Manual Transmission – How It Works, Types & Comparisons

Manual transmission, also known as a stick shift, is the type of vehicle operating system that gives you total control over shifting gears. This kind of gear control has been around for a long time, and it’s the traditional way cars were built and driven.

In this article, we’ll explore everything about manual transmissions, from the nuts and bolts that make them work to their advantages and disadvantages, and even how to drive a car with a stick shift. We’ll also compare it to automatic transmissions, discuss how to maintain a manual transmission car and look at what the future might hold for this traditional system.

Introduction to Manual Transmission

Introduction to Manual Transmission

A manual transmission is a type of vehicle’s mechanical system that allows you, the driver, to switch gears manually while driving. These gears determine the speed and power of the vehicle. The more you learn about manual transmission, the more you’ll appreciate the control it provides when driving.

In the world of automobiles, manual transmission cars are often regarded as the classic choice. Although they’re less common today due to the rise of automatic cars, understanding how they work helps to build a deeper knowledge of vehicles in general. Let’s dig deeper into this fascinating topic.

Basics and Terminology

In a manual transmission car, gears are changed by using the shift lever and a third pedal called the clutch. The clutch is responsible for connecting and disconnecting the engine from the transmission. When you press the clutch pedal, you disconnect the engine and transmission to change gears. Releasing the clutch, then reconnects them.

The gear shift or gear stick is what you use to select the right gear. The shift pattern usually forms an ‘H’ on the top of the stick. Starting from neutral in the middle, you move the stick through the ‘H’ to select your gear.

History and Evolution of Manual Transmission

Manual transmission has a long history, dating back to the early days of the automotive industry. The first automobiles had manual transmissions because the technology for automatic transmissions wasn’t yet developed. Early models only had a few gears, but as car design evolved, so did transmission systems.

Cars initially had three-speed transmissions, and then four-speed became the norm. Eventually, five-speed and six-speed transmissions were introduced for improved performance and fuel efficiency. Each added gear provided a greater range of speed for the driver.

In the past, all drivers had to learn to use a manual transmission. This changed as automatic transmissions became more common, simplifying driving and making it more accessible to a wider range of people.

Throughout its history, manual transmission has been celebrated for the control and engagement it offers drivers. Today, while they’re less common in everyday cars, you’ll still find manual transmissions in many high-performance and luxury vehicles.

How Does Manual Transmission Work?

How Does Manual Transmission Work

Understanding manual transmission begins with knowing its parts and how they function together to give you control over your vehicle’s speed and power. Let’s take a closer look at the key components and how they contribute to the operation of a manual transmission car.

Essential Components of Manual Transmission

There are three main components in a manual transmission system: the clutch, the gearbox, and the shift linkage.

The clutch is a device that connects and disconnects the engine and transmission. Think of it like a switch. When you press the clutch pedal, you’re disconnecting or “switching off” the connection between the engine and the transmission, allowing you to change gears. When you release the clutch pedal, you’re reconnecting or “switching on” the engine to the transmission in the new gear you’ve selected.

The gearbox, or transmission box, contains a set of gears. Each gear represents a different speed range, which controls how fast or slow your car can go. The gearbox is what allows you to shift from one gear to another, changing the speed range as needed.

The shift linkage is the connection between the gear shifter that you operate and the gearbox. When you move the gear shifter, you’re actually moving the shift linkage, which in turn moves the gears inside the gearbox.

How Manual Transmission Works

The manual transmission process begins when you press down on the clutch pedal. This disengages the engine from the transmission, allowing you to change gears. As you shift the gear lever, the shift linkage moves the gears within the gearbox to the position you’ve selected.

When you release the clutch, the engine and transmission reconnect, this time in the new gear. If you’ve shifted up, you’ll be in a higher gear, which is designed for higher speeds. If you’ve shifted down, you’ll be in a lower gear, which is for slower speeds.

This system operates smoothly thanks to a series of mechanisms inside the transmission, including a set of synchronizers. These synchronizers ensure that the gears mesh together properly when you shift, preventing them from clashing and causing damage.

Types of Manual Transmission

Manual transmissions come in several types, each offering different features and advantages depending on the vehicle’s design and purpose. Let’s examine the main types you might encounter in the automotive world.

