Manual gearboxes are straightforward but many cars labelled as ‘automatic’ actually aren’t. They might as well change gears automatically but they aren’t fitted with ‘traditional’ automatic gearboxes. Even most of those that are can have their gears changed manually too.


  • Usually less expensive than automatics
  • Driver in full control of gear selection
  • Can become tiresome in stop-start urban traffic

Typically with five, six or even seven gears, manual ‘boxes are operated solely by the driver who selects which ratio they want to be in. Gears are changed by hand with the clutch pedal operated with the left foot as each change is made. Enthusiastic drivers tend to swear by manual gearboxes, regularly claiming they offer greater involvement with the car.


  • Relaxed drive with option for manual override in many cars
  • Usually more expensive than manuals
  • Many are more fuel efficient than their manual counterparts

Cars that change gear automatically by moving the selector into D for Drive can be considered to be ‘automatic’ but almost all of them allow the driver to change gears manually too.

This is usually performed by moving the gear lever towards ‘+’ and ‘-’ symbols or by operating up and down ‘paddles’ behind the steering wheel. Manufacturers give these systems different names and sometimes confusingly, ‘semi-automatics’. These ‘automatic’ gearboxes could be one of the following types depending on the car they’re fitted to:

Traditional automatic

Using a component called a torque converter instead of a clutch, these gearboxes tend to offer smooth, relaxed gear changes with the car selecting the best ratio given the speed, engine revs and level of acceleration. Due to their heaviness, traditional automatics are usually found in larger cars, with the latest models having up to nine speeds.


First developed in the late 1960s, modern Continuously Variable Transaxle (CVT) gearboxes are thankfully reliable and no longer limited to small city cars. Essentially there is a single gear but by altering the size of a ‘drive belt’, it can artificially replicate different ratios. CVTs are very smooth but can make the engine rev at high speed when accelerating. Many hybrids are fitted with this type of gearbox.

Single automated clutch

In simple terms, what looks like an automatic gear lever is attached to a conventional manual gearbox with the clutch operated electronically rather than by the driver’s right foot. These are quite popular because they’re light and much cheaper than a traditional automatic. The main downside is that gear changes can sometimes be jerky and the software can’t decide quickly enough which gear to be in.

Dual-automated clutch or twin-clutch

Essentially the same again but with two clutches which makes for seamless gear changes that rival the best traditional automatics for smoothness. They’re quick too – driver-action changes can be made faster than they can with a regular manual gearbox. Volkswagen’s DSG and Porsche’s PDK gearboxes are some of the better known examples of this transmission type.

Years ago when automatics tended to be fitted with slow-witted, three-speed gearboxes, fuel consumption was dreadful compared to their manual counterparts. Now, with electronics monitoring the car’s efficiency and with more gears on hand, automatics are frequently more economical than the manual versions. With greater fuel efficiency comes lower CO2 emissions too.

Do automatic gearboxes involve enthusiastic drivers less in the overall experience? Some may suggest so but with many high-end supercars not even having a manual gearbox as an option, it seems perhaps they don’t. Ferrari don’t offer manual gearboxes simply because demand dwindled away.

What is key is that when choosing your next car, find out exactly what kind of ‘automatic’ you’re being offered. Also, ensure you’re happy with the way it drives, both when it chooses the gears itself and when you take control. Remember in most cases, opting for an automatic also means a price premium too.