Automatic vs. Manual: the durability debate

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 05, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

My wife and I have been driving Japanese cars with manual transmissions for decades. They're fun to drive, more fuel-efficient, and they never break. Plus, the once-in-a-lifetime clutch repair is a fraction of the cost of repairing an automatic transmission, if the horror stories I've read are any indication. My wife has started to look for another vehicle to replace her aging Subaru Forester, and we both are stunned to find that:

(1) It's hard to find cars with manual transmissions now.

(2) They're more expensive.

(3) They aren't as fuel-efficient as modern automatic continuously variable transmissions.

So, our big question is this: If we go with an automatic transmission this time, what regular maintenance will we have to do in order to avoid those very expensive transmission repairs? Thanks for your help.

-- Mike

Nothing. You might need to do a fluid change at 100,000 miles. And the best thing you can do is drive your car gently.

Automatic transmissions have improved so much that transmission rebuilds now are far less common than clutch jobs. Sure, it happens. There are automatic-transmission failures. But it's once in a blue moon that we see an automatic transmission go bad in a car with fewer than 100,000, or even 150,000, miles.

Thirty years ago, problems were more widespread. Plus, back then you'd pay an extra $1,000 to buy a car with an automatic transmission.

These days, automatic transmissions come standard in most cars. And you have to request or special-order a car with a stick shift. Hey, maybe it's time to start calling automatics "standard" transmissions.

I haven't seen cases where they charge more for a stick, but they certainly won't give you a $1,000 discount anymore either (most manufacturers, if they offer one, call a stick shift a "no-cost option").

Plus, as you say, gas mileage actually is better on modern automatics than on manuals. That's because they're more efficient than ever, and modern six-, seven-, eight- and nine-speed automatics have a greater variety of gear ratios. Not to mention the infinite number of ratios in the CVTs that companies like Subaru offer.

So the only legitimate reason for driving a stick shift these days is that you find it fun -- which is an acceptable reason. But there's no longer a financial or environmental reason for doing so.

So, your wife may want to get with the times and make her next car an automatic, Mike. Good luck.

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