Those who have only driven in the United States might not be aware that the country’s love affair with automatic transmission cars is somewhat unique. Likewise, drivers in Europe and other countries around the world might not realize that Americans mostly steer clear of manual transmission vehicles until they rent a car in the US and discover that, in most cases, only automatics are available. Herein comes the question: Why do Americans love automatic cars while Europeans favor manuals? And when did the shift happen where a majority of Americans no longer drove cars with manual transmissions? There are a variety of reasons (and theories) to explain this continental divide in preference. Keep reading to find out what they are!
The Ease of Driving
Generally, Americans prefer things that are convenient and easy to use. Driving is no different. From the get-go, it’s easier to learn how to drive a car with an automatic transmission. Not only that, it allows people to fiddle with their phones, search for music, or look at their GPS while in the driver’s seat (hopefully not while the car is in motion!). When you throw shifting gears into the mix, that increases the danger of having an accident due to distracted driving.
In most places in the US, driving is the only form of transportation available. From the late 1980s on, when automatic transmissions became more prevalent in the US, most people chose the easy road when getting behind the wheel. All of this put together means that most Americans, other than pure car enthusiasts, will choose an automatic car. In Europe, it is far more common to learn to drive in a manual-transmission vehicle, and the tradition carries on. Until recently, it was also far easier to buy a manual car in Europe and maintain it so it was considered a no-brainer.
Fuel efficiency is a big concern in Europe. This is partly due to environmental reasons, but also because people in European countries pay twice as much (or more) for regular gasoline on average compared to people in the US. For example, as of April 16, 2018, the average price in the US for a gallon of gas was $2.99. In Germany, a gallon cost $6.43 on average, while people in Norway pay an average of $7.82. In fact, the US has the fifth lowest gas price per gallon worldwide. The cheapest? Venezuela, at 3 cents per gallon!
In the past, this cheaper gas in the US meant that people could afford to buy the less fuel efficient automatic cars. However, in the past five years or so, the automatic transmission models of many vehicles have the same or better miles-per-gallon than their manual counterparts. That means that even in European countries, automatic transmission cars are more available and not just limited to luxury sedans.
Better Automatic Cars
The days of super sluggish acceleration with automatic transmission are mostly gone. Up until the middle of the 20th century, driving an automatic car was not a widely available option, nor an affordable one. But as early as the 1960s, when the “all-synchro” transmission that synched the low gear came out, large automatic cars were common in the US. That technology wasn’t as widely available in Europe after WWII. The car industry was less competitive and those high gas prices also kept people driving manual transmission cars. Fast forward to the late 1980s, and technological advances made for an even smoother and affordable driving experience in an automatic. All of this, coupled with the extensive Interstate road system where people could drive at high speeds on wide roads with cruise control, cemented the popularity of automatic transmission cars in the US.
When you’re paying more than twice as much for gas as Americans, driving a smaller, more fuel-efficient car in Europe makes sense. Also, buying an automatic car is often more expensive in Europe because they are less popular and have more parts that can need repair. On the flip side, buying a new car in the US virtually costs the same for manual or automatic transmission. Additionally, younger generations of Americans rarely learn how to drive in a manual transmission car. For them, there is really no economic reason to do so since automatics are far more widely available. After all, why would car dealerships keep a large stock of manual vehicles if no one wants to buy them?
Driving is a Chore
For many Americans, driving is a chore, not a pleasure. Much like how New Yorkers rely on the subway and bus system, most Americans rely on their cars as their only means of transportation. If you live in a metropolitan area where getting stuck in traffic is a fact of life, constantly shifting gears to stop and go is annoying. If you live in a smaller town or city, you make more short trips or make several stops, and so, automatic cars are easier to operate with frequent use. On longer trips, people take advantage of the cruise control in automatic vehicles. That feature is sometimes available, but trickier to use in a manual car. In Europe, people traveling longer distances are more likely to take the expansive train system or to fly due to the high cost of gas and for convenience.
If you’re renting a car in a country outside the US and prefer one with automatic transmission, it’s wise to make sure you don’t get a manual car. With Sixt, it’s easy to filter by transmission type at the top of the page where you choose your car. That way, you won’t be surprised when you go to pick up the rental car and discover you can’t drive it!