To shift, or not to shift, that is the question. Some drivers are committed to manual transmissions while many prefer the ease of automatics. There are legal as well as technical aspects to consider, especially for new drivers.
In contrast to European and American automotive markets, which remain strongly manual, in the last decade the Australian car industry has seen a steady shift towards automatic transmission vehicles in new car salesi,ii. Figures from the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) and VicRoads show that many new drivers are choosing to do their licence test in an automatic over a manuali,ii. However, it is important to be aware of licence restrictions if you do your driving test in an automatic.
In most states, new drivers who elect to take their drivers licence test in an automatic will have their licence endorsed for automatic vehicles only. In fact, South Australia is the only state that allows drivers who pass their test in an automatic vehicle to be immediately eligible to drive manualiii.
Almost all of the states allow drivers who have gained their licence on an automatic to drive a manual transmission vehicle after a period of time or on achieving a full licence. Each state requires a different level of experience in order to be allowed to drive a manual transmission vehicle without retesting.
In New South Wales, a new driver who was tested in an automatic vehicle is only allowed to drive a manual once they attain their provisional P2 licence, after a minimum of one year's driving experience on their P1 licenceiv. In Victoria, drivers wanting to drive a manual without a retest on a manual need to attain their full licence first: that means waiting at least three years on their probationary P1 and P2 licencesv. Queensland and Western Australia, however, will not permit the driving of a manual vehicle at all without a retestvi,vii.
Advantages of manuals
Although driving a manual well can require more skill and experience, there are advantages. Car buyers may find that for certain models, a manual transmission vehicle may be more affordable. For example, a 2014 Mazda 2 Neo manual is $15,990, while the automatic option is $17,640viii; a ten per cent difference in cost. The 2014 Holden Cruze Equipe Sedan with a 1.8L engine and manual transmission costs $19,990 as of June 2014, whereas the 1.8L automatic model comes in just over $25,000 depending on which state you live inix.
Manuals can also offer the advantage of a less complex transmission. Automatic transmissions contain many hydraulic components, electrical parts and a similar if not greater number of gears: an automatic transmission may be more expensive to repairx.
Of course, one of the greatest benefits of driving a manual is the personal control over gearing, which could be preferred when driving up and down hills or across slippery surfaces like gravel, ice or snow.
Automatic transmission advances
Although better fuel economy was once considered a key benefit of manual over automatic, there has been great progress in automatic transmission technology. Automatic transmission vehicles are catching up - and even overtakingxi. Transmissions that allow the engine speed to be better matched to driving speed improve fuel economy. The six-speed and better automatics commonly available today do this wellxii. In some car makes, the automatic is now more fuel efficient than the manual. For example, the Toyota Corolla Ascent Hatch entry level vehicle with a manual six-gear transmission consumes 7.1 litres of fuel per 100 kilometresxiii, whereas the seven-speed automatic option consumes 6.6 litres per 100 kilometresxiv.
Modern automatic transmissions certainly have left few questions unanswered for drivers, with many now offering a sport mode which allows manual selection of gears if a driver wants to make the gear selection decisions. The advanced technologies of multispeed automatic transmissions - with nine- and ten-speed autos coming soon - overcome many of the performance short-comings of automatics of previous decades.
Today's automatics offer great performance and ease of operation, especially in congested urban traffic, but at the end of the day choosing to drive manual or automatic is a decision of personal preference, dependant on your driving style and conditions.