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When An Automatic Is Better Than A Manual Off-Road (And When It's Not)

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For car enthusiasts, a manual transmission is always the answer. But when it comes to off-road enthusiasts, that’s not always the case. That’s because automatics can actually be a huge benefit in the rough stuff, as the folks from the Team O’Neil Rally School point out in this video.

As an avid off-roader, I’ve got some strong opinions on manuals versus autos. Personally, if given the choice, I’d buy the manual almost every time. They’re just more fun, and tend to handle heat better. But I say “almost,” because if I lived out in Moab or near the Rubicon trail, and was doing purely gnarly rock-crawling, I’d take an automatic, since coming to a complete halt on a steep rocky ledge without clutching in is a huge benefit.


Here’s Team O’Neil’s take on this debate:

The main point O’Neil’s rally school instructors mention is that manuals allow for more controlled descents and ascents, while automatics tend to be better for low-speed crawling.


I agree with that, for the most part. I’ve off-roaded manual and automatic Jeep Cherokee XJs similar to the ones in the video, and I’ll say that descents with the auto always require heavy brake application. The AW4 transmission does not allow the driver to lock into first gear, so you find yourself crawling slowly down the hill, until boom the transmission shifts into second and you’re flying at what seems like 1000 mph. That’s not comforting.

Conversely, even though manual Cherokees come with taller 3.07 axle ratios, their first gear is short, and you can stay in it for as long as you want, meaning that engine will help keep you driving slowly down a hill.

Team O’Neil also says manuals tend to provide more control on ascents, too, though I do find that manuals tend to be worse in lower-speed climbs (and just in low speed driving in general). Crawling up steep inclines requires you to come to a halt as your spotter tweaks your path. To do this with a manual—even with really short gearing—you have to clutch in, and then try to get started again, which is a huge pain in the ass. You could use your starter motor to get you going, but doing that for extended periods will eventually smoke the thing.

So for low speed ascents, automatics are better, which is why you see them all over Moab. But if you’re doing high speed hill climbs like those shown in the video, or sand dune driving, being able to build speed in a high gear at the base of the incline, and then quickly shift into a lower gear towards the top as you lose momentum can be the difference between getting up the dune and staying planted on the edge.


It’s an interesting tradeoff, but in my view, the decision comes down to: will you be doing heavy rock crawling where you need to move slowly and precisely? If so, maybe consider an auto. If not, just get the manual.