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Drifting Automatic vs Manual Cars: Which Is Harder?

Drifting is one of the most famous maneuvers that can be performed in a car, and it is the subject of many different video games and real competitions as well. But there are right ways to do it and wrong ways too. But which transmission makes it harder, automatic or manual?

Drifting an automatic car is much harder in most cases than drifting a manual car, and there are several reasons for this. With a manual transmission, you have more control over the car, your gear selection, and you have a clutch and handbrake you can use to help you drift.

The 4 reasons it is more difficult to drift an automatic car are:

  1. Less control
  2. Gear selection
  3. No clutch
  4. Lack of a handbrake

Although it may be harder in an automatic, if you have the skill mastered then it can be just as easy in both types of car. We need to look at drifting in more detail to work out why it may be harder in each case.

What Is Drifting?

Controlled Oversteer

Drifting is essentially the practice of intentionally losing traction in the rear tires, and thus forcing the car into oversteer. Then, the traction is regained and the car speeds off once gain. It is meant to look good and serve a practical purpose of cornering. However, the looks are often what draw people to drifting, with its influence on movies and TV shows over the years.

Aside from the fact that it provides a spectacle, there are also drifting competitions held all over the world as it is quite a difficult skill to master. Thus, it is not only entertaining, but also captivating as it showcases some extremely good driving skills. The driver needs to slide the back end of the car out, in a controlled manner, which is achieved through several fast movements.

Technically speaking, it is achieved by creating a larger slip angle at the back tires than at the front, which causes the car to go into oversteer. However, drifting becomes an entirely different process depending on which transmission is in the car that you are driving.

A Manual Transmission

A manual transmission is one with a gearbox that is operated manually through a gear shifter. The driver has to use a clutch pedal in order to release two independent shafts to allow them to change gear, before releasing the clutch again to engage the engine with the transmission.

The driver has full control over which gear they are in, and it is thus favorable for many people who like to have this extra control over their speed and RPM. Manuals are traditionally harder to learn as they require more movements and more attention, and they are more common outside of the US than they are within The States.

An Automatic Transmission

Automatic transmissions remove the need for the driver to control which gear they are in, and the gearbox within the car does all of the work for them. The system may offer the driver some control, through paddle shifters or a semi-automatic gear shifter, but they will not have a clutch and the system is much easier to learn how to use.

They are more expensive, as the system that makes it work is quite complicated and has many moving parts. They are common in race cars as they allow for much faster gear changes, and they eliminate the need for a clutch pedal and a gear stick, saving space, which is very handy for motorsports such as Formula 1 where space is limited.

4 Reasons It Is Harder To Drift In An Automatic Car

1. Less Control

Automatics don’t tend to give the driver as much control as a manual, and this will become apparent when we consider drifting in each case. Drifting involves slipping the wheels and causing them to lose traction allowing the back end to kick out in a controlled manner. The driver then uses the speed of the car to control and maintain the correct drift angle.

Automatic cars have transmissions that sometimes slip gears, and this can be difficult to differentiate from the slip of the wheels during a drift, meaning that it can become difficult to cause the wheels to slip correctly over sustained periods. There are systems called dual clutch gearboxes, and they don’t have this problem and are thus a fair bit easier to drift than standard automatic gearboxes with a single clutch mechanism.

2. Gear Selection

Next, you will want to be in low gears when going into a drift, which is very easy to do in a manual as it is just a case of selecting the right gear. In an automatic, you will still be able to get into a low gear even without the use of paddles by just slowing the car down enough, but paddles or a semi-automatic gear shifter make this much easier.

The next thing to do is keep it in that low gear while applying the accelerator in order to control the speed of the car and the amount of slip in the wheels. This is easy in a manual, but most automatics will try to change the gear up when the RPM gets too high in order to protect the engine. If this occurs during a drift it can cause you to lose control.

3. No Clutch

Automatics don’t have clutch pedals, as we have discussed above, and although this means you don’t have to worry about pressing it to change gears you do lose out on the control it offers in order to perform one of the most popular ways to initiate a drift – known as clutch kicking.

This involves rapidly depressing the clutch in order to break the traction of the rear tires, and the rapid movement almost seems as if you are kicking the clutch down – hence the name. Not being able to do this in an automatic means you will have to flick the back end out with the steering wheel only, or perhaps a bit of braking, which is just much more difficult.

4. Lack Of A Handbrake

A lot of automatics don’t have hand brakes either, and this is another way that drifts can be initiated. Thus, it is not just holding the drift that is more difficult in an automatic, it is actually very difficult to even get into a drift with one when compared to a manual. With that said, it definitely is still possible, and it just requires a fair amount of skill and the right conditions.

The Importance Of Differentials For Drifting Cars

On the more technical side of things, you will also find that most cars have what is called an open differential. This essentially stops the wheels from spinning freely at the same time as each other, and this makes it nearly impossible to drift. Instead, you will want a locking or limited-slip differential, and this will allow both wheels to break free from traction and allow for a drift.

This factor is not necessarily related to whether the car is automatic or manual however.

Final Thoughts

Drifting is one of the most entertaining driving maneuvers that you can perform, and when done right it can feel very rewarding. However, to do it right you will need to be very skilled, and it can help to do it in a car with a manual transmission. Although it is possible in an automatic, the absence of a clutch and handbrake, combined with the decreased control, makes it much more difficult.