Sorry, gearheads: automatic transmissions are just faster than manual ones nowadays.
It wasn’t too long ago that a manual-drive car was the only way to go when you wanted to go fast. Automatic transmissions used to be clunky, inattentive, and slow. They lacked the ability to properly utilize the power provided by even the most basic of engines. As a result, a race car with an automatic transmission was completely unheard of.
Now, things are entirely different. Computers combined with decades of iterative mechanical improvements have allowed automatic transmissions to far surpass their manual cousins.
Motor Trend recently performed a test to prove it using the Mustang GT, running one with a six-speed manual against another with Ford’s 10-speed automatic. Running both in a simple quarter-mile drag race illuminates the differences in stark terms.
From zero to thirty miles per hour, the manual transmission was already 0.2 seconds behind the automatic GT, with the automatic reaching 30 mph in 1.7 seconds versus the manual’s 1.9 seconds. At 50 mph, the manual falls to 0.4 seconds behind, at 60 mph the manual 0.5 seconds behind, and at 70 mph the manual falls to 0.6 seconds behind.
By the time each car reached 100 mph, the automatic GT is a full second ahead of the manual.
The manual transmission did manage to get back a bit of time before reaching the checkered flag, clocking in at 12.6 sec at 115.1 mph, while the automatic made the quarter-mile at 12.1 seconds at 118.8 mph.
How does the automatic do it? First, the automatic transmission can quite simply shift gears faster than any human being can ever hope to achieve. A tenth of a second over 4 to 5 gears is already getting the automatic a half-second ahead of the manual.
But the largest advantage the automatic transmission has over the manual is simply having more gears. The more gears a car has, the better it can exploit the engine’s torque curve, keeping the car’s revs in the ideal power range longer.
So, why not make a 10-speed manual? It’s not impossible, but not practical. A 10-speed manual would require so many gear shifts your hand would be flying over the center console like a coked-up hummingbird.
An even better transmission would be one with a gear that continuously changes shape to provide peak power across all revs— a continuously variable transmission (CVT). However, there are two problems with a CVT: first is that the complex gearing is a bit more fragile and can’t take the power provided by larger engines, and the second is that people find the complete lack of gear changes to be a little off-putting.
But that’s why the fastest of supercars have a lot of gears and an automatic transmission. Which really won’t matter once we all switch to electric cars since they don’t have any gears at all.