Why don’t the British like automatic transmissions?

Published 05 December 2013

Living in London means living with some pretty horrendous traffic. For that reason much of my travelling within the capital takes place on two wheels, but shopping, picking people up or testing out new cars means I can’t make every trip on a motorbike. Typically that means I appreciate a small car with light steering – they’re nimble and easy to park.

Weirdly, though, of all the cars I’ve driven this year one of the easiest to live with in London has been a huge, lumbering MPV – the SsangYong Turismo. That’s because, regardless of its fairly lacklustre driving dynamics and its gargantuan dimensions, it was easy to drive in traffic - simply because it had an automatic gearbox. Granted a much smaller automatic car would be better still, but the point is that automatic transmissions make life easier, so why don’t we Brits tend to buy them?

In places like Japan, China and the United States pretty much everyone drives an automatic car. Indeed many people in the US can’t ‘drive stick’ at all. But in this country we almost all learn to drive a manual car and we almost all buy a manual car. Usually, manual cars are a little bit cheaper to buy than automatics, but many car buyers will spend thousands on stuff like heated seats – so why not the most comfortable option of them all?

There is of course a perfectly reasonable argument for manual gearboxes. They’re more involving and they give a finer level of control. And that's just the start of it - taking a sports car to my favourite rural road wouldn’t be the same if the car took the reins with the transmission instead of letting me decide what gear I need and when.

But how often do most people go for a spirited drive in the countryside? I’d argue that it’s not a particularly common pursuit at all – most people want to get to work or to the shops with the minimal of fuss. To that end there’s no doubt that a modern automatic is the perfect companion, if you can forgive a fewer miles per gallon. 

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Dual-clutch transmissions don't usually affect fuel economy

Perhaps economy is one of the reasons people choose manual gearboxes. Traditional torque converter automatics are less efficient than manual gearboxes, but that’s becoming less of a problem with more modern dual-clutch systems, which are either as efficient as, or even more frugal than, their manual counterparts.

They're often almost as much fun to drive, too. Many high performance cars only come with automatic gearboxes now, usually with paddles that let you take control of gear changes when you've decided you need - or want - to be in better control. However, more run of the mill machines still tend to feature manual gearboxes.

Perhaps the problem is xenophobia. Learning to drive a manual car and living with a manual car for many years can make the experience of driving an automatic a bit difficult to get used to. Indeed, despite having driven numerous automatic vehicles I still occasionally try to change to first gear and use the nonexistent clutch pedal when pulling up to a set of lights.

But you get used to it within just a few hours and then you start to see the benefits. There’s no biting point to contend with – so stop-start traffic jams and hill starts are incredibly easy. Add to that the ease with which manoeuvres like reverse parking can be undertaken and it makes perfect sense to pick an automatic transmission.

Maybe it’s just the adverse effect of dealing with endless delays and dozens of junctions and traffic lights every single day, but next time I change car I’m going to look high and low for one with an automatic gearbox – and if you’d like to take some of the hassle out of your driving perhaps you should, too. 

Comments

disqus_uai8dIVPTS    on 5 December 2013

People don't like the expense when they go pop and the dreaded limp home mode!

Mihailo Macedonia    on 6 December 2013

You didn't consider additional maintaining costs for automatic transmission

TTToommy    on 9 December 2013

remember reading that a lot of companies as well as The Met (police force) which run vehicles in central london all the time get automatics as they are cheaper to maintain - fewer reliability issues and .... prepare for argument - they're often faster in real world motoring

Joakim Welde    on 6 December 2013

How often does this happen? Nearly all my driving since 2001 has been in automatics, the only transmission fault I've had was a 1993 Mazda 323 where some ATF mysteriously vanished, after restoring the correct level it stayed correct for the rest of my use. My neighbour bought it and the autobox stayed flawless until he took the car to the breakers in 2010 due to extensive body rot.

