Picking your poison: automatic vs manual transmissions off-road

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My 2011 Subaru Forester and Benjamin’s lifted 2002 Subaru WRX. Photo by Kristen Finley.

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Automotive magazines, forums and local off-road groups tend to indulge in the same neverending, back and forth argument: which is better suited to playing in the dirt, manual or automatic transmissions? To provide some insight into what makes either type better or worse, I will voice my reasoning behind choosing an automatic, as well as the perspective of my fiance, Benjamin, who prefers a manual. The two of us have explored California’s off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails together on many occasions as a shared hobby. My 2011 Subaru Forester is an automatic with a manual ‘sport’ mode, while his 2002 Subaru WRX comes with a five-speed manual transmission.

Manual Transmission

For Benjamin, driving a manual transmission establishes a better rooted connection between him and his car. On paved roads, he enjoys the sense of total control he has over the car when operating a stick shift.

When taking a stick off-road, however, he found it to be cumbersome and frustrating at times. Though, he says, it heavily depended on what he was trying to accomplish at the time. For instance, when traversing extraordinarily rocky and/or steep incline, he keeps his speed at about 10-15 miles per hour to decrease the off chance of inflicting damage to the tires or any suspension components. It makes scanning the terrain and maneuvering around obstacles easy, though there is always one frustrating issue – having to go back and forth between first and second gear.

Going between gears is an extremely aggravating aspect of using a manual transmission in the dirt for Ben. It makes it difficult to enjoy the scenery when he’s having to watch the revolutions per minute (rpm) to make sure they’re not dropping too low. Thankfully though, he says that’s not always the case – when the trail is smooth and doesn’t call for a delicate balance between the clutch, brake pedal and accelerator, a stick is a lot more fun. In the WRX especially, it leaves no mystery as to why Subaru won so many rally racing championships. In a stick, keeping the rpms high is achievable, thus increasing the fun factor when he conquers tight turns safely, but swiftly.

With hills, Ben is cautious about going to trails with hills that he doesn’t trust he could climb in one go. He’s wary due to the complicated dance of pedals he’d have to do to get going again if he’s forced to stop in the midst of climbing. With a manual, if you’re forced to stop on an incline, you have to engage the parking brake, raise the rpms high enough to not roll back, quickly engage the clutch, and then when you feel the car pulling against the parking brake to disengage it and hope you have enough torque to pull you up. Even with all those precautionary measures, the car could roll back if there isn’t enough torque – and if it’s not caught and corrected quickly enough, will only make the situation worse.

Then there’s the matter of towing. There was a time in Clearlake, CA before he lifted his WRX by an inch and a half where he bottomed out going up a steep hill, leaving his back end dangling over a drop off in the trail. He needed a tow to free him. With my Forester close behind, we were able to pull him to safety with some tow straps. He said to me that he was glad it wasn’t my car that got stuck, because towing with a stick would be a lot more complicated.

This is because all the torque needed to tow with his car would be in first gear, and in order to tow effectively, he wouldn’t be able to engage the clutch completely; unfortunately resulting in a hefty session of clutch burning or yanking, which could cause damage to the drivetrain or the body of the car. Of course, it all depends on how long he’d have to spend freeing a stuck car.

In conclusion, Benjamin prefers the manual over the automatic because he enjoys the challenge and the connection he feels between his car and the road. Driving a stick off-road is more fun if you plan to push boundaries or take the trail slowly and steadily. He says a manual has some drawbacks to trekking trails. Though, since he can break the back end loose easier in a stick, he will always pick a stick.

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Automatic Transmission

Though I’ve driven the WRX on dirt and enjoyed bringing its rally lineage close to the surface, an automatic remains my weapon of choice simply due to the stack of things I don’t have to worry about. I don’t have to worry about burning a clutch, or going in between gears, or having trouble towing – the car does it all for me.

From the comfort of my captain’s chair, I can admire the mightiness of the mountains, the confident stature of the trees and the vastness of any meadow – all while only paying attention to two pedals. Gas is never an issue for me either as the computer will choose the gear with the right amount of torque at lower rpms, making my car a lot more fuel efficient than the WRX.

Towing Benjamin out of tight spots is a breeze, since I can reel in the slack of the tow straps, and slowly pull backwards or forwards without worrying about burning a clutch or whether or not there’s enough torque. Automatic transmissions have an important component called a torque converter, that evenly transfers engine-derived torque. In other words, it acts like a clutch but it’s a way more precise. With a torque converter, I have the torque necessary to pull him out at lower speeds and rpms – making a careful extraction more attainable.

More thanks is given to the torque converter when hills are a part of the equation. I don’t have to keep my car at high speeds or rpms to get over a hill. The torque converter will award my drivetrain with the perfect amount of torque – every time, and no matter what – at low rpms, which allows my heavy SUV to tug its weight way up a hill without the engine stalling. While high speeds and rpms aren’t necessary to climb a hill for a manual either, there comes the issue of stalling if the rpms get too low. An easily dismissable bonus is the ease of starting at a stop on a hill, as well. No parking brake or clutch – just the accelerator pedal.

As far as cons go, autos aren’t as fun. I don’t feel like I’m as grounded or in control as I do with manuals. While my car does come with the manual sport mode that allows me to choose which gear I’m in, which helps, my car can never replicate the speed and agility of the WRX. My Forester comes stock with higher ground clearance and more cargo space, but it doesn’t have the same rambunctious spirit the WRX does off-road.

Also, I do have to tend to the transmission more often than Ben does. Since the torque converter uses fluid to perform its torque distributing magic, it demands a fluid change more often than it normally would. With the price for quality transmission fluid typically running at $12 to $14 a quart, it’s a pretty pricey downfall. Though, for safety and the reassurance that my car can do anything I can ask it to with ease, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I prefer an automatic because I go off-road to reconnect with nature and mosey along dirt trails, not to worry about which gear I need to be in. I like not having to worry about stalling, ever, or how difficult it would be to tow anyone. Plus, getting 24 miles to the gallon is a huge plus.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for taking the time to read my work and share your thoughts! For the most part, I totally agree – a stick shift is the best way to enjoy a drive. In a perfect world I’d have an auto for convienience and a manual for fun (and daily driving) 😎

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