Mustang Transmissions: Automatic vs Manual

Mustang Transmissions: Automatic vs Manual

Last Updated June 13, 2023 | Bill Tumas

Mustangs have always been available with both an automatic and a manual transmission. That's because both transmissions are perfect for a type of driver. Picking the transmission that best fits your driving style can be a tough choice sometimes, especially when it comes to purchasing a muscle car.

If you talk to an old school muscle car person, they’re going to say “manual trans or go home.” There used to be a lot of truth to that, considering the manual transmissions used to put up with a lot more abuse than the automatic, and were generally faster. That really isn’t the case anymore.

Technology has truly come around when it comes to the design and engineering behind both manual and automatic transmissions. With the introduction of the dual-clutch design into an automatic transmission, you could shift gears much faster than any standard gearbox out there, all with the push of a button or a paddle shifter! Though the 2020 GT500 is to receive a DCT, that kind of technology hasn’t made it over to the Mustang quite yet, but the 10R80 10-speed automatic transmission in the 2018 Mustang keeps up pretty darn well, and certainly outruns its MT-82 manual transmission counterpart.

There’s no question that the manual gearbox wins by a landslide when it comes to the coolness factor. There’s purely no feeling out there that compares to rowing through your own gears. However, that’s not the top priority for all Mustang owners. There are many that use their Mustang as a daily driver in stop and go traffic, drag race on a regular basis or frequent the road course. All of which have different needs when it comes to which transmission to run with on your Mustang. In this article, we’ll address those reasons in order to give you the information needed to make a well-informed decision that you won’t regret!

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Mustang Automatic Transmissions

Dark blue Mustang driving down a track Mustang GT With Auto Transmission

The Mustang’s automatic transmission really allows you to go fast while enjoying the pros of not having to shift through the gears on your own; especially in later model vehicles. As time pushes forward and technology advances, the automatic transmission will work its way to shift quicker than any human can on their own. We hate to admit that the manual transmission is going out of style, but the general downward trend says otherwise. In 2014, only 10% of cars made in North America had a manual transmission, down from 35% in 1980. So, there’s no question that the automatic is taking over.

"the automatic is taking over"

It’s okay though! Because these cars are still just as quick, if not quicker, than the stick cars. And with the proper shift points and transmission tuning, these cars are blowing stick cars out of the water!

There are a couple situations in which you may want to consider an automatic over a manual for your Mustang.

  • Drag Racing: All you have to do is check the leaderboards and check what transmission they’re running. If you frequent the dragstrip and want to get those ET’s down, reducing shift times by choosing an automatic transmission will do the trick.
  • Daily Driver: This can go either way. If your daily drive to work is 90% highway, then it really doesn’t matter what transmission you choose since you’ll be in 5th or 6th gear most of the time anyways. However, if you sit in stop and go or city traffic, then you may want to reconsider before you’re getting a twice-a-day left leg workout.
  • Health Reasons: If you happen to have knee problems, regular joint pain or back pain, taking the strain of shifting gears will definitely help you out.
  • Other Drivers: If you have other drivers in your family who may be regularly driving your Mustang, then they all may not be able to drive a standard gearbox. With that said, anyone can drive an automatic, so that’s another thing to keep in mind.
  • Resale: The fact of the matter is, everyone can drive an auto, but not always a manual. Keeping that in mind, when you go to sell your Mustang, a wider range of people are able to purchase the car. That means higher demand, and higher demand means a higher price point.

Mustang Manual Transmissions

Blue Mustang with red accents driving on the street S550 GT With Manual Transmission

If you’re the kind of driver who enjoys the driver's aspect of being behind the wheel, then a manual gearbox may be the right choice for you. When we say “the driver's aspect”, it means you enjoy driving in its purest and most plain form. On a Saturday evening, you may just hop in your Mustang to go for a drive for 45 minutes only to end up coming back home and pulling it right back in the garage.

Picking up a Mustang with a manual transmission allows you to feel many aspects of the car that an automatic transmission just doesn’t. For example, with a manual gearbox, you have to pay close attention to your RPM to know when to shift. This can come into play when you’re at a road course event or carving some corners on a random back road. Some would say that you are more in touch with the car when it comes to a clutch and stick shift.