Four-Speed Manual Transmission

Four-speed manual transmissions were once the standard in many vehicles. These transmissions have four forward gears and one reverse gear. While not as common today, four-speed transmissions are still found in some older or classic vehicles. Despite their lower number of gears, these transmissions have a larger gear ratio difference between each gear, which means more noticeable changes in speed and power when shifting.

Five-Speed Manual Transmission

Five-speed manual transmissions are a common type in many contemporary vehicles. These transmissions add an additional gear to the four-speed design, providing more flexibility and control over the vehicle’s performance. The extra gear allows for smoother transitions between speeds and often improves fuel efficiency at high speeds because the engine doesn’t have to work as hard.

Six-Speed Manual Transmission

Six-speed manual transmissions offer even more control and efficiency. With the additional gear, these transmissions provide smoother acceleration and deceleration, improved fuel efficiency at high speeds, and more precise control over the vehicle’s performance. Six-speed transmissions are common in many modern cars, particularly in sports and performance vehicles where precise control is essential.

Beyond Six-Speed: High-Performance Manual Transmissions

In the world of high-performance and luxury vehicles, manual transmissions can go beyond six speeds. Seven-speed and even eight-speed manual transmissions exist, providing an extraordinary level of control over the vehicle’s performance. These transmissions are less common and typically found in specialized or high-end vehicles. The extra gears offer more precise control at high speeds and can improve fuel efficiency.

Advantages of Manual Transmission

Advantages of Manual Transmission

Driving a manual transmission car might seem a bit intimidating at first, especially with the extra pedal and the need to shift gears. However, once you get the hang of it, it can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Plus, with these benefits, it’s easy to see why many drivers still choose manual over automatic.

1. Enhanced Control Over the Vehicle

One of the primary benefits of manual transmission is the increased control it provides. When you drive a manual car, you decide when to shift gears based on the situation. This gives you more direct control over the vehicle’s speed and power. You can choose a lower gear for more power when climbing a steep hill, or a higher gear for less power but more speed on a highway.

2. Fuel Efficiency

Another advantage of manual transmission vehicles is that they tend to be more fuel-efficient compared to automatic cars, especially in certain driving conditions. The reason is pretty simple: with a manual transmission, you can control when to shift gears, allowing you to manage the engine’s work better. For instance, shifting to a higher gear sooner can help save fuel.

3. Cost-effectiveness

Manual transmission cars are usually less expensive to buy than their automatic counterparts. The reason is that manual transmissions are mechanically simpler and cheaper to produce. Moreover, maintenance and repair costs can be lower for manual cars. With fewer components, there’s less that can go wrong. And when something does need fixing, it’s often cheaper due to the simpler design.

4. Reliability and Longevity

Manual transmissions are known for their durability and longevity. With proper driving and maintenance, a manual transmission can outlast an automatic. This reliability stems from the manual transmission’s simpler design, which has fewer parts that can fail. Plus, drivers have more control over how the transmission operates, which can reduce wear and tear.

Disadvantages of Manual Transmission

Just as manual transmission vehicles have their advantages, they also have some drawbacks. It’s essential to consider these points when deciding between manual and automatic transmission. Let’s look at some of the challenges you might face when opting for a manual vehicle.

1. Difficulty in Learning

One of the significant disadvantages of manual transmission is that it can be harder to learn how to drive. With an extra pedal and the need to manually change gears, new drivers might find it overwhelming initially. It requires coordination between your hands and feet, and understanding when to shift gears based on speed and engine noise can take some practice.

2. Demanding in Traffic

Manual cars can be challenging to handle in heavy traffic. Frequent stop-and-go requires constant shifting between gears, which can be tiring. With an automatic transmission, the car does all the shifting for you, allowing you to focus more on the road and less on managing the vehicle’s speed and power.

3. Potential for Increased Wear and Tear

While manual transmissions can be more durable, they can also be subject to increased wear and tear if not used properly. Incorrect gear shifting, for example, can cause damage over time. In contrast, automatic transmissions eliminate the risk of user error in this regard, potentially leading to less damage in the long run.

4. Reduced Convenience

Manual transmission vehicles require more input from the driver. This can make them less convenient for those who prefer a more relaxed driving experience or have other tasks to manage while driving, like navigating or managing the audio system.

Manual Transmission vs Automatic Transmission

When choosing a car, one of the key decisions you’ll make is whether to go for manual or automatic transmission. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and the best choice depends on your driving style and needs. Let’s compare manual and automatic transmissions to help you make an informed decision.

