One of the most hotly debated issues in the world of off-road is the debate over whether the automatic or manual transmission is better for wheeling. While I doubt there will ever be a clear winner, there are real differences and both have advantages and disadvantages.
The simple and reliable standard transmission has been installed in Jeeps since the first Jeeps rolled off the assembly line to be used in WWII. The main advantages of a manual are found in its almost indestructible nature. It has no electronics and a minimum of moving parts – even if something fails you will likely be able to make it off the trails. The manual gives you ultimate control of gearing, and some even come with an ultra-low granny first gear. The standard transmission especially shines when descending steep hills. It takes maximum advantage of the compression braking of the engine. The manual transmission finds its limitations quickly, however. Operating a difficult clutch becomes more of a hindrance as the trails get more technical.
The automatic transmission has truly taken over the off-road world in recent years. In the past, the automatic was considered best for the street car, and the stick for the 4X4. The popularity of technical rock crawling and the advancement of automatic transmission technology has launched the slush box into prominence in the off-road world. The auto is smoother, requires less work, less technique, and applies torque in a more gentle fashion than the standard. When making a technical move up a rock, not having to deal with a clutch is much easier. It allows you to focus on just the driving without having to worry about the clutch and shifting gears. The two biggest downsides to the auto transmission are: lack of compression braking when descending a hill, and, if something does malfunction (with the high level of computerization there is a lot of potential there), you’re more or less dead in the water wherever you might be.
While modern sensibilities say that the auto is the way to go – especially for those who like to enjoy the more aggressive, technical aspects of this sport – I’m still a die-hard stick man. I know that an automatic is easier and more effective, but the simplicity, fail-proof nature, and frankly, the challenge of rowing my own gears (especially in the big rocks), keep me a dedicated standard transmission fan. There really is no right or wrong answer, though, it’s all simply a matter of preference.