When cars first hit the market over 100 years ago, a manual transmission was the only way to shift gears. You didn’t have any choice in the matter. It was row-your-own or walk. These days, you have a multitude of options at your fingertips. Let us help you decide which is right for you.
Even after 100 years, the manual transmission is still a favorite of purists who want to feel a connection to the machine. Manual transmissions require effort, skill, and a little understanding of the dynamics of the car in order to drive them at all, and even more to drive them smoothly. As a result, they turned off a lot of potential drivers, and all but prevented people with disabilities or difficulty operating 3 pedals, a shifter, and a steering wheel simultaneously
In 1939, the public first got access to an automatic transmission, the GM Hydra-Matic, in the 1940 Oldsmobile. The automatic transmission took most of the work away from the driver, and no longer required the driver to operate a clutch to take off, and it shifted gears on its own, eliminating the need for manual gear selection. For the first time, driving was no longer cumbersome and complicated. This opened up car driving to groups of people who had only ever been passengers before. Today, not only do you have the choice between manual and automatic, there are also CVT and DSG options. So, you have got to be asking, which one should you buy?
Automatic transmissions traditionally operate through hydraulic, or fluid, pressure and movement. They have a lot of moving parts, are more complicated, and heavier than a manual transmission. Because of this, manual transmissions usually make more power available from the engine to the wheels, and manual transmission cars usually have a higher fuel efficiency, and more reliability than a traditional automatic, though the advancements in technology over the last 70 years has closed that gap tremendously.
Though designs evolved, and became more complex, adding more gears, and implementing ways to smooth operation, these two transmissions were the only choices for the next 60 years or so. Both transmissions had gears added, increasing from 2-speeds to 6-speeds or more. Automatic transmissions gained electronic control to help fuel economy and performance, and both types of transmissions became stronger, smaller, lighter, and more reliable. However, the same basic design has changed very little.
In the early 2000s, some new technologies hit the automotive world. The most commonly seen is the advent of the CVT, or Continuously-Variable Transmission. The automatic transmission shifts on its own, but is limited to a few specific “gear ratios,” or settings. You can think of it like a 3-way lamp. You have off, dim, and bright to choose from. The CVT operates by constantly adjusting on a spectrum of ratios to match vehicle speed, engine speed, and driver input. In our lamp analogy, the CVT is much like a dimmer switch, where there are and endless number of adjustment levels between off and full brightness. This results in an extremely smooth ride, which can seem very foreign to drivers familiar with traditional transmissions.
The CVT transmission provides unparalleled smoothness, and superior fuel economy when compared to an automatic transmission. The reason for this is because an automatic transmission is always having to compromise, having to choose the best gear out of a few choices. For example, cruising at 45 mph might be best suited for a gear somewhere between 3rd and 4th in a particular vehicle, but the transmission has to choose between the two. A CVT can adjust to exactly the right ratio without compromising.
The downsides to CVT transmissions are cost, lack of serviceability, and reduced reliability. The materials and design of a CVT makes them more expensive to produce, leading to higher vehicle price. In addition, they do suffer While CVT’s have improved over the last decade or so, they still do not have the 60+ years of development and improvement that has made the automatic so reliable. CVT equipped cars tend to have a few more problems with the transmissions, mainly because they haven’t had the time to work all the bugs out and develop them to the point we have with Automatics.
To compound the cost and reliability concerns, for the most part, CVT transmissions cannot be repaired, beyond a couple of minor electronic components. The biggest hurdle is a lack of parts availability. Most of the CVT manufacturers do not sell replacement parts for these transmissions, and none of the aftermarket companies are making replacement parts yet either. While we are equipped with the specialty tools to service these units, we simply can’t get the parts. That means that the entire transmission must be replaced with either a new one from the manufacturer, or a low-mileage used transmission, even if the internal damage is only a few small parts.
Another type of transmission is becoming more popular on the market, as technology has made it more practical and more affordable. This is the Dual-Clutch, or DSG transmission, which is designed around performance. This transmission type has been around for years, but up until recently, it was only available for racing, or in high-end exotic performance cars such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston-Martin, Porsche, and high-end BMW, Mercedes, and Audi vehicles. The DSG combines the strength, small size, light weight, and better control of a manual transmission, and combined it with the fast shifting, and self-shifting capabilities of an automatic.
Technically the dual-clutch and DSG are actually two different designs, but the same basic principle applies. Mechanically, they are basically a manual transmission. However, instead of the driver operating the clutch with his or her foot, and the shifter by hand, a computer controls these actions through electronic or hydraulic actuators. These systems are extremely fast, shifting in just a few milliseconds in the fastest dual-clutch transmissions. In both designs, the driver can manually control the shifts through electronic paddles, or it can be put in an automatic mode where the car’s computer controls the shifts just like an automatic. These offer the highest performance of any of the transmission types, and also give the physical strength and lightness of a manual transmission, as well as the convenience of an automatic.
These dual-clutch and DSG transmissions sound like the best of everything on the surface. While they are great, they do have a few concerns. First, nearly all dual-clutch or DSG transmissions shift more harshly and abruptly than an automatic or CVT because of their performance design. Many of them will have a bit of “roll-back” when taking off like is experienced with a manual transmission. Because they are essentially manual transmissions, the mechanical components are usually very robust and reliable. However, in order to make everything operate at the high performance level, there are very intricate electronic and hydraulic components that can be very costly to repair if they fail.
So, with all this information, we can see a lot of pros and cons to our choices. So at the end of the day, which transmission is the best? While there is no right answer, here are the basic points to help you choose which is right for you:
If you are most concerned with lower ownership costs, choosing a manual transmission is the way to go. If you want to be engaged while driving, and feel like you have 100% control of the vehicle, there is no other option than a manual. Many drivers enjoy the feeling of shifting gears, and find no greater pleasure than driving a manual transmission vehicle. However, the majority of drivers would rather have the convenience of a transmission that shifts itself.
The traditional automatic transmission is a great choice for drivers who still value reliability and low cost of ownership, but prefer the convenience of not having to shift gears. Automatics are robust, and have become quite strong and reliable over the last 60 or so years. They are a great choice for drivers who tow, or who keep their vehicles for a long time. When automatic transmissions do have problems, they can almost always be repaired for far lower than the cost of an outright replacement.
For the driver who values smoothness, the only option is the CVT. Delivering better fuel economy than an automatic, and a smoother ride than any other option, for some car owners, the added cost of ownership and more expensive repairs are worth it. The smoothness does come at a price, however, because these transmissions simply have not yet developed to the reliability and ease of repair enjoyed by automatic transmissions.
The final choice, the DSG or dual-clutch transmission, is the clear choice for any driver who values downright performance over anything else. These systems are expensive, but they offer the control of a manual transmission, with faster shifting than an automatic. On the racetrack, they simply can’t be beat. On the road, they are a great option for drivers who enjoy manual transmissions, but also drive in heavy traffic where a traditional manual would become cumbersome, or if they need to let other people drive the car who may not be able to drive a stick shift. This performance does come with higher costs, and the potential for expensive electronic or hydraulic part failures, and a ride that is not as smooth as an automatic or CVT.
Hopefully this blog has been informative, and has helped you decide which transmission type is right for your next car. If you want to learn more, please feel free to contact us here at Cincinnati Transmission Specialists. We would love to help you decide which transmission is best for you, and help you get an idea what the maintenance and repair costs might look with a given car. We also work with transmissions every single day, so we have an up-close look at which vehicles are having which issues.