Why Do Automatic Cars have a Manual Option?

All but the most basic of automatic cars come with some form of manual option. The manual option in an automatic car allows the driver a certain level of control over which gear to select. But when moderns automatics do such a good job of selecting an appropriate gear, why have a manual option?

There are two main reasons why automatic cars have a manual option. They are:

  • Greater control
  • More engaging driving experience

Greater Control

To prevent the transmission from changing up a gear, drivers of automatic cars will typically use the manual option when descending a hill. In this situation, the driver manually selects a lower gear which which in turn makes use of engine braking. Engine braking helps the vehicle to slow down using the compression and friction generated in the engine.

Under heavy load, brakes can overheat and become unresponsive (brake fade). By making use of engine braking, it takes the load off the brakes and also reduces brake wear.

It can also be useful to use the gearbox’s manual option when ascending a hill. Some automatics work better than others, but what you can find when driving up a steep hill is the gearbox being unable to make a decision with constant up and down shifts. If your auto gearbox is prone to this, it can be quite irritating, so locking it into a specific gear is the answer.

Many modern automatic transmission controllers now use inclinometers which help to establish if the vehicle is ascending or descending a hill and automatically selects the appropriate gear and holds onto it for longer. Switching to ‘Sports’ mode can also help when ascending a hill, particularly when towing a load as this mode holds onto gears longer, maintain higher RPM.

More Engaging Driving Experience

In reality, unless you are traveling in, or live in a hilly area, most driver’s of automatics have little need to override the auto box and switch to the manual option. That is, unless you prefer driving in manual mode.

Automatic cars do have a reputation for being boring to drive and for many models out there, that reputation is arguably quite accurate. It’s all about the type of gearbox, because they vary considerably. The main types of automatic transmissions are:

  • Torque converter
  • CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission)
  • Single clutch
  • Dual clutch

Automatics that connect the engine to the gearbox via a torque converter or single clutch tend to be a little slow in gear changes making the manual option a little frustrating – though the technology in torque converters is improving. Those with CVT have no gear changes at all, making for a very smooth ride, albeit a little dull.

Manual option gear paddle shifter
Manual mode using the gear paddle shifters with a dual clutch transmission is the most fun you’ll have in an automatic car

The fun really begins when you enter the world of the dual clutch. Many car manufacturers offer models with a dual clutch option, though because of the complexity of the system, they can be more expensive.

A dual clutch gearbox in manual mode, using the gear paddle shifters can be an enjoyable ride. The super-fast gear changes never get dull and makes manual mode the preferred choice for many drivers.

The benefits of a dual clutch gearbox, other than being responsive and fun to drive, is economy. Those fast gear changes means the engine’s power flow is hardly interrupted. As such, an automatic car with a dual clutch transmission is more economical than the manual variant.

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