Let's begin at the beginning: automatic and manual transmissions refer to the machinery involved in transmitting power from the vehicle's engine to its wheels. The rotation of gears in this machinery must remain within a safe level of revolutions per minute if accidents are to be avoided.
Drivers shift between a range of gear settings via a manually moved "gear stick", often arranged in an "H" pattern. By depressing the clutch pedal, the gear stick can be moved to any of the gear positions. In practise, drivers become acquainted with the engine sound of the car as it drives; the higher the pitch, the bigger the gear required to stop the engine overheating. Put simply, when the car needs an upward shift of gear, it starts sounding impatient.
To borrow a strapline from a famous TV commercial, this type of gearbox "does what it says on the tin": it automatically shifts gears upwards or downwards according to speed and acceleration/deceleration requirements. A "gear stick" remains but has completely different settings to that found on a manual transmission vehicle. Instead of a progression through first, second, third, fourth and fifth gears, the automatic transmission lever has self-explanatory settings such as "reverse", "park, "neutral" and "drive." Once in "drive", the transmission automatically moves between gears as described above.
Most used cars in the UK are manual but with more and more automatic versions becoming the preferred choice when buying new from the dealership. Almost all new car models will be sold with an automatic version now available, and are seen as a more economical choice since the transmission will adopt the most efficient gear for driving, saving you fuel overall.
This is a difficult question, because the answer really is: it depends on the driver and their preference.
For people who spend a lot of time every day behind the steering wheel, the automatic variety has some advantages – drivers don't find their calf-muscles aching due to endless clutch depressions and don't have to bother about the gears once the car is moving. This is also more relevant for those driving predominantly in the city, with on-going stop-start motions. However, some drivers feel that the manual gearbox makes the car more responsive to their style of driving and to the terrain (cruising at speed along a motorway feels different to driving along a winding mountain road, for example).
From a cost implication, automatic cars do tend to need more servicing than manuals, and the brakes take more of a drubbing, too, to stop the car from creeping forwards while in neutral. But it is believed that automatic cars do tend to retain their value more than their manual counterparts.
Finally, bear in mind that UK drivers who've taken their test in an automatic car can't legally drive a manual, whereas drivers tested in a manual can drive both.
At Lookers, we are authorised dealers of numerous car manufacturer brands with over 80 locations in the UK. See our range of new cars for sale, or head to your nearest dealership for more information on choosing an automatic over a conventional manual. Arrange a test drive today and feel the difference yourself.