fuel economy from MT vehicles in the real world. ALSO, the way that the manufacturers boost the AT fuel economy is by having a much higher final drive ratio. This makes the engine turn slower at a given speed for AT vehicles, and thus consume less fuel than they would if the engine turned at the same speed as a comparable MT. Higher gear ratios and slushbox transmissions mean less power transferred to the road. This has been taken to such an extreme that some of these cars (ex: Chevy cruze) have dangerously slow acceleration capability. 2.) ... 3.) People are purchasing Ferraris with automatic transmissions? I hope that these Ferraris also have cupholders for a flavored coffee drink of choice. 'Sports' cars with slushbox transmissions (or cupholders for that matter) are not 'cool'. I don't doubt that the AT versions could beat the pants off of the MT version at the track, but is really as fun to let the computer drive for you? 4.) Like it should be. Its really not rocket science to learn how to operate a manual transmission. The cars are about fun, not convenience. 5.) All teenagers should be in manual transmission vehicles. One hand on the wheel + one hand on the shift = no hands for texting.

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By henry4hire
on 07/31/12
10:19 AM PST

How about it's more fun to drive? Nothing connects man to machine more than a good stick and clutch. Clicking paddles will never be the same as a perfect shift around a corner. Don't get me wrong; the new generation of automatics are great, but they simply can't match the feel of a good stick. Long live the stick!

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By frankiedenise
on 08/02/12
8:49 PM PST

I have driven a manual transmission vehicle for decades and would like to point out a reality not mentioned. I’ve never had to replace brake pads, rotors, or have any kind of repair on the brakes. This is simply because I take advantage of down-shifting. Once during a 90,000 mile maintenance check, the mechanic came out to ask if I ever had the pads replaced and I said no. He showed me the pad and pointed out the near new condition they were in.

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