What’s the difference?

Today has seen a milestone in my motoring history, for the very first time I have driven an automatic…or have I? I think it best to say that I have driven a car that isn’t a manual and then explain what I mean.

There exists a fierce argument between many car enthusiasts; what offers the best driving experience? The manual gearbox or the automatic? For most a manual shifter is a requisite for any car purchase, especially in America where automatics reign supreme amongst the general population. In Europe and elsewhere manuals are alot more common (generally because they are cheaper and more fuel efficient), but less fuss seems to be made about the manual vs auto debate. What is interesting though, are the increasing numbers of sports cars which offer only automatic gearboxes…in fact ones so good that they are faster more efficient, and as a result some are coming around to the idea that automatics can offer a purer driving experience.

I wish I had 6 speeds, but this is a manual gear stick nonetheless

What about me? Well for starters I have only driven cars with a 5 speed manual transmission, and this does not bother me in the slightest for most of the time. In my opinion I am a good driver and as a result in the correct gear for most of the time; yes I do change up quickly to get as many mpg as I can, but I am also a whizz with the clutch and can easily hold my car on a hill (even fully laden with passengers and luggage). My main gripe with my current car’s gearbox is how notchy it can be, and also how tiring the clutch can be in stop-start traffic-not a common occurrence maybe, but being stuck in a jam for over an hour like I was last week can be really tiring.

this shows the shift gate of a regular automatic/manu-matic

I’ve already made the decision that my next car will be an automatic, partly because of how easy they are to drive, but majorly because the cars I am looking at are almost exclusively available with self-shifting gearboxes. Yes the XC90 and X5 came with a manual option in earlier iterations (5 or 6 speeds depending on the year and engine), but both hold their value appallingly and as a result are pretty rare. When I asked the opinions of BMW/Volvo/Mercedes enthusiasts they encouraged me to find a manual car to lessen the likelihood of big repair bills, but then they also told me to go for petrol and older models so I’ve basically ignored all the feedback I got (stupid maybe, but what’s the point in buying a big luxury SUV if its manual and has to be filled with petrol all the time).

this is effectively what I drove today…note the gear pattern and lack of ‘park’ as opposed to a normal manual

So today when I had to move my brother’s friend’s car it was quite a novelty, especially considering I have not even test driven an auto yet. Admittedly today only consisted of backing the car down my driveway, but it did involve lots of gear changes and threw up a few points of note for me to consider. Firstly I am not too keen on the fact that the brake pedal is so huge, which resulted in a couple of times I pressed it by mistake (instead of a clutch) and thought I’d crashed. Also I missed the ability to control the car by using the clutch…silly but I felt a little less in tune with the vehicle and so lurched a few times. Oh and I only realised I had to press the brake pedal to start the ignition after trying it as normal…thankyou YouTube for all the start-up videos I have watched.

alot of luxury brands are putting ‘different’ gear selectors in their cars, but they work the same as a regular automatic, but twist/click etc instead

…but they also usually have ‘flappy paddles’ on the back of the steering wheel to enable gear changes on the go

After doing my jiggering around on the driveway I did a little research, and to my confusion I realised that the Astra I drove was in fact a semi-automatic as opposed to a regular one. The difference? Well a semi automatic is basically a manual car with an automated clutch, although most have an automatic mode anyway…they’re basically slightly less complicated (and therefore cheaper) automatic gearboxes from what I gather.

Ford’s PowerShift gearbox is a dual clutch, but looks basically the same as a normal automatic

Regular automatics are almost always ‘manumatics’, in that they can be changed with buttons or via the gear stick if the driver wants (usually in a sport mode)…these are the most common type and what I will be looking for. Going beyond that, CVT gearboxes are just one big gear that constantly adjusts to get the optimum revs (and therefore mpg); they aren’t that popular with keen drivers because of their elastic band type driving style, but newer versions come with simulated gears so few people realise they are not driving a normal automatic. Finally a dual-clutch gearbox is what’s employed in lots of sportier cars; basically having 2 clutches means that they are quicker/smoother at changing gear, and can be used in automatic or manumatic mode.

most CVT’s also look the same as automatics, and often have fake ratios to mimic gears

Hopefully that made some sort of sense, especially if you’re not into cars, because buyers should really know what they are getting when they go to buy a car, even if they don’t know how it works! Anyone with any sort of automatic will likely just stick it in ‘Drive’ and leave it, but if you have a sport/manual mode then use it…I’m sure it’ll make things abit more enjoyable!


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