Why don’t the British like automatic transmissions?

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.

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.


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  1. It’s so funny how people in the other side of the pond tend to forget that the United States, and in the rest of North America (Canada, United States and México) the use of cars with automatic transmissions is as old as the same year it appeared widely in the US, 1939. So, In addition to the US, the other two countries have a very high number of automatic cars, per cápita, probably higher than those figures of Japan and China, taking into consideration the years they have been sold during so many years. In Central and South America the story goes different, especially in Argentina and Chile, where the automatic transmision has not been widely used. So, please, extend your vision to other parts of the world where there are cars.

  2. You’re pushing at an open door! I used to be British (I’m English now, but that’s another story) & I prefer automatic cars. I think it needs to be manufacturer-led, though. Many smaller, more economical cars on the UK market aren’t available with auto ‘boxes.

    1. Your comment is invalid, and not true. The reason Europeans and the UK have a preference for manual transmission is that we are brought up with them and taught to drive in them. Only a few ever get the chance to try Automatics, therefore are ignorant to their benefits. London Black Cab drivers are 95% auto drivers due to the type of traffic they are in all day, and if it were not for the price penalty that New car buyers have to pay if they want Automatic, I feel we would have a much higher percentage of Automatic cars in use. With the new type of DSG or Double Clutch Auto boxes now being offered by the VW / Skoda / BMW group, and the fact that fuel use is equal to or sometimes better than their Manual equivalents, I feel we will slowly move more towards Auto transmission this side of the pond.
      I personally drive a Skoda with a 7 speed DSG, and I find it as good as the Manual equivalent, and I have driven both Manual and Auto throughout my 43 years of driving.
      I think a re-think is required by a lot of people. 😉

  3. It’s a good question and I guess alot of it comes down what you’ve been bought up around. I’ve always had manual cars, ive driven various automatics, DSG’s etc and while the DSG is the best I’ve driven in terms of having that ‘connected’ feeling that a manual gearbox / clutch offers there’s still something missing for me, and that is control. Whether it’s parking in awkward places or winding the revs up on the winding back roads there’s a much more involved and engaging feeling manual transmission offers over even the best autos.

    Now of course another big factor in this for myself comes down to the type of engine that’s driving the transmission and the location it’s being driven. For stop start or motorway / long distance driving, there’s no better place to be than a behind the wheel of a nice auto, especially a diesel with its short 1st gear. Now change that engine to a sporty wide torque band big CC petrol / V / turbo etc and I’ll take manual shift every time for driving experience and involvement it offers.

    I don’t see one as being inferior to the other these days, in my opinion it’s just a matter of personal preference for the given situation.

  4. My son in England tells me that bigger engines require bigger registration fees. Smaller engines are more sluggish with Automatics. Thus the preference for Stick Shift in England

  5. I’m Portuguese and living in the U.K and to be honest I never liked automatics. I’ve driven an automatic car for a week before for but never owned one.In a automatic I feel too comfortable which isn’t a good thing for me because makes me feel sleepy as well. I like to shift the gears so makes me feel a lot more active. Sometimes I like to shift “aggressively” but most of times try to drive more economically so I think manuals are more fun to drive.

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