Should you still learn to drive in a manual car?

Cars with manual gearboxes are declining in popularity, but does that mean it’s no longer worth learning to drive in one? We take a closer look...

Learner driving having a lesson

With the backlog created by the coronavirus pandemic clearing, the number of people taking their driving test was almost back to normal last year, at close to 1.7 million. The majority of tests were taken in cars with manual gearboxes, but the latest statistics show a sharp increase in how many learners opt to take their test in a car with an automatic gearbox instead.

Nineteen percent (324,000) of driving tests taken in the year from April 2022 to March 2023 were in automatic cars, compared with 13% (200,000) in 2019-2020. That's a threefold increase in the popularity of automatic tests compared with a decade ago when they accounted for only 6% (96,000) of tests taken.

Learner and her dad in car

Why are more learners shunning manuals? 

Karen Bromsgrove, general manager of the Driving Instructors Association (DIA), puts this down to the trend towards automatic gearboxes becoming more common in new cars.

“Many younger drivers don’t see the point in learning to drive a manual car when they’re unlikely to need to do so in the future. The adverts they see for newer cars are for hybrids and EVs (electric vehicles), so that’s what they aspire to owning and driving,” she explains.

New car model range and sales data back up this assumption. Only 24% of the new mainstream cars on sale at the time of going to print were available with a manual gearbox, and the split between auto and manual new car sales has switched drastically. In 2019, the number of manual and automatic gearbox models registered was fairly even at 49% autos and 51% manuals, but last year 71% of new cars registered had an automatic gearbox and only 29% were manuals.

UK new car registrations*

Year Auto


2023 73.1% 28.7%
2022 67.3% 32.7%
2021 62.3% 32.7%
2020 56.1% 43.9%
2019 49.1% 50.9%

*source SMMT

Another reason for the switch is time. With early lessons often being spent practising clutch control, learning with an automatic gearbox sidesteps this issue and means drivers could be on the road after fewer lessons.

Among qualified motorists, older drivers generally believe it’s worth following the automatic test with one for a manual licence, just in case it’s necessary to drive a manual car occasionally. Contrastingly, the vast majority of younger drivers take no further lessons once they’ve earned an automatic-only licence.

Driving instructors are switching to automatics 

Evidence of the change in learning preferences comes from Bromsgrove, who says that when she was working as a driving instructor, she switched to a car with an automatic gearbox because that’s where there was greater demand.

She’s not alone in making this move. Data from the AA Driving School shows that in 2023, 37% of people training to be a driving instructor with the AA chose an automatic vehicle rather than a manual. Existing AA instructors are also switching to autos; in January 2022, 86% of the organisation’s franchisees were teaching in manual cars and 14% in automatics. Just 18 months later, in July 2023, that ratio had changed to 81% teaching in manual cars and 19% in automatics.

Total driving test passes for manual and auto gearbox cars

             Manual tests                  Auto tests           Total tests
2022-2023           1,364,891 (80.8%)                  324,064 (19.2%)           1,688,955
2021-2022           1,295,601 (84.2%)                  242,713 (15.8%)           1,538,314
2020-2021              377,134 (86.2%)                    60,209 (13.8%)              437,343
2019-2020           1,397,060 (87.3%)                  202,506 (12.7%)           1,599,566
2018-2019           1,479,176 (88.9%)                  185,043 (11.1%)           1,664,219
2017-2018           1,554,729 (90.5%)                  163,790 (9.5%)           1,718,519
2016-2017           1,589,672 (91.8%)                  141,264 (8.2%)           1,730,936
2015-2016           1,422,741 (92.5%)                  114,994 (7.5%)           1,537,735
2014-2015           1,426,556 (93.1%)                  105,948 (6.9%)           1,532,504
2013-2014           1,381,826 (93.5%)                    95,759 (6.5%)           1,477,585

The rise in the popularity of EVs and plug-in hybrids (PHE Vs) is also fuelling the change, according to Camilla Benitz, managing director of the AA Driving School.

“All EVs and PHEVs are automatic, so in the near future, most people will drive an automatic,” she says. “We believe this is behind the growing trend for instructors to teach in automatics and, as a result, for learners to take their test in one.”

The AA began to offer lessons in EVs in March 2022, with learners taking around 49,000 hours of driving lessons in them during the first year. That year, 10% of total passes were from pupils who had spent time learning in an EV.

According to Benitz, learning in an EV helps new drivers become familiar with some of the unique aspects of EV driving, such as charging and regenerative braking, and this can help them feel confident choosing one when they have passed their test.

Is it easier to take your test in an automatic car? 

With no clutch control to learn and gears to manage, you might think it’s easier to pass your test in a car with an automatic gearbox. However, statistics suggest this isn’t the case.

Pass rates for tests taken in automatic cars have lagged behind those for manual vehicles for the past decade, although the gap between the two has closed in recent years. In 20132014, only 39% of those who took the test in an automatic passed the first time, compared with 48% for manual cars. In 2023, though, 43% of the tests taken in automatics resulted in a pass, compared with 50% for manuals.

