Frequency of problems w/manual vs automatic transmissions?

You know, in all the time I’ve read posts here I don’t recall ever seeing someone complaining about a problem with their manual transmission. There’s probably been a few, but none I recall. Clutch, yes, but never the manual transmission itself. I see posts about problems with automatic transmissions all the time here.

Is this because there are fewer manuals on the roads than automatics? Or are manuals transmission considerably more robust than automatics?

It doesn’t matter if it’s a manual or an automatic transmission. If the fluid is serviced at regular intervals the transmission can last a long time. I’ve seen both manual and automatic transmission fail from lack of fluid service.

I just did a fluid exchange on a 98 Camry automatic transmission. The owner has brought it to me for this service since the vehicle went out of warranty when they bought it new. The vehicle is approaching 220,000 miles.


While either can fail, automatics are much more complex - a mess of hydraulics and electronics and mechanical parts all needing to remain in a precise and finely tuned balance. There’s more stuff that can fail and many more ways for things to fail. Relatedly, they are also much more sensitive to fluid condition and service history. Manuals are still just gear boxes. They fail like any machine can. But they are much simpler things and all mechanical. There are also fewer and fewer of them all of the time.

I wonder if manual transmission drivers are also more diligent about doing routine maintenance. Of folks I’ve met who drive stick, I feel like a larger proportion of them really love driving or love their cars. The people I’ve met who don’t even know how to check their oil? Most of them drive automatics.


I wonder if manual transmission drivers are also more diligent about doing routine maintenance.

I wonder if more than 1% of manual trans owners bother with routine trans maintenance? Or even know anything is suggested? It’s probably pointless for those of us not trying for a half-million miles or so.

Of folks I’ve met who drive stick, I feel like a larger proportion of them really love driving or love their cars. The people I’ve met who don’t even know how to check their oil? Most of them drive automatics.

True, and very, very few are ever going to replace auto-trans fluid. But then my manual says not to, so I won’t either.

@Bluegill Does it not seem never to replace trans fluid is an indicator of a disposable car? You know the trans will fail someday, could the life been extended by a trans fluid change, probably. This is a planned obsolescence plan in my book. ps I feed sunfish.

I’ve only needed to overhaul two “standard” transmissions, ever. I have lost count of the number of automatics that I have replaced or had overhauled for myself and others. Granted, standards are more rare, but not THAT much more rare. Now clutches, are another matter.

You really can’t compared the too. If left on it’s own , an auto tends to shift at the right time even if the driver doesn’t have a clue. On the other hand , a manual is does not.
Even if they are maintained exactly the same, the longevity of the manual is more in the hands of the driver

@auto-owner, I steadfastly refuse to buy into the notion of “lifetime” fluids. Especially transmission fluid. Transmission fluid not only lubricates, but retains wear waste, like clutch material and ultra-fine bearing and gear wear. This can only be removed with a fluid change. Otherwise, dirty fluid will cause increased wear, which will dirty the fliid more, which will accelerate wear even more until ultimately it will fail. All transmissions wear, so all fluids eventually need changing out. VW specifies lifetime transmission fluid, but the supplier, ZF calls for 60,000 mile fluid changes. Who do you believe? BTW, your warranty is up before the first 60,000 mile fluid change.

I think that the quality of manual transmissions has improved since the 1950s. The 3 speed column shift transmissions used in many cars in the 1950s through the mid 1960s were designed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As the engines became more powerful, these transmissions didn’t hold up as well one might expect. I think by the mid 1950s, the automatic transmission became the standard and the 3 speed manual was a stepchild. The 4 speed transmissions with the floor shifts that were meant for high performance engines were much more robust. My first car was a 1947 Pontiac and that transmission shifted very easily. The linkage worked very well. I then had a 1955 Pontiac with a manual transmission and it did not shift easily. The column shift on my 1965 Rambler did not work well.
One thing about manual transmissions is that they were operable even with internal problems. My 1947 Pontiac had a chipped cluster gear when I bought the car. It made a terrible sound in first gear. However, it was still operable. I would shift to second gear as quickly as possible. One could double clutch a manual with weak synchronizers to preserve the transmission, Often problems with an automatic disable the car completely. One of the best shifting vehicles I ever owned was a 1950 Chevrolet 1 ton pickup with the four speed.