Others:
97 Jaguar XJ6, 140k miles and counting - no autobox problem
99 Audi A4 1.8, 120k miles and counting - no autobox problem
99 Audi A6 2.5TDI, 190k miles when sold on - no autobox problem despite this being the dreaded early tiptronic, but the "quality" of the suspension and engine should count as a crime against humanity
04 Audi A6 2.5TDI quattro, 130k miles and counting - no autobox problem
04 Saab 9-5 2.0t, 90k miles and counting - no autobox problem

I suspect a lot of the autobox failures are due to chip tuning. When ZF and others sell autoboxes and give them a torque rating, they actually mean it. They don't mean 20 % more than stated, and of course the car manufacturers don't buy a stronger (and more expensive) box than they need for the engines they intend to use that box with, so when some shady computer mechanic increases the torque beyond what ZF says it can take, the resulting failure should not surprise anyone. The worst thing I see are those who claim to "chip tune" the autobox itself in order for it to handle the increased torque. "Tuning" by disabling the torque sensor (a safety measure!) does not magically make the mechanical bits inside the autobox any more robust, it only prevents the autobox from telling the now too powerful engine to cut back a little to avoid risking damage to the autobox, thus the engine becomes as powerful as it can be... and then it breaks the autobox.

Peter    on 15 December 2013

Is there a semi automatic with an H gate which is on the market? Commercial vehicles have them, any cars, mpvs, 4x4s?

Joakim Welde    on 15 December 2013

Any specific reason why you want an H gate?

DavidW842    on 17 July 2017

Is there a semi automatic with an H gate which is on the market? Commercial vehicles have them, any cars, mpvs, 4x4s?

Citroen DS 21 or 23 with a BVH (semi auto) box? 4 gears, no clutch....

AJ_Hants    on 9 December 2013

In my experience of owning seven different automatics from Renault, Peugeot and Citroen since the mid eighties, covering hundreds of thousands of miles, not one has ever given any trouble. I wouldn't choose anything else.

dibble    on 9 December 2013

Get a petrol hybrid. They are fully automatic. The Toyota Auris Hybrid does 57 mpg (real world). Which magazine rated it the most reliable car.

Giraffe boy    on 9 December 2013

Hear, hear. Get a petrol hybrid. Ultra reliable (hardly any moving parts to go wrong) and super economical. The hands down winner :)

CCBG    on 10 July 2017

A petrol hybrid still has all the faults of a petrol engine, PLUS the electric bits.

That's MORE to go wrong..

Get a proper ELECTRIC car, like a Zoe or a Leaf, or a Tesla if you have a few bob lying around..

Edited by CCBG on 10/07/2017 at 14:24

Philip Medlock    on 21 July 2017

The Toyota hybrids are simpler that you might thing though, the transmission is pretty ingenious and mechanically simple: eahart.com/prius/psd/

The motoring reviews don't often pick up on the fundamental difference between the Toyota Prius and virtually all other hybrids, which are DSG automatics with an electric motor tacked on.

Harlo    on 9 December 2013

And you didn't mention the ongoing reliability issues and multi-million global recalls (e.g. VW) related to dual clutch transmissions. Nor do you mention the poor stop-start driving experience of these 'boxes which can make parking in tight spaces less than optimum due to their jerky low speed nature, or pulling away from a rolling stop which can be decidedly dangerous as they commonly experience confusion over what gear to select. These boxes still have a long way to go before they match the smoothness and bullet-proof reliability of a traditional slushbox. Personally I wouldn't touch a DSG with a bargepole in their current state of development.

TTToommy    on 9 December 2013

agree about the DSG, which is why as much as I like Vws I LOVE proper automatics so i'm sticking to an automatic

Skimbleshanks    on 3 February 2014

I love my automatics, I passed my in an auto - so much easier to control and drive. However after driving a semi-auto (single clutch, 5 speed with override) I find them very rewarding and the best of both worlds. Once you learn to drive them you can get over the lurching and hesitant nature of the gearbox with simple anticipation of the conditions ahead. I now drive a full auto Corsa which is an absolute pleasure to drive, very relaxed.

