Deciding between an automatic and manual motorhome can be hard but it doesn’t have to be. It all comes down to personal preference and the driver itself.
While no type is better than the other, they are better suited to different people. If you are older or have a form of disability you may find automatic motorhomes easier to drive and care for. If you prefer and are used to manual you may find it better to have a manual motorhome.
In this article we are going to go through the advantages, disadvantages of both manual and automatic motorhomes along with what makes them diffferent and which one is better for you.
What Is An Automatic Motorhome?
The word ‘automatic’ when used in reference to motorhomes refers to its method of transmission. An automatic gearbox handles all gear changes, leaving the driver with only two pedals to concentrate on: the accelerator and the brake pedals. If driven properly the driver of an automatic motorhome should never have to use their left foot for anything.
The automatic transmission in any type of vehicle has been far slower to catch on in the UK than on continental Europe and the US, mostly due to buying trends. The take up amongst motorhome manufacturers has followed much the same pattern.
With advances in automatic transmission technology and greater efficiency drives automatic motorhomes are far more prevalent today amongst brand new motorhomes, with a lot of manufacturers fitting automatic gearboxes in motorhomes as standard.
What Is A Manual Motorhome?
A manual motorhome takes the opposite approach to an automatic when it comes to transmission. In a manual motorhome, the driver is responsible for changing gears themselves using a gear stick, or a stick shift in the US.
Driving a manual motorhome requires more skill and concentration than driving an automatic motorhome, as the driver had to pay attention to the revolution counter, engine noise, and speed to know when to change gears up and down.
What Is The Difference Between A Manual And Automatic?
There are multiple significant differences between manual and automatic motorhomes, with both being suited to different driving styles. An automatic motorhome monitors the engine output levels and adjusts the gears automatically, while in a manual motorhome this function is performed by the driver.
The differences don’t stop there, although it must be said that all of the variabilities stem from that fundamental function. Automatic motorhomes offer a much simpler driving experience compared to manual motorhomes, whereas manual motorhomes give the driver more control over their engine output management.
In some ways the differences are similar to the old debate between Apple and Microsoft products; long time aficionados of Apple products love the simplicity of their products, whereas Microsoft fans wax lyrical about the customisation options and level of control they have over their operating systems.
Manual motorhomes make the driver feel more in charge of the vehicle, whereas automatic vehicles do the complicated work for the driver allowing them to concentrate on relaxing into the drive.
One key difference is dependent on the age of the vehicle in question. Older automatic motorhomes were known for their fuel inefficiencies, whereas modern automatic motorhomes are well regarded as being the better option for the environment.
That said if driven correctly and efficiently a manual motorhome can minimise emissions if the driver chooses to do so.
Simply put, efficiency and environmental impact are controlled by the driver of a manual motorhome, whereas the drive management system of an automatic motorhome mechanically controls the engine output to minimise emissions.
They are not entirely immune to driver input induced heavy emissions however; if you put your foot down in an automatic motorhome you will soon see your fuel levels depleting at a rate of knots.
The Advantages Of A Manual Motorhome
To understand if a manual motorhome is right for you here are some of the advantages.
Speed and acceleration control
A manual motorhome allows the driver a greater amount of control than an automatic. If the driver feels like they need a boost to help with an overtake for example they can simply select a low gear and remain in that gear for as long as they feel is necessary.
Likewise, if a driver prefers to remain in a lower gear to build up speed more gradually they have that option.
Not the mechanical or electronic kind, but the ability to manually select a gear to make driving on different surfaces easy to manage. Most people know that it is better to start driving in a higher gear on snow and ice, for example, giving the driver more traction.
Clever traction control mechanisms on all modern vehicles mitigate this somewhat, but with a manual, you certainly feel like you are in more control than with an automatic.
This one is slightly more subjective, as it doesn’t apply to absolutely everyone. However, it is true that the majority of drivers learn to drive in automatic cars. In the UK, out of approximately 720,000 annual driving tests around 680,000 are taken in automatic cars.
In fact, if you take your test in an automatic car in the UK you are not actually allowed to drive a manual vehicle! This familiarity is very helpful for new motorhome drivers getting used to the unfamiliar shape and size of the vehicle, as it is one less difference to concentrate on.