1. Ease of Use

Automatic cars are generally easier to drive, especially for beginners. They take care of gear shifting for you, letting you focus more on the road. On the other hand, driving a manual car can be tricky at first because you have to coordinate your hands and feet to change gears and control speed.

2. Control

Manual transmission offers more direct control over the vehicle. You decide when to shift gears based on your needs. In an automatic car, the vehicle makes these decisions for you, which might not always match your preferences.

3. Fuel Efficiency

Historically, manual cars were known for better fuel efficiency, but with advances in technology, automatic cars have largely caught up. However, in some driving conditions, manual vehicles can still be more efficient due to the greater control they offer.

4. Cost and Maintenance

Manual cars are usually less expensive to buy and maintain than automatic cars. However, incorrect use of a manual transmission can lead to more wear and tear over time.

Manual vs Semi-Automatic Transmission

Semi-automatic transmissions offer a blend of manual and automatic features. They allow drivers to manually shift gears without a clutch pedal, providing some of the control of a manual transmission with the ease of an automatic. However, they can be more expensive and complex to maintain compared to manual transmissions.

Manual vs Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

CVT is a type of automatic transmission that provides an infinite number of gear ratios, allowing for smooth, seamless acceleration. While CVTs offer convenience and improved fuel efficiency, they lack the direct control and tactile feedback provided by manual transmissions.

Best Cars/Brands with Manual Transmission

When it comes to the thrill of driving, few things compare to the hands-on experience of a manual transmission. Whether it’s the satisfaction of a smooth shift or the direct control over the car’s power, manual transmissions hold a special place in the hearts of many driving enthusiasts.

For those who appreciate this engaging driving style, there are several car brands and models that still offer manual transmission, standing as a testament to this timeless automotive technology. In this section, we’ll highlight some of the top cars and brands that continue to champion manual transmissions.

1. Porsche 911

Porsche crafted a unique Dakar edition of the 911—an off-road variant complete with robust tires, heightened suspension, and the Carrera 4 GTS’s powertrain. Limited to 2500 units, the Dakar starts at a hefty $223,450.

On the high-end spectrum, there’s the America Edition GTS Cabriolet, a true rarity with just 100 units destined for the U.S and 15 for Canada. This seven-speed manual convertible stands out with its Azure Blue 356 exterior, tri-color wheels, and unique graphics. Inside, you’ll find a black leather setting with vibrant red accents and commemorative door sill plates.

2. Porsche 718 Cayman

The 2023 Porsche 718 Cayman is an enthralling vehicle, along with its convertible counterpart, the 718 Boxster, which benefits from its mid-mounted turbocharged engines, presenting a clear handling advantage over front-engined competitors.

On winding roads, the Cayman remains poised, delivering a thrilling driving experience that leaves you longing for more. While it lacks some storage space for personal items in its two-seater cabin, and the base turbo-four engine could sound slightly more refined, these are minor drawbacks in the face of its exceptional performance.

3. Lotus Emira

The Lotus Emira, the last gas-powered sports car from the iconic British brand, embodies the final grand spectacle before a major shift in their automotive journey. It takes design cues from the forthcoming Evija hyper-EV, resulting in a vehicle that could be mistaken for a scaled-down Ferrari with its strategically placed inlets for optimal cooling and a sleek, angular design.

While storage isn’t its strongest suit, with around 350 liters compared to rivals like the Ford Mustang and Porsche Cayman, it does offer some convenient storage spaces. As for the powertrain, you have a choice between a Mercedes-derived turbocharged 2.0-litre engine mated to a seven-speed automatic or for a more authentic Lotus experience, a 3.5-litre supercharged V6—familiar from the Elise and Exige—which can be coupled with a six-speed manual transmission.

4. Mazda MX-5 Miata

The MX-5 Miata remains a delightful driving experience, offering ample power and an exceptional six-speed manual transmission for precision and prompt vehicle responses. Despite its noticeable body roll, the Miata’s charm is undeniable, demonstrating that the real joy in driving isn’t always about raw numbers.

Although 2023 fuel economy estimates are yet to be released, last year’s equivalent models achieved 26/35 mpg city/highway for the automatic and 26/34 mpg for the manual, significantly better than the 2023 Toyota GR86. The MX-5’s combination of driving pleasure and fuel efficiency reinforces its value proposition, making it an attractive choice for enthusiasts.