Your article makes perfect sense, I have used the arguments you've made for autos many times and it always comes back to "I like to be in control" or "The mpg is terrible". I think driving an auto you have one less thing to worry about and you can concentrate on the road ahead and as for mpg a semi-auto will outstrip a manual equivalent in fuel and emissions.

   on 4 December 2016

I hate autos, don't enjoy driving them at all (I prefer public transport to the experience of driving an auto).

Peter Hobbs    on 29 June 2017

What is it about automatics you don't like, have you tried a dual clutch box

gazzag    on 6 July 2017

what is it you like about using your foot to push in the clutch on our motorways over 50 times in less than a mile in rush hour ? or that burning clutch smell you get when that bleeding thing needs replacing. I know we all have our prefernce but I dont understand why people HATE autos ??? Please explain why you hate them instead of just saying youd prefer public transport.

Gary.

gazzag    on 6 July 2017

Ive been driving autos since 1994 with a couple of manuals in-between for a few years. If I had a choice, i'd always go for the automatic. Would you buy a TV without a remote control lol. I've been driving Citroen autos for the last 8 years, first with the C4 now with a C5 and they've been great. £30 to tax and cheaper to run than their manual counterpart, plus I have paddles if I want to go tonto on the country roads with the 1.6 HDi lol. Gary.

Edited by gazzag on 06/07/2017 at 18:01

The Alchemist    on 10 July 2017

Currently on holiday in US driving an automatic Kia Sportage . I always think whilst I'm over here that life would be much simpler with an automatic but never get around to doing anything about it . Maybe this time I will .

Stormy.    on 10 July 2017

Several years ago when we were househunting in Devon I used to go back to our then home near Oxford with a painful, aching left knee and painful left wrist. All this due to the roads here in rural Devon, being twisty, narrow and undulating making continual use of a manual box a necessity. We vowed when we moved we would buy a car with an auto box, a proper one not the elastic band type, and have never regretted it. Now we can just concentrate on missing all the potholes and tractors and stray sheep and not worry about gear shifting. My wife, who had never driven auto before would now not go back to a manual, EVER.

From B.R.

100andthirty    on 14 July 2017

Bought my first automatic in 49 years of driving and I really don't know why I waited so long. Powerful turbocharged petrol engine, auto gearbox and auto parking brake. Effortless, and goes like stink if I floor the throttle. What's not to like? The manual even has instructions for launch control....on a Skoda Superb!

kelvin66    on 17 July 2017

You can't beat a Toyota hybrid for smoothness at very low speeds!. No gear changes, no clutch, no starter motor, no alternator, no fan belt, no dual mass flywheel, no diesel particulate filter and no problems!

All with diesel economy and that's why Uber drivers love them...



   on 20 July 2017

Most of my driving is around the London suburbs, with occasional access to small country roads. Until now I have tended to have smallish manual gearbox cars. My wife and I still have a Suzuki Swift Sport which we both love. However, just under a year ago I bought a 12 year old Volvo V70 from a friend and find that, despite its size and petrol consumption, it is so easy to drive in stop/start conditions that I am very tempted to keep it and sell one of my other cars.

A Toyota hybrid could make sense for my type of motoring except for the fact that only the largest ones are suitable for towing.

R L Nunn    on 20 July 2017

I've had automatics since I bought my dads Triumph 2000 and I've never had an auto fail yet (touch wood). Triumph 2000 had a 3 speed Borg-Warner 168,000 when I traded in for a Daimler Sovereign 4.2 (also 3 speed B-W), Rover 3500 SDI (slightly more modern 3 speed B-W) 176,000, Rover 75 2.5 V6 with a 5 speed auto and now 180,000 and no auto problems (in fact the Rover 75 has been very reliable and I won't be changing if I can afford to keep taxing and insuring it).
I think an auto is a waste of time on small engines but over 2 litres they make life more comfortable. Throw your left foot away and just point and go.

