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Automatic vs. Manual Transmission Jeep Wranglers

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Whether you end up with an automatic or a manual transmission in your Wrangler, you'll have to service it eventually. Be sure to keep on top of your rig's maintenance or it just might inch too far in one direction and leave you with a more terrifying bill.

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We've all been here. It doesn't matter if you are relaxing at your friend's house, at the bar tossing a few back, or wheeling hard on the Rubicon. The question of auto vs. manual still rages today. Unless this is your first Jeep or you are new to off-roading, you already know the basic pros and cons. This is my preference, and it goes deeper than just "what's easier to wheel over rocks?"

Manual Transmissions

A manual transmission is just a solid piece of engineering that doesn't want to break. It doesn't care what angle you are at. It has compression braking that automatics can't touch, and when you are driving it you feel connected to your Jeep. It is a more immersive driving experience.

With a manual you mainly worry about two things: if it shifts and does it go. A slipping clutch, bad synchros, grinding bearings, or even loss of fluid will rarely if ever prevent you from getting home. You can pour engine oil into your manual tranny, pound wooden wedges between your clutch and flywheel, or just grind gears with no disengagement, and still have no troubles finding your way home. With an auto, you have to call a tow truck. It's really as simple as that. A manual transmission will (almost) always get you home. On that same note, if your battery dies for any reason an automatic transmission will need a jump start to get running, whereas a manual tranny just needs a push start.

Another interesting consideration/question is when do you shift? This will come with practice and will change depending on the obstacle. You'll want to keep your rig at an adequate torque level to climb the obstacle, but not too much where you'll spin tires (on looser/slipperier terrain). One suggestion we received from a deaf Jeeper is utilizing a programmable shift light. Not only will this be useful on the trail (when programmed properly), but in the case of our deaf friend the light would make things easier on-road. Rather than looking away from the road to check RPMs, the shift light makes driving that much safer.

2007-2010 JK with a Chrome Shifter Bezel

Automatic Transmissions

The automatic on the other hand won't stall when you are traversing a tricky patch of rocks, makes it really easy to get into off-roading with less experience, and can't be beat in on highway rush hour traffic.

I prefer manual transmissions for wheeling. That said, I do own vehicles with automatic transmissions. My Ford F350 has an auto. Why? Because I don't want to work a clutch in stop-and-go traffic or worry about stalling when backing my boat up my snaking, inclined driveway. My Cherokee, YJ, and 47 Willys all had autos, but at some point in time I found myself thinking, "I'm gonna put a manual transmission in this thing." Conversely, I've never once thought, "Hey, this Jeep needs an automatic!" while driving one of my manual-transmission Jeeps. I just like to feel connected to my Jeep, and I feel an automatic takes that away.

A particular caution with automatic transmissions lies in the obvious: you can't control the gears as easily. When going up steep obstacles or deep sand be wary of the trans downshifting on you, resulting in unexpected acceleration. This can also leave you stuck by letting the tires spin and dig into the terrain. Granted, you can solve this by locking it into first or second. Don't forget to swap back to drive when you're done with the trail.

Brushed Billet Aluminum Shifter Plate 2012-2014 JK

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Drawbacks of an Automatic and Manual Transmission

Automatic transmission drawbacks: Automatic transmissions offer a great ease of use both on and off-road. Seamlessly transferring gears automatically depending the specific conditions and demands. The process is great but eliminates the choice of gearing from the driver, relying more on the transmission to make the choice. This relinquishing of power is subjective but could also lead to overheating if the Jeep is on a long, burdening trail. The overheating could then lead to gear slippage and serious damage if overlooked.

Manual transmission drawbacks: Manual transmissions allow you to fully engage yourself with the driving experience and provide a great level of feedback of the demands placed on the Jeep and giving you the option to select the proper gear for the particular situation. This level of choice could be problematic and tiring if you’re on a difficult and long trail. Often times you’ll need a high level of finesse and control to maneuver slowly out of an obstacle. An improper shifting of gears could lead to a miscalculated level of movement that causes damage to the Jeep. In addition, manual transmissions have a set level of gearing with specific shifting points that might work well on the trail, but could be tiring on the road in everyday use.