Driving test first-time pass rates

  Pass rate all Pass rate manual Pass rate auto
2022-2023 48.4% 49.7% 42.7%
2022-2021 48.9% 50.2% 41.7%
2020-2021 49.8% 51.1% 41.5%
2019-2020 45.9% 46.9% 39.5%
2018-2019 45.8% 46.7% 38.8%
2017-2018 46.3% 47.1% 38.9%
2016-2017 47.1% 47.7% 39.8%
2015-2016 47.0% 47.7% 39.3%
2014-2015 46.9% 47.5% 39.1%
2013-2014 47.1% 47.6% 39.9%

Benitz puts the lower pass rate for autos down to the fact that learners in manual cars have often had more time behind the wheel to practise driving skills. She explains that good car control among drivers of automatics could be mistaken for test readiness, when, in fact, the learners still need more time to develop correct decision-making on the road.

“In general, the mistakes drivers make when failing their tests in an automatic will largely be the same as those who fail in a manual car,” she says. 

“Observation, particularly at junctions, is often where pupils fall short, and the correct use of mirrors and proper steering control are among the top reasons why pupils do not pass their practical test.” 

What are the downsides of taking your test in an auto? 

With automatic cars traditionally being pricier to buy than their manual counterparts, you might think that lessons would be pricier in them. However, we researched prices from a number of learner driver websites and found the cost of lessons in automatic cars to be either the same as in manuals, or only a couple of pounds more. Learners don’t appear to face a significant financial hit for learning in an auto.

However, there are other things to consider. If you want to get a holiday hire car, you’re likely to have to pay more for an auto. Hire fleets of popular categories of car – such as small hatchbacks and family cars – tend to be skewed heavily towards manual models, with an automatic gearbox being regarded as an upgrade.

Which type of automatic gearbox should I buy?

You might also pay more for insurance if your driving licence covers only automatic cars, although shopping around for the best prices can reduce the excess cost. Not holding a manual driving licence might also be seen as a limitation by some employers.

Most importantly, you’ll typically pay a premium to buy a car with an automatic gearbox, whether it’s new or used. Up until 2020, cars with manual gearboxes were more common than those with autos, so there are far more older manual cars to choose from, and they’re likely to be cheaper. We researched the cost of a 2019 Ford Fiesta 1.0 petrol with 25,000 miles; there were lots of manual cars available for around £12,000, while the few automatics in our search results started at £14,000.

Which new cars still come with a manual gearbox?

With 80% of new cars sold to be electric by 2030, rising to 100% by 2035, the traditional manual gearbox is rapidly being rendered obsolete by technology. EVs have no need for a clutch, and the flexible nature of their power delivery, together with the fact that they can rev as high as 50,000rpm, means there’s no need for there to be any gears in the traditional sense.

Meanwhile, it’s much easier to incorporate a hybrid’s electric motor into an automatic gearbox than to team it with a manual set-up. With a hybrid’s transition from electric to petrol power overseen by complex computer software, it’s essential that the car’s systems have automatic control over gearchanges. A manual ’box would make it virtually impossible for a hybrid to deliver its power efficiently and seamlessly.

Audi A1 Sportback front right tracking

At present, only 25 of the 40 mainstream car brands in our data pages still offer some manual models, and some of the big sellers – including the Volkswagen Golf – are due to go auto-only this year. If you want a new car with a manual shift, you’re most likely to find one in a small hatchback, such as the Audi A1, Citroën C3 or Dacia Sandero. SUVs and MPVs with manual options include the Citroën Berlingo, Ford Puma, Suzuki Vitara and Vauxhall Grandland, and sports car choices include the Ford Mustang and Mazda MX-5.

Ford Mustang front right driving

Does the rise of the EV really mean the death of the manual gearbox? 

While the number of cars offered with a manual gearbox will dwindle over the next few years, fans of self-shifting needn’t get too despondent, because some car makers are coming up with modern takes on the manual ’box.

Blue Hyundai Ioniq 5 N front driving

Hyundai’s N division is addressing the perceived shortfall in driver involvement that EVs present. The Ioniq 5 N has a system that simulates manual gearshifts, with artificial engine noise to suit, in order to recreate the sensation of driving a petrol hot hatch. On sale this year, it has steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to ‘change gear’ like you can with the brand’s eight-speed dual-clutch DCT gearbox. The system offers three sound options: Ignition, which sounds like a small turbocharged petrol engine; Evolution, which has a raspier note; and Supersonic, which takes its aural inspiration from jet engines.

Lexus UX 300e front cornering

Toyota has taken things further, with a ‘clutch pedal’ and gear lever potentially offered on its next generation of EVs in a bid to increase driver appeal. Our colleagues at Autocar drove a Lexus UX300e with a simulated six-speed manual gearbox, and found that the weighty clutch and precise gearshift added a satisfying dimension to driving an EV, despite its artificiality. A synthesised engine noise, recreating the exhaust note of a Volkswagen Golf GTI, added realism to the experience.

What Car? says…

If you want the choice of being able to drive cars with manual and automatic gearboxes, rather than being restricted to driving automatics, you should still take the driving test in a manual car. And, although the gap between manual and auto pass rates is closing, you’re still more likely to pass the first time if you take your test in a manual car.

Plus, if you’re planning to buy an older model as your first car, there’s likely to be a wider choice of manual examples to choose from. However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a new or nearly new car, in particular an electric car or plug-in hybrid, there is little point in taking the manual test. Learning to drive in an EV will give you valuable experience of the driving characteristics of these cars.

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