hissingsid    on 20 July 2017

When automatic transmissions first appeared in Britain in the 1950's only cars with large engines could absorb the considerable power losses, so they gained a reputation for inefficiency which has been difficult to shake off, even though today's transmissions are very efficient indeed. The only way automatics could become the norm in Britain would be if it was made compulsory for all new drivers to learn and pass their driving tests on them. Anyone wishing to drive a manual would then have to take a supplementary test, but I doubt that there would be many takers. Sales of automatics would soar, and manuals would soon become as difficult to sell as diesels. For modern cars the mechanical crudity of the manual gearbox and friction clutch should be consigned to history along with carburettors and drum brakes.

As a classic car enthusiast I have mastered everything from crash gearboxes to pre-selectors, but for everyday driving I have bought automatics for years and would never go back to a manual.

Edited by hissingsid on 20/07/2017 at 14:44

glidermania    on 20 July 2017

Modern sports automatics with flappy paddles are far more engaging to drive than a manual. I can change gear faster and without taking my hands off the wheel if I want.

An auto would be my choice every time now and I used to be a confirmed 'manual' driver. The only thing with an auto is if they go wrong, they are far more expensive to repair.

Oh, and always, always use the HJ left foot braking when reversing or parking.

Wukl    on 20 July 2017

My current car is my first automatic after nine manuals, and I don't think I'd go back now. I can flick it up and down a gear on the buttons when I want to, or just let it get on with it by itself in traffic. Best of both worlds as far as I concerned, but I don't doubt it helps it's a big capacity petrol providing the poke; small automatics can be painful in the extreme. It's a slushmatic box which I've put 77k on with no problem; it's now at 173k with only routine fluid changes. A DSG - particularly VAG products -may not be so reliable...

Warfstaff    on 20 July 2017

Bought an old RAV4 torque converter auto for the dog as I didn't want her in the manual GT86. Did more miles in the RAV than the GT86 so chopped them both in for a (maligned by every auto journo except HJ) CVT auto petrol RAV. My wife loved the auto so much she changed her MINI Cooper for an auto Cooper S. Would not consider a manual gearbox ever again.

Peter Greening    on 21 July 2017

I think it’s sometimes a case of the ‘bad old’ English/British - “Aaarrhh - I wouldn’t ‘ave one of them”. We see it all the time. I’ve lived and worked around the world for much of my life, some of the places are fantastic and certainly show us up in certain areas. “Where have you been this time Pete?” ….. “ Aaarrhh - I wouldn’t go there” ….. “What’s the food like” ….. “Aaarrhh - I wouldn’t eat that” . It was definitely like this when Honda first introduced their motorbikes (in volume) into the UK with electrics the worked, including indicators, electric start and engines that didn’t leak oil all over the garage floor. …. “Aaarrhh Japanese - wouldn’t have one of them” and fact - it’s been said to me several times by people I know have never driven a car with an automatic gearbox …. “Is that Car of yours manual or automatic?” …. “Aaarrhh - wouldn’t have one of them” - been nowhere, tried nothing know everything.

homerfj1100    on 22 July 2017

You're describing Brits.

Peter McGuire    on 22 July 2017

The best anti theft deterrent in North America is a manual gearbox. Hardly anyone can drive one and the driving schools have mostly given up on teaching "standard".

Pelican    on 25 July 2017

Automatics are usually an expensive option on UK cars. That's why we don't buy them therefore the premise of this article is incorrect. And as for "spending thousands of pounds on heated seats"?! They cost £380 extra on a BMW 3 series.

   on 25 July 2017

Got to agree with Peter Greening, I, too, have the pleasure of a wandering work life as a mechanical engineer ( I normally only get a call when the fan has been covered in the brown stuff) and have been to more countries that I can remember. The point is that almost all the places I've been to seem to follow the American way of life in that almost all of the vehicles I have been given to use have been autos and that includes trucks, pickups and cars. Very few people around the world use manual boxes anymore and when in Nanning, Southern China I didn't see a manual on anything but the oldest of the busses. My latest acquisition: a Sprinter 2.7 316 CDi has a beautiful auto box, loads of get up and go and I wouldn't want anything else. I understand the aforementioned British reticence to auto's, but let's face it, those early auto's were really garbage. My only experience was with the Rover 110. Of the two I had, the manual would return a reasonable 25 mpg (on a good day) and the auto would be lucky to see 16. With more refined engines and better engineered auto's there's no reason to wear out the left leg anymore.