Better on winding roads
This is another subjective advantage as a lot of drivers find automatic motorhomes perfectly fine on winding roads. That said, there is a good reason why automatic vehicles are more popular in countries covered predominantly with long straight roads, and the prevalence of manual vehicles in countries such as the UK where even motorways rarely run straight.
Experienced drivers know when to drop gears on approaching bends, when to change up early to assist with road surfaces, and how to use torque generated by lower gears to push a vehicle quickly around a bend. Again, this advantage is only felt if more control of a vehicle is desirable to the driver.
It is only in the last 10-15 years that automatic transmission gearboxes have come into their own in terms of performance and efficiency. With that in mind if you are looking at motorhomes more than ten years old you are best off looking at manual motorhomes. You will end up saving money on fuel and maintenance in the long term.
Due to the comparative simplicity of a manual motorhome over an automatic motorhome, they tend to be cheaper to buy brand new.
Not only that, aside from regular maintenance you won’t end up spending anywhere near as much as you would on an automatic motorhome when things break. Components tend to be less expensive than those used in manual motorhomes, and labour generally costs less as issues are quicker to be fixed.
The Disadvantages Of A Manual Motorhome
To understand if a manual motorhome is right for you here are some of the disadvantages.
Whilst it is true that a skilled diver can drive a manual vehicle in a more economical manner than an automatic, those drivers are rare.
Modern automatic motorhomes are outstanding when it comes to fuel efficiency, which has knock-on effects on environmental impact. Smoother gear changes, maintaining a gear for the correct amount of time, and automatic engine management all contribute towards reducing the impact of a motorhome on the environment.
There is no point in beating around the bush, driving a manual motorhome is more tiring than driving an automatic. The difference can be minor, but over a long distance of touring it all adds up. If you have only ever driven a manual vehicle you could be forgiven for thinking that the difference is either minuscule or non-existent, but most people who have driven both manual and automatic motorhomes will tell you that the difference in fatigue is considerable.
It’s just one of those things, you don’t realise how tiring driving a manual motorhome can be until you’ve tried an automatic. Fatigue is increased when driving a manual motorhome in two main ways; concentration and clutch usage. Having to focus on gear changes in traffic adds to the mental burden of a long drive, as does constantly having to press the clutch down and up as you crawl along.
Driving In Continental Europe And The US
There is a reason why automatic vehicles, including motorhomes, are more popular in continental Europe and the US. Driving over long distances on broadly straight roads is the main forte of an automatic motorhome.
Simply press your foot down on the accelerator until you reach your desired speed, set the cruise control if your motorhome has it, and all you have to concern yourself with is the accelerator and brake pedals.
These days most brand new motorhomes come with the automatic transition as standard, and as a result, manual motorhomes are becoming rarer.
Whilst this is not a big issue at the moment, as it is still very easy to order brand new motorhomes in manual transmission and plenty are for sale, over the next five-ten years or so this switch towards the dominance of automatic motorhomes will likely result in a lower amount of manual motorhomes on the second-hand market.
Disabilities And The Elderly
If you have a disability that affects lower body mobility or strength or are losing the strength in your legs as a result of age, a manual motorhome is most likely not going to be suitable for you.
The extra force needed to use the clutch might prove difficult or impossible to exert. In these circumstances, a manual motorhome is absolutely not recommended.
The Advantages Of An Automatic Motorhome
To understand if a automatic motorhome is right for you here are some of the advantages.
Ease Of Use
One of the light-hearted accusations thrown at automatic motorhome drivers by manual motorhome drivers is that of laziness; an accusation that is warmly embraced by those automatic converts in the know. It is only when you try an automatic motorhome for yourself that you realise how much easier they are to drive. Only having to worry about two pedals is a massive benefit for a start. Not having to worry about changing gears is another.
Truly, driving an automatic motorhome is such a simple affair, and even goes some way towards mitigating some of the worst stress-inducing factors induced by being stuck in traffic. Not having to keep your foot on the clutch to haltingly crawl forwards feels refreshingly stress-free.
