Which gets better gas mileage: Automatic or manual transmission?

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car interior with manual transmission

Whether an automatic or manual transmission is a better choice has been an ongoing gearhead grudge match for the best part of a century. There are several pros and cons for both, and each brand of enthusiast has valid reasons for preferring one over the other.

Gas mileage in particular is often a big talking point when comparing the two options. It’s been a long-held general belief that manual transmissions do, in fact, get better gas mileage compared to automatic transmissions in the same model vehicle. Learn to drive a stick and, at least according to this argument, you’ll save anywhere from two to five miles per gallon. That could represent savings of $100 to $400 or more in gas per year. Obviously, the overall cost will vary based on a given car’s mpg, miles driven per year, and local gas prices, but it certainly seems like a chance to save.

Is that actually true? Do automatics really burn through gas a bit faster than manuals? Is the price discrepancy that severe? As is often the case with these kinds of technological myths, the answer is “yes and no.”

Saving gas takes work

automatic transmission shifter in neutral gear

Whether or not you’ll save gas with a manual transmission or an automatic used to be an easy question to answer, but thanks to the ongoing refinement of automotive technology it’s gotten a bit more complicated. These days, mileage depends on the model year.

As Consumer Reports reported, if you’re looking at models from before 2016, you’re more likely to get better gas mileage from a manual. This is — or rather, was — primarily due to proper manual transmission requiring drivers to shift into neutral when stopped, both to avoid stalling and because holding the clutch down constantly is a pain in the leg. Older automatics would remain in gear when stopped.

Even back then, some automatics surpassed their stick-shift counterparts in fuel economy. Now, that’s the rule rather than the exception. The 2023 EPA Automotive Trend Report found that improvements in how an automatic transmission works have reversed the efficiency gap: Cars with automatic transmissions are now more efficient on average than stick-shift models. The EPA placed that change in the late 2010s: Cars released after that date burn less gas with automatic rather than manual transmissions. An interested customer can always compare the manual and automatic efficiency of any given model, but overall, the idea that a manual transmission burns less gas than an automatic simply no longer holds up. Whichever kind of transmission you go with, make sure you memorize the warning signs of a transmission going bad to maximize safety.

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