More of the problems with manual transmissions seem to relate to not being able to keep it in a particular gear (the click&clack bungee cord to the glovebox solution) or being stuck in neutral which happened to us in the latest stick shift car. The automatic in the Honda is a world away from the one in the Plymouth before it. Driven carefully a manual transmission can last the life of the car, not so often with an automatic.

The quality of both manual and especially automatic trannys has improved dramatically since the '50s. So has the quality of the engines and just about everything else on cars.

Truth is that very few people service their automatic transmission, and it is a very rare individual indeed that ever services his/her manual tranny. I admit to being one of the common masses. And, yet, tranny failures are really pretty rare except in the occasional model with design issues…which emphasizes the value of publications like Consumer Reports. With the exception of my 1972 Vega, a car that became one of the “poster children” for bad design and poor quality, I’ve never had a tranny failure even after hundreds of thousands of miles. That Vega was, in fact, a manual.

I believe that manuals are much more tolerant of abuse and/or neglect. I think Cig gave an excellent description of why.

I agree that manual transmissions are often operable in marginal condition

On my last car, the 3rd syncho was shot for years. I quickly figured out some workarounds

Shift from 2nd to 4th

When shifting from 2nd to 3rd, leave it in neutral and wait for the rpms to drop, then shift into 3rd.
It worked very well

Not so many workarounds when your automatic transmission has mechanical problems

My personal experience is that a manual transmission can reasonably be expected to outlast the car if you don’t abuse it by missing shifts or putting gear oil in a transmission designed to use ATF.

Automatic transmissions contain clutches so at best they have a finite life before service. Normal driving, no more than 200k. All city driving will be less.

How about this for a fresh perspective. All transmissions have clutches. All clutches are wear items that need to be replaced eventually. The big difference in manual gearboxes and automatics is that manual clutches are external to the transmission and are typically easier to replace, no rebuild of the transmission required. In automatics, the clutches, or more specifically, the clutch packs and bands, are internal. A rebuild is the only way to replace them when they wear out.

I’ve had lots of cars since '66 when I got my license and I drive about 40K miles a year. Most of the cars were automatics, with a few manuals in the mix. I think manuals are simpler and less likely to fail. Yet the only tranny I’ve ever had to replace was a 3 speed manual in a '67 Mustang with a 289 V8. A bearing went bad and it was very noisy. I’ve never needed to replace or even rebuild any auto tranny.

So, my actual experience does not support my belief. I’ve yet to take any car beyond 200K miles. I have 170K on a '00 Camry V6 auto trans and 147K on an '03 Civic with a manual. It ends up being about proper maintenance and the action of the driver being much more important variables in how long a transmission will last. In the end auto or manual transmission isn’t the determining variable in longevity.

I’ll concur about failing manual transmissions often allowing for workarounds more so than automatics. I had a friend in high school (2003) whose dad (a wealthy doctor, incidentally) drove an 5-speed '85 Camry wagon with 285k miles. 5th gear had worn down the point that it wouldn’t engage. A local shop recommended a transmission rebuild, but he opted to continue driving it in 1st-4th, reasoning that the fuel saved by having 5th gear would never pay for the repair in the remaining life of the car. He was quite the pragmatic one - I guess that’s how he stayed rich.

On a side note, my mom’s '96 Grand Caravan was on its 3rd transmission when we got rid of it in 2007 (with 160k miles). That transmission was known for being problematic.

I wouldn’t separate clutch failure from manual transmission failure - all part of what’s required for the transmission. Repairs certainly are cheaper, given that most are for clutch replacement. But ‘cheaper’ isn’t ‘cheap’, since most are fwd vehicles that require quite a bit more work.

I’ll take a manual clutch replacement over automatic clutch replacement any day.

Trouble is, cig, you can expect to replace a manual clutch at some point. I’ve never had to replace an automatic’s clutch.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did get 295,000 miles out of my last manual’s original clutch. But I don’t consider that normal.