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Ask Joanne

Standard versus automatic: What should you drive? Add to ...

I'm trying to decide on a new car and have always driven automatics. There are a number of cheaper manual alternatives, which I have always discounted before. What do you recommend I consider before making the switch?

- Anne in Sherbrooke, Que.

Ask any devoted motoring enthusiast this question and I'm sure I know the expression through which the following words would pass: "What, are you crazy?"

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Many would, and indeed have argued, that to truly feel the road and experience the thrill of the drive, you have to take responsibility for your gear changes. How many racing drivers opt for an automatic transmission?

I'll assume, of course, that you're not taking your vehicle to the track, but it is good to consider the type of driving you'll be doing. If you do a lot of stop-and-go city driving, on busy roads, then an automatic is going to be more convenient. The novelty of the manual gearbox could soon wear off with the constant changes between city lights or shuffling through traffic jams.

Let's remember that automatics are much easier to drive, and many motorists prefer them for that reason. "An automatic transmission has a built-in brain; on many new cars a computer controls all that switching, it's all done electronically," says Peter Block, a 32-year veteran mechanic, and an owner/manager at Victoria Transmission and Auto Care.

Today's automatics are much more sophisticated than the past, but don't match human intuition. If you want to pass a semi-truck on the highway, for example, you can downshift in a manual before you start to pass, so the power required is at your fingertips. An automatic transmission, on the other hand, only reacts to inputs, and therefore will only shift once you've hit the gas pedal to pass.

If you plan to regularly enjoy the open road and rarely experience crowded streets or jammed commutes, and you're willing to learn and adapt to the extra effort of a manual, then you should definitely take a closer look. Beyond the better driving experience, there are advantages to owning a manual.

"Standards typically don't have the same failure rates as the automatics. With a lot of automatics, if they're not maintained well, you may find failures sooner than you like. And when they fail, especially on these newer vehicles which are very electronically controlled, repair costs can sometimes be a lot more than you would like to spend," says Block.

"In terms of transmissions, with a standard, typically all you ever need to do is replace a clutch, which is usually about a third of the price of an automatic transmission job.

"In the long run, if you're keeping a vehicle from brand new until it's expired, and lots of times that can be 200,000 km or 300,000 km, if either one needs a transmission, the standard would probably just need a clutch, and the automatic would probably need a transmission job," says Block.

Fuel economy in manuals has traditionally exceeded that of automatics, however, automatics have gained in efficiency. The Lexus IS 250 is a good example of this. With an automatic transmission, Lexus says the IS 250 gets 9.5 litres/100 km in city driving and 6.4 on the highway. The manual version of the same model gets 11.2 city/7.2 highway. That may be enough to prompt some motorists to pay the extra money upfront to purchase the automatic.

Remember, it largely depends on what kind of driving you'll be doing. An automatic provides convenience, though you'll likely pay a price for ease of use. A standard is the way to go if true feel and enhanced control are what you seek.

E-Mail your car and driving questions to Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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