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Save gas and money with a manual transmission

A stick-shift can save you gas and money, if you can get one

Last updated: February 2014

In your quest for better fuel economy and more value, don't overlook the potential benefits of shifting yourself. In our tests, we've found that in some cars a manual transmission can improve gas mileage by a significant 2 to 5 mpg, compared with an automatic, and can cut a car's price by $800 to $1,200.

Manual transmissions often can also improve acceleration, sometimes significantly. That can be a welcome benefit with a smaller engine. And many drivers find driving with a stick more engaging and fun.

We have bought several sets of test cars of different types with both manual transmission and automatic transmissions and run them through our fuel economy and acceleration tests. In most, we found the manual delivered better mpg overall. In a few cases, however, the latest automatic transmission designs, including six-speed automatics, actually surpass their manual counterparts.  

For example, the Mazda3 i, gets one more mpg with its six-speed automatic than its six speed manual, largely because the automatic has taller gearing, so the engine revs slower on the highway, using less gas. We saw the same effect with the Ford Fiesta with its basic 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. On the other hand, the Chevrolet Sonic got better mileage with its six-speed manual transmission, even with its turbocharged engine, than it did with the base engine and six-speed automatic transmission. (The basic Sonic we tested was a sedan; the turbocharged, manual transmission LTZ was a hatchback.) Cheaper cars, such as the Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, and Scion xD, all got better mileage with a stick shift.

Of course, there are other disadvantages to buying a stick:

  • Manual transmissions are available on only a relatively few models, which narrows your choices. They are found mainly on small cars and sports cars.
  • Manuals require more skill and experience to operate well. For example, a car with a manual transmission is harder to get under way when stopped on an uphill (although many these days, come with a helpful hill-holder feature).
  • We found that in some cars, such as the Scion xD, having to depress the clutch pedal fully made an already bad driving position worse. 
  • Congested traffic conditions can require a lot of shifting and working the clutch pedal.
  • Because relatively few buyers are choosing manual transmissions, the car could be harder to sell later.

Bottom line

Most manual transmissions can deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. But shift quality and fuel economy vary, so check our ratings and try before you buy.

Model Price (as tested) Fuel economy Fuel economy (overall mpg) Acceleration, sec. (0-60 mph)  
  Manual Automatic Manual Automatic Manual Automatic
Chevrolet Sonic LTZ/LT $19,870 $17,290 30 28 8.9 9.3
Ford Fiesta SES/SE 17,795 16,595 32 33 10.7 10.9
Hyundai Accent SE/GLS 16,695 16,050 32 31 8.5 10.3
Mazda 3 i Grand Touring/ i Touring 24,040 21,740 32 33 8.2 8.3
Mazda2 Sport/Touring 14,770 17,075 33 30 10.3 11.1
Scion xD 15,820 16,620 34 29 9 9.7
   

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