Is a Manual Transmission Better for Off-Roading?

Off-roading is not the most ubiquitous of hobbies. If you get 10 mud trucks together, there is a decent shot that each will have been built with different ideologies. This is part of what makes off-road trucks and SUVs so rad. With all the many things there are to differ on, manual versus automatic transmissions are among the most debated. So, is a manual transmission better for off-roading or not? 

A white 2022 GMC Canyon AT4 midsize truck model (available in diesel) traveling off-road through a forest
2022 GMC Canyon AT4 | GMC

Manual vs. automatic

This conversation has shifted and warped many times over the years. Where once the automatic transmission was a luxury option, now the folks spending money on collector and toy cars seem to prefer the three-pedal rigs. But does this cross into the off-road world? 

The truth is that off-roading comes in many different forms. Many drivers who prefer manual gearboxes for slower mudding applications might prefer an automatic transmission for rock crawling or hill climbs. However, ultimately it will always come down to preference. But, let’s take a look at the advantages of each. 

The benefits of automatic transmissions off-road

Orange 2022 Rivian R1T electric pickup truck goes off-road, highlighting its Off-Roadside Assistance plan
2022 Rivian R1T | Rivian

At CarHistory, they believe that the type of terrain you are driving in will affect which transmission you might prefer. For instance, the time it takes to shift, no matter how fast you are, might make an ascending truck lose momentum. 

For some, not having to focus on the extra pedal and shift lever makes off-roading more fun, less intimidating, and as a result, more accessible. The automatic allows you to only focus only on the brake and throttle. If you come to a complete stop on a steep face in a manual, you have to clutch in and brake in order not to kill the engine. This step can overwhelm less experienced off-roaders. 

The benefits of manual transmissions off-road

Jeep Wrangler windshield wipers from Jeep Performance Parts
The Jeep Wrangler in some dirt | Jeep

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What makes some people not enjoy driving manual trucks and SUVs off-road is the same that makes the other side prefer it. The clutch gives us more control over the power delivery of the car. Despite the advances in automatic gearboxes, a manual transmission allows the driver to be in total control of the car’s power delivery. 

Not only that, but because of the simplicity of stick shift trucks and SUVs, they also tend to be a bit sturdier. Off-roading is hard on vehicles. While surviving the onslaught is part of the appeal, destroying transmissions is almost never fun. 

Before we go too far down that road, there are some technical benefits to wheeling in a stick shift truck, but ultimately none matter more than the fact that driving manual trucks off-road is more fun for many drivers. 

Fun is the whole point in the first place. Unless you live somewhere truly remote with no paved road access, we off-road because it’s fun, not to be practical. I’m not saying there aren’t practical applications to 4×4 driving; there surely are. It’s just that most off-roading in America, at least, is done solely to put a smile on the drivers’ and passengers’ faces.

Take your pick

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The Jeep Wrangler SUV in the desert | Jeep

While many off-road drivers feel strongly about both options, at the end of the day, none of it matters. If you want the most efficient, cheapest, toughest, and most analog rig, you got to go with a manual transmission. But if the thought of fooling with the shifter and clutch is too much, then the automatic transmission will be the right option for you. Whichever gets you out there, having fun, that is the best transmission.

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