Which 4×4 Transmission Is The Best: Manual vs Auto?

Manual VS Auto: Which 4×4 Transmission Is The Best?

It’s a debate that’s sure to never grow old, which is better: automatic or manual transmission? When it comes to 4WDs there’s much more to consider.

Your fourby is likely going to drive across an incredibly diverse range of terrain. Sand, mud, rock, steep descents. So, which 4WD transmission is best in meeting the demands of off-road driving?

What Is a Manual Transmission?

Manual transmission – also called stick shift, or standard transmission – involves the driver manually changing the vehicle’s gears as they accelerate and decelerate while driving. Changing gears is as simple as engaging the clutch and changing the gears with a gearbox.


  • One of the biggest benefits of manual transmission 4WDs is that they are significantly cheaper than automatic vehicles.
  • Another benefit of a manual transmission is its fuel efficiency. Manual transmission engines are less complicated, lighter and have more gears than automatic transmission engines. The combination of these factors means that a manual transmission will save drivers 5-15% on fuel consumption when compared to automatic transmissions.
  • If you like having greater control over your fourby, then manual transmission offers just that.


  • The downside to having greater control is that you must know what you’re doing, especially when driving across difficult terrain such as a sand track. Different gears and techniques are required to handle different terrain, and if you aren’t sure what you need to be doing you can cause damage to your 4WD system.
  • Another downside to a manual transmission is that when driving in stop-start conditions – such as in heavy traffic – you’re required to make a constant adjustment to your gears. This can be quite frustrating and makes dealing with the struggles of peak hour traffic just that much worse.

What Is an Automatic Transmission?

This transmission is far less complicated for the driver than a manual transmission. The driver simply puts the car into drive and is ready to drive. The car’s gears are automatically changed by the vehicle itself by using fluid pressure.

In an automatic transmission, a torque converter is attached to the drive chain and acts as the clutch would in a manual transmission.


  • Driving an automatic transmission 4×4 is simply easier than driving a manual transmission 4×4. You don’t need to constantly shift gears, and are less restricted as you can keep both your hands on the steering wheel of your 4WD. Automatic transmission provides a smooth driving experience.
  • Automatic transmission is also better suited to better tackle inclines and is at a much smaller risk of stalling compared to manual transmission vehicles. You’ll only stall an automatic car if there’s a problem with the engine.


  • The main downside to automatic transmission is that they are expensive to maintain and repair.

What Transmission Is Better Off-Road?

Each transmission has different advantages and disadvantages when facing different terrains in WA off-road adventure.

Soft Sand and Mud Tracks

If you’re experienced with driving on sand and mud, you’ll know that it’s crucial to maintain your momentum. If you don’t, you risk rolling or getting bogged.

An automatic transmission provides smooth gear changes, meaning that you don’t lose momentum and risk yourself encountering trouble.

In contrast, a manual transmission is better for getting yourself out of being bogged. Being able to control your gears is necessary when spinning your tyres to clear tread blocks to free yourself and get back to driving.

The Best Choice: Draw

In The Water

Water crossings can be a stressful situation to be in, facing potentially getting bogged or swept away by water currents. Water can also damage crucial parts of your fourby if you don’t come prepared.

During a water crossing, if you change gears with a manual transmission you risk getting water in the clutch which can cause issues in the future.

With an automatic transmission, however, you can change gears or stop driving and no water will find its way into the gearbox. This makes automatic transmissions the better choice for you if you know you’ll be facing a lot of water crossings with your 4×4.

The Best Choice: Automatic Transmission

Hitting the Hills – Uphill/ Downhill / Descents

Both types of transmission have different advantages and problems when facing inclines.

Driving uphill is considerably easier with an automatic transmission in your 4×4 as the smooth gear changes allow you to keep momentum and steadily reach the top of the incline.

Tackling an uphill drive with a manual transmission can be difficult and you may lose speed or slide backwards as you accelerate near the top of the hill.

Driving downhill is a problem for automatics, however, as they require constant braking and this can wear down your brakes over time. Some modern automatics may have a downhill assist feature to help counteract this.

Manual transmission 4×4 rigs have a much easier time travelling downhill. Manual 4WDs can just use their first gear and slowly descend with ease.

The Best Choice: Draw

Rock Crawling

Rock crawling can be one of the hardest forms of terrain to drive across for 4×4 drivers of any level of experience. While you can rock crawl with a manual transmission, it requires a lot of precision and playing with the clutch, which can be very difficult.

An automatic transmission however is much easier and safer and allows you to focus more on driving and keeping control.

The Best Choice: Automatic Transmission

Which one is best for you?

When it comes down to which 4×4 transmission is best, it’s really a matter of personal preference. If you’re an experienced driver who knows how to handle harsh terrain then a manual 4×4 is for you.

If you like a smooth drive, or just want some added safety, then perhaps an automatic 4×4 is the best choice for you.

Think of what you need your rig to do, where you’ll be driving it, and how experienced you are before making a choice between transmission types. The answer to which 4×4 transmission is best is simple. Whichever suits you.

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