Why Are So Many Automatics Listed For Sale As Manuals?

Good news, people of Jalopnik! Friday has arrived, and that means the time has come for Letters to Doug, a weekly column where you send me a letter and I read it very thoroughly before deciding that you are a Nigerian scammer.


If you want to send in your own automotive letter, e-mail me at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, or Tweet me at @DougDeMuro. Unfortunately, I can only field a small number of letters each week (one) so the chances of your letter being picked are small (one out of however many letters I get).

This week’s letter comes to us from a reader named Russell. Unfortunately, Russell has not listed his location, so I will assume it to be Garden City, Kansas.

Dear Doug,

Is there anything more annoying than searching on Cars.com, autotrader, ebaymotors, or something similar, checking the manual transmission option, seeing the perfect car, only to flip through the pictures and see that it has a DSG, SMG, egear, F1, flappy paddle, fully automatic PRNDL with a little +/- next to D, etc. Why do people do this? And how do we stop it?

If you’ve ever looked for a car online, you’ll be nodding your head in approval right now to Russell’s comment. In fact, you’re probably nodding so violently that you can’t wait to scroll on down to the comments and voice your Russell approval with a remark like You’re so right, Russell!! or My God, that’s AMAZINGLY true, Russell!!! or Hey Russell, you should check out the Lee Richardson Zoo, which includes a wide range of species they don’t normally have in Kansas, such as Democrats!

For those of you who don’t have much experience with what Russell’s saying, allow me to enlighten you. When you search for a manual vehicle online, you will likely find dozens of manual vehicles online. But you will also find dozens of automatic vehicles online that the seller has accidentally listed as a manual.

Nothing on earth is more disappointing than this. Allow me to set the stage: you’re looking for a 2000 BMW X5 with a stick shift. You put in your search parameters on AutoTrader, and you get your list of matches, and you’re all excited because you’ve found a stick-shift X5 in the right color at the right price and it’s only 12 miles away from you and it’s so cool and OH MY GOD IT’S GOT THE PANORAMIC SUNROOF! And… and then you see it. The P. The R. The N. The D. The L. The button on the shift lever. The two pedals.

It’s an automatic.

You’ve been lied to.

Now, some of the time when this happens, it’s a totally legitimate thing, and the dealership just made a mistake. Dealerships make mistakes all the time, like when they tell you that a certain car costs $10,000, and you show up to discover it actually costs $12,000, and it was just a little clerical error. Oops! A minor mistake! We’ll correct it! But now that you’re here, can we show you what else we have on the lot?


Sometimes, it’s more than a mistake. Sometimes, a dealership will intentionally call a car a manual when it’s actually an automatic, simply because they want more people to look at it. This is certainly true in the used Ferrari world: manual 360s and 430s are far more desirable than automatics, so dealers call their automatics “manuals” in order to drive clicks. Then you see it, and you think about it, and you say: Maybe an automatic wouldn’t be so bad after all…? This is the upscale car dealer equivalent of writing “keyword camaro bmw mustang porsche neon eclipse master bathroom staple gun fireplace” at the bottom of the listing.

There’s also a third group of mistaken manuals. And that is: sellers who list automatic cars as manuals because they actually believe these cars have manual transmissions. This happens sometimes in the exotic car world. You click on a nice used Maserati, or Lamborghini, or Ferrari, and you see it’s listed as a manual even though it clearly does not have a shift lever and three pedals, and the seller justifies this decision in the listing by insisting that the car has a “SEQUENTIAL MANUAL TRANSMISSION.” It’s like a clutchless manual, they say.


No. They are wrong. A sequential manual is no more of a manual than a bowling alley is a nature preserve. If you can drive the car without using a foot-mounted clutch, then the car is an automatic. There are no exceptions to this rule, except probably a bunch that you’ll tell me about in the comments.

Now, going back to Russell’s question. (Because there is a question, ladies and gentlemen. This is not just The Random Ramblings of Russell and Doug.)


The question is: How do we stop it?

Unfortunately, there are only two possible answers here. Number one, we politely ask everyone who incorrectly lists an automatic car as a manual to please change their listing and correct any other manual-related errors they may have on their vehicles. Or number two, we start killing anyone who does this. Both seem reasonable.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.


As Du Volant

I work in online operations for a dealership group and can tell you exactly why (long explanation ahead).

When you’re looking at a basic VIN decoder that doesn’t belong to any specific car brand’s proprietary systems, it’ll give you only the base info of the car. Year, make, model, sometimes trim, sometimes body style, and engine size. If you’re lucky it’ll tell you if it’s 2WD or AWD/4WD but not always. That’s all the info the VIN carries. Note I didn’t mention transmission type. Before someone steps in and says “but the dealership can pull a VIN and tell you every option that came with the car!” let me remind you it’s a computer system specific to that brand, and it’s not decoding the VIN so much as just checking it against the manufacturer’s database and retrieving a record of the car’s specs. This is why the Honda dealership can’t pull an option list for a Chevy and vice versa.

So back to the online listing side of things. Dealerships have software that automatically creates inventory files for each car when they’re put in the dealership’s database. These inventory files get sent out to all the different vehicle listings to create the ads you see when you’re car shopping. This inventory software will fill in the blank for “Transmission” but since it can’t decode that info from the VIN it doesn’t know what to fill in. Cars that are automatic only are easy since there’s only one choice. Cars that offer either a manual or automatic, well... it plugs in the default (a.k.a. standard) transmission, which is usually a manual.

Someone from the dealership then has to go back in and fix it, and to do this they have to check every single car’s ad one by one.

Most dealerships stay on top of it. Some dealerships just don’t care. Most do care but sometimes overlook one. Hell, my company recently had a ton of ads go out incorrectly. Why? The guy that takes photos of all our inventory said he’d make sure the transmission was correct when he uploaded the photos. And he did just that, for about a year. Suddenly he quit doing it, didn’t bother to tell us, and next thing you know we’ve got customers on the lot saying “But the ad said this was a manual!”

So that’s how it works.