Off-Roading – Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions

While off-roading in an automatic, you have to worry about torque converter flash rpm, stall rpm, shift point rpm and vehicle speed, vacuum and cooling lines, tranny pan leaks, loss of fluid, overheating, plugged coolers, uncovered sump pickups, burned fluid, and so much else. In an emergency maneuver, you have to worry about how quickly you can toggle the shifter into Neutral or Reverse and then whether or not the tranny will be sucking air or if it'll actually grab and save your bacon before you roll down a tall cliff and die. Sure, autos can shift faster than a manual, but we're talking off-roading in Jeeps here, not drag racing.

A bit of advice from other Jeepers: just because you prefer one transmission over the other doesn't mean you shouldn't become proficient with both. Manual transmission Jeeps are on the decline these days, but imagine if a friend of yours in his manual TJ hurts himself to the point of being unable to drive. How are you and the rest of your buddies going to get his rig home if none of you can drive a stick shift? You wouldn't leave your friend behind, and you wouldn't want to leave the TJ behind either.

YJ Wrangler Navigating Over Rocks

Manual & Automatic Transmissions When Underwater

Manual transmissions can improve fuel economy, they generally last longer, require less maintenance, create less heat, sap less horsepower, and are typically less expensive and easier to repair and rebuild than their automatic counterparts. I once sunk a manual transmission into a swamp and it still worked for quite a while, although it was filled with water. An automatic instantly stops working when the oil becomes contaminated. On steep hills the oil pickup on many automatics will starve for oil, halting forward movement. As long as the gears and bearings get a splash of oil now and then, the manual transmission can run upside down all day long if need be.

Again, choosing a Jeep transmission should still be primarily based on preference. I'm sure you aren't going to purposely run upside down, but if you don't plan to get in potential rollover situations or do 90% of your driving on the street, perhaps an automatic is best for you. Just remember, you can't undo your decision when you are hanging upside down on the trail.​ 

2015 JK Wrangler Pushing Through Water

Towing in Difficult Terrain

In addition to the overall on-road effect each transmission has, the concern also revolves around how each is suited when towing in difficult terrain.

Automatic Transmission: Automatic transmissions allows for a very relaxed driving experience while off-road and especially while towing in difficult terrain. Allowing you to concentrate on the obstacles ahead, without the need to engage a clutch. In addition, automatic transmissions provide you with the ability to maintain a slow steady crawling speed. Just keep in mind your minimum speed necessary to cruise without using gas pedal input. Generally, this speed will be higher than what's needed to get a manual transmission moving. Nonetheless, automatic transmissions do have some pros and cons:

Pro:

  • Easier to navigate while on the trail
  • Easier to maintain a steady speed/acceleration

Con:

  • Harder to adjust the delivery of power to the wheels in certain conditions
  • More complex of a system to maintain/repair

Manual Transmission: a manual transmission is easier to regulate power delivery to the wheels, since you have full control over the engine to transmission engagement. This provides you with the ability to recover or get out of difficult situations easier. It is also a much simpler and straight forward drivetrain to maintain and repair. Nonetheless, manual transmissions also have some pros and cons:

Pro:

  • Easier to make small incremental movements/adjustments
  • Easier system to repair and maintain

Con:

  • Harder and more tiring system to drive at slower speeds; involves a good amount of clutch engagement
  • Harder to maintain a steady gradual level of speed/power, making precise movements difficult.
One Wrangler Towing Another Wrangler Off-Road

Does an Automatic Trans need more/less Axle Gear Ratio than Manual Trans?

Automatic and manual transmissions handle gear ratios slightly different. An automatic transmission utilizes torque converters to achieve a greater range of gearing, allowing it to bounce around to different gears more effortlessly, unlike manual transmissions that utilize a set gear ratio and require you to manually engage/disengage them at appropriate intervals. Both transmissions can achieve the same level of gearing at a particular point in the trail, but they have different advantages/disadvantages.

An automatic transmission is easier to use on the trail and the torque converter does a great job of selecting the proper gear for the particular demand. However, that transferring of gears comes at a price, which is heat build-up and eventually causes slippage if overly used.

A manual transmission has a set gear ratio that is less problematic but requires more attention when engaging. In addition, since it’s a more set ratio, it requires more attention when setting up, because it will have a dramatic effect on the shifting points, which could be tiring while on the trail. When properly selecting, you can manage most of the trail runs with a minimal amount of shifting, ensuring less strain/demand on the transmission and equally important on your knee.

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