If you haven’t mastered the art of the perfect gear change, chances are you aren’t driving at peak efficiency. With an automatic, this is not an issue.
The transmission system is programmed to change gears at the optimum moment for either speed or economy, depending on the setting you choose. Not only that, they are programmed to change gears with the minimum amount of fuss, allowing a smooth change, and reducing emissions even further.
Of course, it must be said that no matter whether you are driving a manual or an automatic motorhome, if you put your foot through the accelerator pedal you are still launching a one-person assault on the Polar Bears; an automatic transmission only aids sensibility, it does not mitigate stupidity.
One of the key features of an automatic motorhome is the way that they crawl forwards when put into Drive mode without any need to touch the accelerator. Try this in a manual and you will be hard-pressed to avoid an initial ‘bunny-hop’; with an automatic, the motorhome pulls away slowly.
Using this, to pitch your motorhome all you need to do is steer and touch the brake pedal when necessary. The chance of overshooting your mark is greatly reduced with this increased level of control.
Pulling away from a stationary position in an automatic motorhome is such a simple and easy process. Simply release the brake pedal and the car will start to move forwards, at almost any angle of inclination.
Hill starts have never been easier. This is far more noticeable in an automatic motorhome than an automatic car, as the weight of the vehicle becomes barely noticeable.
The Open Road
What can be more simple and less stress-inducing? On the motorway when driving an automatic motorhome all you need to do is point the motorhome in the right direction, accelerate, steer, and brake. Nothing more. Over a few hundred miles or more you will notice how relaxing this can be, particularly when encountering patches of traffic.
By removing the need to worry about engine management, if you can set the cruise control, all you have to worry about is concentrating on the road and your surroundings, and enjoying the journey.
Shallow Learning Curve
While it may seem slightly daunting moving from driving a manual vehicle to an automatic motorhome, it is such a simple transition that you will barely notice it. Sure, there is a small chance you will reach over the change gears, only to realise almost too late and have to style it out by pressing a button, speaking from a friend’s experience.
Beyond that, once you realise how easy it is to drive without changing gears, and you’ve mastered the art of pulling away from a stationary position with such ease, you will be so enamoured with the whole experience that you may even wish to change your car to an automatic when you next renew it.
A great feature of almost all automatic vehicles is the ‘kick-down’ function. If you find yourself in a position where you need to rapidly accelerate, during an overtake, for example, rapidly pressing the accelerator downwards will cause the motorhome to change gears downwards automatically, by either one or two gears.
This gives you an almost immediate punch in acceleration, allowing you to quickly reach your desired speed. Once the pressure on the accelerator is reduced the motorhome will automatically move back up through the gears to reach a suitable cruising power output.
The Disadvantages Of An Automatic Motorhome
To understand if a automatic motorhome is right for you here are some of the disadvantages.
Some people like to have as much control over their motorhome as possible. Naturally, with an automatic motorhome, a fair portion of vehicle management during a journey is surrendered to the onboard computer and mechanics. This is a criticism sometimes levelled at automatic motorhome drivers by manual motorhome drivers, and there is an element of truth to it.
Having said that, this is a rather pernickety complaint and is almost always down to the preference of the individual.
As a matter of fact, some automatic motorhomes come with the ability to manually change gears if the driver desires to, either by flicking the gear stick left or right or through the use of gear paddles on the steering wheel. The purists will still claim that this still isn’t full control, but they would claim that wouldn’t they!
Fully concentrating on driving and the road is an absolute must for any kind of journey. This is the same whether you are riding a pushbike, driving a sports car, or in control of an HVG. A potential concern for people driving automatic motorhomes is the worry that they may ‘switch off’, as the driving is so effortless at times on the motorway.
If you are driving an automatic motorhome you should definitely be aware of this, and make sure you are able to concentrate on your driving.
To mitigate this concern as much as possible, reduce all distractions inside the motorhome, listen to music or radio that doesn’t require your full attention to follow along, make a conscious effort to focus on what is in front of you, and take breaks as often as you can (at least every four hours as a minimum).