5. Subaru BRZ

The 2023 Subaru BRZ is powered by a 2.4-liter SUBARU BOXER engine, delivering 228 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. This unique, horizontally laid-out engine is known for its smooth performance throughout the rev range, resulting from side-moving pistons that cancel out vibrations. The engine’s compact design allows it to sit lower and further back, enhancing balance and dynamic response.

The BRZ adheres to classic sports car design – front engine and rear-wheel drive, further backed by Subaru’s rich motorsport experience. One of its noteworthy features is a 6-speed manual transmission with close ratios and a standard short-throw shifter, amplifying the driving pleasure.

6. BMW M2

The new BMW M2 Coupe is a perfect blend of high performance, aesthetics, and assertive character, featuring M-specific enhancements for exceptional control. Its design is outstanding inside and out, marking its place in the realm of legendary cars. Its beating heart is a potent inline 6-cylinder engine, harmonized with an Adaptive M Suspension for a dynamic, smooth drive, regardless of how much you challenge it.

One of the core features of the M2 Coupe is its standard 6-speed manual transmission, allowing you to channel your inner race car driver. However, there’s also an option for an 8-speed M Sport Automatic Transmission for those seeking a more refined thrill. The M2 Coupe seamlessly combines speed and control, inviting you to take command.

7. Hyundai Elantra N

The Hyundai Elantra N stands out with its spirited driving dynamics, striking a balance between function and fun. Its unique front-end design might polarize opinions, but the lively performance it delivers is universally captivating. A key factor in its thrilling performance is the standard six-speed manual transmission, amplifying the connection between car and driver.

The Elantra N’s sporty appeal extends to the interior, characterized by a sharp dashboard, sporty seats, and distinctive N badges. However, it doesn’t compromise practicality for performance, offering a spacious, comfortable cabin that makes it an ideal four-door sedan for everyday use. Its blend of sporty performance and practicality allows it to shine even in competition with other well-regarded models.

8. Chevrolet Camaro

The Chevrolet Camaro is more than just a classic muscle car; it’s a blend of high-tech performance and captivating character. With a choice of hardtop coupe or convertible and power options ranging from a 275-HP turbocharged inline-four, a 335-HP V-6, to a roaring 455-HP V-8, the Camaro caters to diverse tastes. It keeps pace with its rivals like the Ford Mustang despite being a generation older, proving its enduring appeal.

The ideal embodiment of the Camaro, in our view, is the SS model equipped with the optional 1LE Track Performance package. This upgrade introduces visual flair and key performance enhancements like dual-mode exhaust, powertrain cooling, improved brakes, and a finely-tuned suspension. It strikes a perfect balance for track-day exploits.

9. Ford Mustang

The Ford Mustang has transformed over its 55-year history into a refined and powerful icon. Standard is a 310-HP turbocharged inline-four EcoBoost engine with a six-speed manual transmission. Options include the Mustang GT, with a 450-HP V-8, which, like the standard model, can be equipped with either manual or 10-speed automatic transmission. Available as a hardtop coupe or convertible, all Mustangs drive the rear wheels.

Though an upgrade to a 330-HP EcoBoost is an option, the Mustang truly shines with the V-8’s roar. Despite the Chevy Camaro’s slightly superior interior layout, the Mustang’s more spacious rear seats and superior outward visibility make it a more practical choice.

10. Toyota GR Supra

Toyota’s 2023 GR Supra stands out from the brand’s lineup, delivering thrilling performance with impressive style. Sharing its construction with the BMW Z4, it inherits a similar build quality and aesthetic interior. While the base 255-HP turbocharged four-cylinder is capable, the optional 382-HP turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six truly brings this rear-wheel drive two-seater to life. Although its distinctive design may create some blind spots, the Supra’s driving dynamics make it a favorite.

In response to demands for a manual transmission, the 2023 model includes a no-cost optional six-speed manual with the inline-six, standard in a limited-edition A91-MT model. The 2023 Supra also introduces a revised suspension and steering systems, and a new driving mode, Hairpin+, enhancing its cornering abilities.

