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Manual versus automatic transmission

In the 70s and 80s, automatic transmission vehicles were the preserve of the rich as they were only seen in exotic BMWs and Mercedes Benz cars. In the late 90s, more and more automatics came into the market and stories flew all over about how these vehicles would never last another decade.

Getting a mechanic bold enough to fix an automatic was a problem, which further reduced uptake.

Thankfully, car dealers kept importing them until Kenyans now consider them ‘normal’. The aspects that distinguish the two modes of transmission are worth knowing.

Automatic transmissions are suited for simplicity and convenience while manuals are suited for power, so choose your car depending on your needs or the type of driving you want to do.

New drivers may do better with automatics as they are easier to drive, making it easier to concentrate on road safety and avoid hazards.

1) Cost

Manual transmission cars are a little more expensive in Kenya probably because they are easier to maintain and likely still hold the thrill of driving in the ‘traditional’ manner associated with the stick shift.

This is not the case in Western nations where autos are more expensive than the manuals because of their high market demand and the costs of designing the transmission systems — manufacturers always pass those costs on to the consumer.

2) Maintenance and repair

A good manual car goes for thousands of kilometres without needing to change any fluids. Not so with automatics. The manual’s clutch disk will need changing occasionally but this depends on the type of driving; city, off­road or highway.

Repairing or replacing a manual transmission is labour intensive and expensive but repairing an automatic will cost even more. However, maintaining automatic transmissions is getting easier and cheaper as the years go by because of improvements in mechanics.

3) Performance

Manual transmissions are regarded as better in performance because they are faster. The losses in an automatic’s torque converter give the transmission only a fraction of what is offered by the engine, as opposed to the manual one where there’s almost no loss when a good functioning clutch is engaged.

This could be the reason racing cars are predominantly manual.

4) Driving needs

If your car has an engine torque of 100 lb/ft or below 100 horse power and you regularly need to drive up hills, you are better off with a manual transmission vehicle. This is because you will need to make most use of the engine output in climbing, overtaking and towing.

However, if you have an engine pumping over 300 horse power, you could do fine with an auto. In short, the vehicle’s engine capacity may determine transmission type.

 5) Fuel economy

Manual transmissions have traditionally given better mileage as compared to their automatic counterparts. However, modern automatics are quickly catching up, and even overtaking their manual counterparts.

For example CVT (Continuous Variable Transmissions) give excellent acceleration and shift at gear ratios matching the available power without much loss of torque. It is one example of an automatic transmission that matches or surpasses manuals in fuel economy.