This concern isn’t unique to driving an automatic motorhome, however, it is much more prevalent than with a manual motorhome, as having to control transmission manually is an extra process to keep the mind engaged.
If you choose to drive an automatic motorhome then you need to face up to the fact that it will probably cost you more money than a manual motorhome in the long run. The reason for this is the comparative complexity of the vehicle.
If you choose to maintain the motorhome yourself you will have a steep learning curve and will need to buy expensive parts. It is also likely to cost you more if you take it to a mechanic to fix.
Not only this, services tend to be slightly more expensive as well, as there are a few more steps involved. On top of that, the more complex an engine is, the more chances there are for it to break, meaning that on average you will need to get your motorhome fixed more often than if you drive a manual motorhome.
Wear And Tear
Automatic motorhomes statistically require some of their components other than those related to the transmission to be replaced or repaired more often than manual motorhomes. For example, there is a common problem whereby front disk brakes need to be replaced more often than in a manual motorhome, due to the difference in stresses placed on brakes.
In a manual the driver can use lower gears to improve engine braking, which cannot be achieved in an automatic, resulting in more wear and tear on the brakes. The above-mentioned complexity of the vehicles also results in more ECU (Engine Control Unit) failures over time.
This is slightly balanced by the fact that less maintenance is required for other components in an automatic motorhome.
Inappropriate Gear Selection
When driving an automatic motorhome there are certain times when the vehicle will select a gear that you don’t think you should be in, and if you don’t have any method of changing it manually you are stuck in that gear until your speed changes. This is more of an issue at slower speeds, as the gearboxes tend to change gear based on current speed rather than the length of time spent at a set speed.
For example, if you are driving at 29Mph and the gearbox is programmed to go from second to third gear at 30Mph the vehicle will remain in second gear until you hit 30Mph no matter how long it takes to get to it.
This is a problem in traffic where you cannot speed up due to there being cars in front. The knock-on effect from this is increased emissions over time. This can be mitigated by the use of gear paddles in some models.
The biggest barrier to driving an automatic motorhome is the cost. Automatic transmission vehicles are almost always more expensive than manual transmission vehicles, and this is the same for motorhomes. This is due to the material costs of both developing and manufacturing the engine and gearbox.
When you take this into consideration with the potential for higher maintenance costs, driving an automatic motorhome can become financially prohibitive. This is less of an issue with used automatic motorhomes, as the seller does not have to factor in engine manufacture costs.
Automatic vs Manual – Which Is Better?
As with many things in life, which is the better of two choices come down to personal preference. That said, with manual and automatic motorhomes it has to be said that there is a clear winner in terms of driving simplicity, enjoyment, and comfort.
If you are the kind of driver who likes to be in full control of every aspect of driving, then it will be hard to convince you to choose an automatic motorhome. For those open, to compromise there is always the option of automatic motorhome that allows you the option to change gears yourself, through gear paddles or similar mechanisms.
Or you can simply take one for a test drive and see what you think yourself. It is very difficult to try driving an automatic motorhome and not find it a far simpler experience than a manual motorhome.
In case the last few paragraphs haven’t made it obvious, there is a clear winner in terms of which is better; an automatic motorhome. The ease of driving, comfort, efficiency, and reduced stress alone is enough to make an automatic motorhome the best choice for most people. Their accessibility is another huge advantage, opening up the world of motorhome touring for people with disabilities and age-related issues.
There is a bit of a myth amongst stubborn manual motorhome drivers which is often stated as fact: driving automatic motorhomes isn’t fun. Like almost anything driving an automatic motorhome can be fun if you want it to be.
You can throw them around corners at speed if you want to (safely and in a legal manner), can accelerate almost as quickly as with a manual motorhome, and if you really want to you can pay to race them.
The vast majority of motorhome owners are very unlikely to want to do these things, but the fact that they can, if they choose to.
With all that said, if you happen to like driving manual vehicles because it is what you know and you have no desire to change, that is a perfectly valid opinion and approach. Ultimately in that instance, the choice comes down to personal preference; after all, if you don’t know how much more relaxing it is to drive an automatic motorhome then you won’t feel like you are missing out at all.