11. Subaru WRX

The Subaru WRX, a legacy of the World Rally Championship, continues as a four-door sedan, more tempered than its predecessor, the STI. The WRX comes standard with all-wheel drive, bearing its rally roots. Its engine, a turbocharged flat-four, delivers 271 HP and pairs with a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The latter surprisingly provides quicker acceleration to 60 MPH. The WRX now offers a more compliant ride over bumps, instead of a rigid race-car feel, while maintaining predictable handling. However, with the high-performance STI version no longer available, the Toyota GR Corolla may be taking over the performance mantle.

12. BMW M4

The BMW M4, a two-door variant of the M3 sedan, blends comfort, luxury, and practicality, including a reasonably spacious rear seat. Its main strengths lie in power and grip, with a 473-HP twin-turbo inline-six engine, rear-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual transmission coming standard. The M4 Competition version ups the ante with 503 HP.

Both versions offer an optional eight-speed automatic transmission, which is compulsory with the xDrive all-wheel-drive system. The track-focused M4 CSL pushes the limit further with 543 horsepower and a weight reduction due to the absence of a rear seat. Though an abundance of driving modes may seem overwhelming, the M4 harkens back to the glory days of M cars with its potent torque, power, and available manual transmission.

13. Nissan Z

The newly redesigned Nissan Z comes at a time of resurging interest in sports cars. This generation, dropping the alphanumeric naming scheme, is an upgrade on the outgoing 370Z in terms of refinement, performance, and technology. It is powered by a 400-HP twin-turbocharged V-6 engine, delivering impressive handling and acceleration through either a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic transmission.

The Z’s features include a touchscreen infotainment system, a customizable digital gauge display, and advanced driver-assistance features. This generation marks a slight upmarket shift for the Z, targeting competitors than the more budget-friendly options like the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Toyota 86 of its predecessor.

14. Mazda 3

The 2023 Mazda 3 aims to rival premium cars despite its compact car pricing. It’s available as a sedan or hatchback, each presenting striking design and nimbleness. It offers two four-cylinder engines, including a potent turbo variant. All-wheel drive is available, but it excludes the well-regarded six-speed manual transmission, which can be had with the front-wheel drive.

While competitors like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta might be more recognized or practical, the Mazda 3 is designed for buyers appreciating a satisfying drive and superior interior materials in their compact car.

15. Dodge Challenger

The 2023 Dodge Challenger offers an old-school muscle car experience, focusing on straight-line speed over sharp handling. It starts with a V-6 engine, but the fun intensifies with optional naturally aspirated Hemi V-8 engines, ranging from a 375-hp, 5.7-liter to a 485-hp, 6.4-liter. The Challenger might not match the track prowess of the Chevrolet Camaro or the Ford Mustang, but it delivers undeniable classic charm.

The R/T Scat Pack model, with its 485-HP 6.4-liter V-8, stands out, and surprisingly, the eight-speed automatic transmission offers better response than the standard manual. Additionally, it can be upgraded with adaptive dampers for a customizable ride quality, a Dynamics package for enhanced braking and steering, and a Plus package for an enriched interior, including ambient lighting and faux-suede seat inserts.

16. Acura Integra

Acura has reintroduced the Integra nameplate, aiming to succeed in the entry-luxury compact segment. This all-new Integra model replaces the ILX sedan and pays homage to Acura’s sporting heritage.

The Integra is now a hatchback, sharing its platform with the redesigned Honda Civic. It is equipped with the same turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Civic Si, and a six-speed manual transmission is available (with an automatic as standard). The Integra delivers an enjoyable driving experience and offers a slightly more upscale feel compared to the Civic. However, it may not match the luxurious features of rivals like the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA-class.

17. Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing

The Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing is a highly capable sports sedan that excels in both daily commuting and spirited driving. Its twin-turbo V-6 engine delivers 472 horsepower and up to 445 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. Drivers have the option to choose between a 10-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission for gear shifting. With adaptive dampers, the CT4-V Blackwing effectively absorbs bumps and maintains chassis control during regular and high-performance driving.

This versatile nature sets it apart as one of the top sports sedans on the market, alongside its sibling, the CT5-V Blackwing with a thunderous 668-hp V-8 engine. While the CT4-V Blackwing won’t be available for long, as it will eventually be succeeded by an all-electric Cadillac, it remains an exceptional driving experience and one of the best cars we’ve encountered.