What is the Best Transmission Type for You?
Modern cars are full of choices, and it’s more than just selecting a manual or automatic transmission. With more choice comes the potential for making the wrong selection on your next ride. Here’s a quick look what options are available, so you’ll know what transmission type is best for you.
Manual transmissions are the original passenger car transmission, and are still sometimes called stick-shift or standard transmissions. Stick-shift is probably due to very early manuals being controlled by a long, thin, stick-like device. The standard name is due to this being the standard choice on vehicles, with automatic as the option.
Manual transmissions offer exactly what the name implies: manual control. The gear selector is controlled by the driver, and the transmission stays in the selected gear until the driver selects another. A foot operated clutch varies torque transfer between the engine and transmission while the driver shifts gears. Manual transmissions used to offer advantages of lighter weight, lower cost, and increased gas mileage, but modern transmissions have negated those advantages, making the manual mostly for enthusiast drivers. You can find manual transmissions in everything from the Nissan Versa to the Dodge Viper.
Is it for you? Pick the manual transmission if you enjoy driving, routinely drive through twisty roads, have a sports car, or are simply used to driving a stick. Do not pick the manual if you drive for a living (delivery, Uber, etc), or usually commute through heavy traffic.
Automatic transmissions started showing up on passenger cars in the early 1940s, sold as a safety feature. Since drivers were already eating, shaving, and putting on makeup while driving, the auto trans was sold as a way to limit distractions. Automatics were viewed as desirable, and there was usually noticeable markup in price from the manual.
Automatics are complicated systems, routinely containing over a thousand parts. Instead of a clutch, the automatic uses fluid coupling in a torque converter to allow the transmission to make gear changes based on vehicle speed. Due to their complexity, autos are heavier, more expensive to repair, offered less efficiency, and traditionally did not last as long as manuals.
Modern automatics are another story, with decreasing weight, superb reliability, and even fuel saving efficiency that can match or top the MPG of the manual transmission. Today, automatics are as varied as the 4-speed in the Toyota Corolla L, to the 9-speed in the Jeep Cherokee.
Is it for you? Go with an auto if you are looking at a commuter. A work truck, daily driver, a super hilly local terrain, or a driver that does not want to shift gears, are all a good reason to go auto.
A sub-section of the automatic market has a manual mode that offers more control compared to a traditional auto. With the gear selector in drive, sliding it left allows manual mode, offering up or down shifting as if it were a clutchless manual. Unfortunately, this effect is lessened on commuter cars, and you do not have full control. Most manual mode autos will not allow you to start from a stop in sixth gear, or downshift if the RPMs will redline, so in a Chevy Cruz with manual control it’s mostly a sales gimmick. A Corvette or C63 AMG, both available with paddle-shifted autos, are another story and will hold whatever gear you desire, so it really depends on the model.
A dual-clutch transmission is a rather new piece of tech, having first appeared in race cars in the 1980s and hitting the streets about 10 years ago.
A DCT can be thought of as two race tuned automatics working together in the same housing. Instead of a torque converter, a computer controlled clutch system can apply power to the next gear while simultaneously pulling power from the previous gear. This makes it faster shifting than a traditional auto, without the reduced power in between shifts like a manual. This makes it great for racing, which is why the Porsche GT3 RS is only available with a dual-clutch. Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson infamously sprained his neck while driving a Nissan GTR with DCT due to the whiplash inducing shifts.
Is it for you? The DCT is still fairly rare, mostly appearing in high-end European cars like the BMW M3 and everything Bugatti. If a second transmission is offered, it is usually a manual transmission, making cost the deciding factor. If you can afford the additional cost, you will probably enjoy the speed and efficiency of the dual-clutch.
Continuously Variable Transmissions are also newcomers to the passenger car market, debuting in the 1980s and gaining mainstream acceptance in the late ‘90s. The CVT has been around for decades in forklifts, scooters, and snowmobiles, but found a home in cars due to its efficient design.
A CTV is basically a one-speed transmission. This initially sounds horrible, but this “one gear” pulley/belt system allows it so simulate an infinitely variable transmission. The transmission constantly adjusts to keep the engine in its most efficient range, eliminating the feel of gear changes, and allowing greater efficiency than even a manual. Early transmissions used rubber belts for torque output, so the applications were limited to low speed vehicles like tractors. As steel belt technology devolved, the transmissions became more durable and reliable.
Today, due to cheap manufacturing costs and demand for fuel efficiency, CVTs can be found all over the economy car market and into the mid-size and crossover classes. CVTs are in the Toyota Prius and Nissan Altima and have proved reliable as long as the transmission fluid is changed on time.
Is it for you? Go for the CVT if you are all for maximizing fuel efficiency and comfort in a daily driver. The CVT will deliver more gas mileage than any other choice on this list, without the “shift shock” gear changes.”
There are a couple other car transmissions not covered here, like direct-drive, but they’re much more commonly found in washing machines than your neighbor’s EV. What do you think is the best transmission type? Or does “best” vary by the manufacturer? If you have driven all of these and have a favorite, let us know your thoughts on what is the best transmission type for you.