The Cost of Manual Transmission vs. Automatic Transmission: Is it Worth it?

Once upon a time, manual transmission vehicles were much more fuel efficient than their automatic transmission brethren. Buying a manual over an automatic often lead to significant cost savings, and there were enough of them being sold and driven that selling and re-sale value were not a problem.

Fast forward to today, and manual transmission vehicles are going virtually extinct. I’ll take a look at the fuel efficiency, MSRP savings, and replacement costs of manual transmission vehicles compared to automatic to determine whether or not buying a manual is still worth it or whether its best to let the stick go the way of the dodo.

Manual Transmission Fuel Savings (in the 80’s) documents the EPA fuel efficiency comparisons from every make and model going back to 1984. So, I decided to turn back the clock to see what kind of fuel efficiency a manual transmission vehicle back then had over an automatic. I decided to select the 1984 Ford Escort (my dad had a model pretty close to this one at one point). I’ll use today’s gas prices to make the comparison (once you figure in inflation, savings comparisons should be fairly equal):

manual transmission fuel savings1984 Ford Escort, 1.6L, Manual, 4-Speed:

  • 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway
  • Annual fuel cost @ $2.04 per gallon and 15,000 miles driven = $950

1984 Ford Escort, 1.6L, Auto, 3-Speed:

  • 21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
  • Annual fuel cost @ $2.04 per gallon and 15,000 miles driven = $1,350

Wow, that’s pretty significant. Back in 1984, buying a manual transmission Escort resulted in an annual fuel savings of $400 over an automatic (at today’s gas prices). If you figure you’ll be driving that vehicle for 8 years, you’re looking at a total savings of $3,200. OK, so I can see why manual transmissions were seen as a cost saver.

But do they still deserve that reputation?

Let’s fast forward to today.

Manual vs. Automatic Fuel Savings

The Ford Escort no longer exists, but I found what would be its closest comparison, the 1.6L Ford Fiesta. Let’s take a look at the two vehicles:

2016 Ford Fiesta, 1.6L, Manual, 5-Speed:

  • 28 mpg city, 36 mpg highway
  • Annual fuel cost @ $2.04 per gallon and 15,000 miles driven = $1,000

2016 Ford Fiesta, 1.6L, Auto, 6-Speed:

  • 27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway
  • Annual fuel cost @ $2.04 per gallon and 15,000 miles driven = $1,000

Wait, how could that be?! The 2016 automatic Fiesta actually gets EQUAL fuel efficiency than the manual version!

Don’t be surprised. This is the state of automotive transmissions today. Automatic models are usually as efficient as manuals these days, across the board. In my most fuel efficient cars post, I only put the automatic model mpg’s, because I found that at most the manual versions only had 1 mpg better. And in some cases, like the Fiesta, fuel efficiency was worse. And that’s considering the driver actually knows how to freaking drive a manual (hasn’t been the case with 75% of the drivers I’ve had the “privilege” of being a passenger with).

Fuel efficiency is no longer a reason to buy a manual transmission vehicle in 2011.

Manual Transmission MSRP Savings Vs. Automatic

In my cheapest new car post, I only highlighted the prices of the automatic vehicles, despite the manual versions actually being cheaper. I’ll explain why I did that (other than comparing apples to apples).

First, just because you’re buying a manual vehicle at a lower price than an automatic does not mean that you’re necessarily coming out ahead. When you go to sell that vehicle, you’re not going to be able to sell it for the same amount as an automatic.

Let’s stick with the Fiesta to do an MSRP comparison. An SE hatchback manual 2016 version has an MSRP of $15,070. The automatic version goes for $16,165. This is pretty standard across the board – about a +/-$1,000 difference between the two.

There are a lot of factors that go into how much you could re-sell these vehicles for down the road, but 9 times out of 10 you’re going to be able to demand a higher price with the automatic. It may not be the full original difference between the two models, but it will probably be close.

Another factor you should consider is how few people out there are actually looking to buy a manual transmission these days. How is this for an amazing stat? According to Lawrence Ulrich of MSN Autos:

Back in 1980, more than 35 percent of all cars were sold with a stick… In 2010 only 7.7% of vehicles were manual transmission.

Why is that important? Well, when you go to sell your vehicle, you might have trouble if 92% of the market wants nothing to do with it. Your vehicle won’t be able to command as much money or as much attention as an automatic. Sure, certain very expensive sporty cars might be an exception to this rule, but for most makes and models, this rule will hold true.

manual transmission savings

Cost of Replacing a Transmission

I alluded to many manual transmission drivers not really knowing how to effectively drive a stick. Each time they accelerate and shift late or early, or decelerate and do the same, they are slowly killing their transmission.

If they aren’t able to sell their vehicle before the transmission goes, look out! The cost of replacing a transmission varies widely, but expect to pay between $1,800 to $3,500. Automatic transmission go bad much less frequently than manuals… mostly because the machine is much more efficient at changing gears than a human. SkyNet. Suddenly, that $1,000 cost savings does not seem so appealing, does it?

Manual Transmission vs. Automatic Transmission: Other Factors

Let’s not forget the convenience factor of automatic transmission vehicles. Manual die-hards will tell you that driving a stick has become second nature. They don’t even think about it. That may be, but I prefer to have an extra hand, even if it’s to do things I shouldn’t be doing that take my focus off the road.

They’ll also argue it’s “more fun”. I would agree that you’re more engaged or more “in-tune” with a stick. But more fun? I’ll pass on that kind of fun.

And they’ll say it’s “faster” because they can time the shifting better than an automatic. That’s doubtful, but even if it was true, drag-racing is out of style these days.

Save your money and the hassle. It’s time to put the nail in the coffin of the stick.

Manual Transmission Discussion:

  • Have you ever owned a stick? Why?
  • In retrospect did you actually save money over an automatic?
  • Are you a stick die-hard? Convince us automatic trans drivers why we should consider a stick.

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