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Manual vs. Automatic Transmission

Posted in Features on December 17, 2018
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Photographers: 4 Wheel & Off-Road Staff

On the one side you have grouchy old farts unwilling to consider new ways of doing anything. On the other you have people who maybe grew up not knowing anything different and who denounce ancient technology. Much like modern politics, people are secretly scared of what they don’t understand when it comes to the best type of transmission for off-road use, and it’s easier to polarize against something than to actually take the time to understand where the other side is coming from. Such is the status of the war that continues to be waged among off-roaders over which transmission is better: manual or automatic.

There aren’t many perks to being an automotive journalist, but one of the few is the opportunity to drive lots of different vehicles on- and off-road. In the case of our motley bunch, it also means the opportunity to own, build, and wheel lots of different rigs equipped with both manuals and automatics. What follows is our take on the never-ending debate. It might not change your mind, but perhaps these opinions are more informed than your grumpy old club member who has driven the same flattie for 30 years or your neighbor who took his driving test in his mom’s Prius and has done more wheeling on the ’Gram than in real life.

Any terrain that requires a lot of momentum and throttle tends to favor an automatic. While manual trannies can work well in these environments, they take a lot more driver skill and finesse.

Harry Wagner

At the risk of sounding like a cop-out, my answer is “It depends.” Not only on the application (autos rule in mud, snow, and sand), but also the horsepower of the vehicle in question. Automatics rule in the mud and sand, where you don’t want to lose momentum between shifts. Also, not surprisingly, big horsepower makes the mud and sand considerably more fun. Modern automatics with six, eight, and even 10 speeds are particularly good at keeping the engine in the powerband.

I spend more of my time in rocks though, and driving to and from the trail, than I do in the mud. Most of my projects use low-horsepower, lightweight four-cylinder engines, so the idea of robbing some of those precious ponies with an automatic is anathema to me. I prefer manual transmissions that allow me to rev my small-displacement engine for all it is worth, on both the street and the trail.

The argument can also be made that manual trannies are simpler and more reliable and easier to limp home if you have an issue, but honestly I don’t see that many transmission failures out on the trail. If I had a bigger engine with more torque, an automatic transmission would not be so abhorrent to me.

Slow-speed trail work has manuals and automatics roughly equal, though most of the staff tends to favor a manual in this type of terrain.

Verne Simons

Technical Editor
I’m a die-hard manual transmission fan. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of automatic transmissions I would conservatively guess that 55 percent of the 4x4s I’ve owned in my life had manual transmissions. And I’m sure I have fantasized about swapping every auto-equipped rig I have owned (or still own). So I am biased, and I know it.

Sure, slushboxes are easier to drive in traffic, and they are nice when you’ve got somewhere to be and don’t want to enjoy the ride, but off-road I feel much more comfortable with a manual. Both types of transmissions can be built to excel in just about any environment with extra-low low range gearsets, granny gears, range boxes, and transfer case doublers. The rare exceptions are in desert racing and in mud, where autos almost always rule. But I know racers who have manuals in their race trucks, and I’ve driven and seen others drive in mud with a manual with success. The one real exception might be in a rock bouncer. Even I don’t think it makes sense to run a manual in a true hill killer.

So my advice to anyone who asks—and I get this question a lot—is to drive what makes you feel most comfortable behind the wheel. Having said that, there are many instances when “clutching out” in a manual can save your butt (it frequently saves mine), and I’ve often said that a manual transmission with a cracked case will probably get you off the trail while an automatic that’s 2 quarts low on fluid might not.

Installing any transmission is a chore, though the task is roughly equal among manuals and automatics. One clear advantage is that with a stick, you’re not going to take a bath in tranny fluid.

Trent McGee

Nuts and Bolts author
I used to be one of those guys who proclaimed that you’d have to pry a stick shift out of my cold, dead hands. In full disclosure, two of my past eight wheeling rigs have had an automatic, but my next build will have a slushbox.

These days I really don’t have a preference. Without question, wheeling with a manual takes a lot more practice and skill, and I think that turns people off more than anything else. People who say that manual transmissions suck in the big rocks or that they’re a disadvantage in other types of terrain are just ignorant. A skilled driver can adeptly pilot a manual-equipped vehicle through anything an automatic can handle.

In my eyes, most of the pros and cons you hear about one or the other cancel each other out, save one: An automatic transmission is able to upshift without losing momentum. That’s a clear advantage in certain very specific situations. With the type of wheeling I do, it’s most obvious when you need a heavy bump and more wheel speed than a single gear can provide. No matter how good you are, you can’t shift a manual faster than an automatic, which means you’re committed to one gear when you need to bump up an obstacle with a stick. If you try and shift, you lose all of your momentum. With an auto, the tranny can upshift instantly and provide more wheel speed, which can make the difference on getting up an obstacle. I feel like this is less of an issue in high-rpm and high-speed situations like mud or the dunes, but I will concede that an automatic might have a slight advantage there, too. Still, when you weigh this against relying on nothing more than fluid to keep you moving, excessive heat, added power consumption, and more, a manual starts looking pretty attractive. In the end it really doesn’t matter to me which transmission a vehicle has, so long as it works and gets me out on the trail and back again.

The biggest enemy to an automatic transmission is heat, and they can build up a lot of it when working hard. Things like towing, prolonged hill assaults, and improper gearing can cause automatics to overheat quickly. If excessive heat is left unchecked, failure is not far behind.

Christian Hazel

Automatics are easier to drive, require less skill, and can in most instances deliver more driver finesse than manual transmissions. That said, make mine a manual all week long and twice on Sunday. I want the ability to clutch in and allow the vehicle to roll backwards if I fail at a hard climb that puts me in imminent danger of rolling. I don’t need to be fumbling with a gated shifter hoping I stab it in Reverse in a moment of panic. I want the simplicity of knowing that as long as my input and output shafts are intact I’ll pretty much be able to find a gear in which to jam it in order to limp off the trail. I don’t like worrying about overheating fluid when zooming through the dunes. I like the feeling of bang-shifting a bread-truck transmission through the lights on the road. I sometimes prefer to begin a technical climb in First gear with the starter motor, allowing the engine to catch as the vehicle is creeping forward without rolling back off the line like sometimes happens when taking an auto out of Park. And finally, I like to be able to determine at which rpm I attack an obstacle from a stop instead of letting my torque converter have a say in the matter. In other words, I’m a control freak, and a manual transmission supports my sickness.

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