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The Endless Debate - Auto or Manual?

No matter which far flung part of the world you're reading this from, one of the largest debates in the automotive enthusiast pools is in regards to gearbox choice. Yes, I'm sure you're aware of what I'm about to ask - which is better, automatic or manual?

It's something that people seem to passionately argue about day after day, week after week, year after year. On one side you have the purists with their desire for everything they drive to have three pedals and a gearbox that only they have control over, on the alternate side you have the technical minded folk who will consistently bring up acceleration and economy figures to make their claim for automatics being the best of the two.

Now, nobody asked for my opinion but if you're familiar with the kind of stuff I end up writing on this page, you're rightfully expecting to receive it at this point. Honestly, despite how I may have been in the past or may continue to be in the present, I deem it pointless to supply any kind of divisive opinion on the subject as there are so many positives for both, as well as negatives for both, especially when comparing manual gearboxes to their more modern automatic counterparts - needless to say what comes up trumps comparing the 90s 4-speed auto out of an MX5 to the manual it also shipped with, as this would be what in the automotive world is considered a no-brainer.

My first car was an automatic. I'll admit, at the time I didn't really have the most enthusiast-level interest in cars, but even so I believed that with the way cars were going, there would be no need for me to get a more competent understanding of driving a manual than my driving lessons had supplied me with, so bought an auto. This was absolutely fine, in fact despite it being a wheezy CVT automatic in the Lancer, I actually quite enjoyed the whole push and go sensation. It even had paddle shifters to pretend you were actually engaging in the driving process of the car.

But upon starting at Ford, I was suddenly exposed to a world where I would need to adapt to driving all kinds of manual vehicles of different ages each day - and I would have to adapt fast. It was hard, after all I had spent two years driving nothing but clutchless cars since passing my test, and as such I stalled. A lot. It was almost like I had forgotten everything, and was genuinely embarrassing. But over time it got better - I stopped stalling and kangarooing, and became smoother - I could judge bite points better and make predictions as to when I needed to change better.

A few months after starting there, I bought myself an RX8 after writing off the Lancer - this was my conversion. This was the car that turned me from the automatic addicted soul I once was to the manual maestro I've now become in comparison. The first time I drove it was back from the other dealership in our group that had taken it in as a part exchange. I'll remember that drive forever, from Harlow to Stevenage - the winding roads, the inclines, and the singing rotary lump up front revving so freely that you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was, as Jeremy Clarkson so eloquently put it, "running on double cream". But above all of that, the sweet shifting manual gearbox with it's almost bolt action precision, combined with a stiff but keen clutch, opened my eyes to the reasons behind some people's almost religious adherence to manual 'boxes.

Weirdly, it was around this time last year that saw me return to my first automatic car since that one - my Evo X with the SST 'box. Another part exchange from work, I was horrified after committing to buy it to find out that it wasn't a manual as listed, but the dual-clutch SST, known for being plagued with problems. The car and I had a shaky start but after having some minor work done to it in order to bring power up to a more acceptable 370hp, I find myself content with the paddle shifter - certainly, in the first couple of gears it's better than me at keeping up with the short ratios designed to aid it in the 0-60mph sprint.

Moving away from anecdotes, seeing as you could compress as many anecdotes as you like into a discussion, only for it to still not be fact, the factual properties to consider are reasonably simple.

Modern automatics are faster - as much as your local street racer may believe that they can switch ratios in their clapped out hatchback faster than the likes of ZF's 8 Speed et al, they can't. Not only that but a lot of the time, they're actually cheaper to operate. Most units now operate on fluid change intervals longer than the clutch life of some performance manuals, although the caveat of this is that when they do go wrong, they're often far more expensive. Some can also argue that in the case of slightly more nervous drivers, an automatic gearbox allows more concentration on the road and environment where previously gear changes and clutch work may have proved a distraction - some of us take it for granted that it can come naturally.

The arguments for a manual gearbox, when comparing modern to modern rather than simply bringing up that, for example, an old 4-speed auto is slow and unintelligent, is that they offer far more engagement. Now, it may seem like engagement alone isn't enough to combat all the other plus points of automatics, and for many it isn't - hence why the numbers of automatic cars being registered each year just keep on rising - but on a page like this, I'm sure you can expect what's coming next.

A well executed manual gear shift is a feeling quite like no other. In a world where cars are being shipped with more and more in the way of driver assists, it's one of the few things we still get to do that offers us a direct line of communication with the inner workings of our cars. When even power steering has become electric and no longer relies of hydraulic fluid being pumped around, the balancing of clutch pedal and throttle can be almost poetic. And that's not just when considering fantastic manual boxes, like the Mazda MX5 'box across the ages, or the six speed manuals in the current generation Fiesta ST. Even the vague and wooly gates of the shifter in the Twingo don't subdue a rewarding feeling of interaction when changing gear - amazing when you consider that switching ratios in this almost feels like stirring a saucepan of Béchamel.

Thus, in the grand argument, I believe that while the automatics of today are technically the far better options - there's still a massive amount of space, and demand, for a manual gearbox. It's one of the few things we have to cling on to until we're removed from the equation in terms of driving fully.

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