Diesel Nut    on 25 July 2017

The reason the Americans like automatic and we don't is that they are sloppy and we are not. Simples

Ronnie Bagel    on 27 July 2017

I've got a Seat Leon Cupra 290 estate with DSG. I've always had manuals in the past, save for two out of my 25 or so cars. The Leon is a fantastic drive (yes, even with an auto box), is more economical than the manual in Comfort mode, changes gear faster than the manual, and has the option of the paddles for when I can be bothered. Fantastic car made better with the auto box (imho, of course).

rob brown    on 1 August 2017

There was a time when I'd drive nothing else but an automatic E39 5-series. I had at least 4 in a row - different colours and trims etc - absolutely loved them.

The ZF box of the 528's was fantastic. Then a GM box in my 530dSport developed a 'clutch solenoid seal leak' fault which was costed best part of £2k.

That's when I decided I'm never going near an auto again.

If BMW can get it that wrong in the best car they ever built while at the top of their game, I'll stick with a stick hereon.

colinh    on 2 August 2017

Always approached automatics with the following:

Imagine if all cars were automatic, and somebody invented a manual box and went on Dragon's Den

"...so there's an extra pedal, and you have to press it and move this stick thing between 3 and 5 times to get up to speed, and then the same when you're stopping. You have to take one hand off the steering wheel to change these gears - surely the safety thought these days was to keep both hands on the wheel, hence the controls that have been transferred to the wheel. Also adding the extra pedal will compromise the space available in the foot-well, particularly for RHD cars. The manual box will be dearer than the automatic box if it is made in smaller numbers. All this for a marginal gain in fuel economy, which in the overall costs of motoring is relatively unimportant and receives far too much attention.

Sorry, I'm out"

Amateur Torque    on 4 August 2017

Colin,

I love your comment, it's so true.

I have had manuals for the first 17 years of driving, then I test drove a BMW with a tiptronic gearbox just for a laugh, and I fell in love with it. I ended up buying a 330 just for the gearbox.

Tiptronic from now on.

Patrick C    on 6 August 2017

My old Lexus had just over 300k on it on original box and smoothest gear change ever.

Jean Bernard    on 8 August 2017

I am not xenophobic, I am a phallocrat, I like shafts

Chris Clement    on 10 August 2017

Prefer the Geartronic box in my Volvo to the DCT box in my previous Kadjar, much more relaxed and doesn't roll back on hills etc. Less efficient fuel wise but nicer to drive IMO. I've had loads of autos, many with silly high miles on them and have never had a problem. I worked as a mechanic for nearly 30 years and can count on one hand how many major issues I've seen with auto boxes, but I've overhauled tons of manual boxes and replaced hundreds of clutches. I need an auto now but even if I didn't I'd still choose one every time. Takes so much stress from busy traffic and shorter runs.

stojom    on 29 October 2017

Have been driving manuals since 1968 but switched to an Astra auto on retirement to make driving less stressful. Love it just point and steer with no chance of inappropriate stalling. Now have a Cvt version verso and it's great . Fuel consumption as good as manual on run. Btw if you have a DCT auto never creep in traffic wait for reasonable gap then move forward. . Creeping like slipping clutch, not good.

Pelican    on 20 December 2017

Please will someone withdraw this article. The reason we don't buy so many automatics is because they cost about £1,000 to £1,500 more than a manual. Go online and look at some price lists for any car and the cost of an optional auto gearbox.

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