With that said, you’ll find a few reasons below as to why you may want to shy away from an automatic transmission and towards a manual gearbox.

  • True Driver’s Car: For the classic, muscle car feeling, you can’t go wrong with a standard gearbox. Knowing which gear you’re in, choosing your own RPMs and controlling with your left foot how much power is going down the driveshaft to your rear wheels are all part of this manual experience.
  • It’s Just More Fun, Even If It May Be A Bit Slower: Don’t get us wrong, automatic transmissions are fun; especially with the right mods. But, there isn’t anything out there like the feeling of banging gears as you’re merging on the highway or running your Mustang down the drag strip.
  • Winter Driving: Snow/Wet modes can only take you so far in hairy situations during the winter months that we all dread. The advantage of a manual gearbox is that you can control exactly how much power is going to your wheels. With a steady left foot feathering the clutch, you’ll be able to navigate snowy conditions a bit easier.
  • More Power (Technically): If you can envision a straight line of power going through the crankshaft, transmission and the rest of the drivetrain, that’s essentially a manual transmission. With an automatic, you have to have the power go through a torque converter before exiting the transmission and running through the drivetrain. For that reason, a manual transmission will put out slightly more power on the dyno due to less drivetrain loss.
  • Easier To Upgrade: Upgrading a manual transmission is a bit easier in comparison to its automatic counterpart. For example, you can install a short throw shift kit to decrease time between shifts. To do the same in an automatic would require precise transmission tuning. Same thing with launching off the line in an automatic -- an upgraded torque converter is much more difficult to install than simply teaching yourself how to launch your Mustang correctly with a clutch.

2018+ Mustang Manual vs Automatic Transmissions

When looking at the new 2018+ Mustang, the slider shifts quite a bit towards the automatic transmission when comparing it to the manual counterpart. This is due to the debut of the 10R80 10-Speed Automatic Transmission, new to the Mustang for the 2018 model year.

A variant of this new 10-Speed Auto is also seen in the 2018+ F-150, the Raptor, and even the Camaro ZL1. That’s right, this transmission was co-developed with Chevrolet. Don’t worry though, the calibration is specific to Ford and the Mustang. When paired with the revised Coyote Gen 3 Engine, this transmission allows the 2018+ Mustang GT to nail the quarter-mile in 11.8 seconds, crossing the traps at 119 MPH - in bone stock form!

There is a lot of hype around this automatic transmission for the sheer fact that it shifts quicker than any transmission in the Mustang to date. Ford has reported that this 10-speed auto will not lose any torque when shifting gears. That’s a big deal, and it shows considering the ‘18+ GT shaves 8 tenths of a second off the quarter in comparison to its ‘17 GT older brother. Did I forget to mention that it’ll do 0-60 MPH in under 4 seconds?

Okay, so we know that the automatic transmission in the 2018 Mustang is nothing short of awesome. But what about the MT-82 6-Speed Manual? For the 2018 model year, the MT-82 has been revised as well. For the GT models, the MT-82 has received a total redesign from a new standard twin-disc clutch and dual-mass flywheel along with larger synchronizers for smoother shifts.

Mustang GT Manual Transmission

My Personal Thoughts On The 10-Speed Auto

Ruby Red Mustang Front

I've always been a little leery of the 10R80 in the new 2018 Mustang in anything but a straight line, but my good friend Jeremy was kind enough to throw me the keys to his 2018 PP1 GT for a week or two to get a real feel for this new transmission. And, here are my thoughts…

Vehicle is a 2018 Mustang GT equipped with the new 10-Speed 10R80 Automatic Transmission, Performance Package 1, 401A Equipment Group, MagneRide, and Active Exhaust. Modifications include a 93 Lund Racing Tune, JLT Cold Air Intake, 20MM Ford Performance Lowering Springs and Corsa Sport to Xtreme Cat-Back Exhaust.

Being a manual transmission purist, there was definitely a learning curve here. With that said, the easiest way to break it down would probably be by driving mode since the car behaves so much differently in each mode. Between the calibration behind how the car shifts to the MagneRide suspension, the driving experience really does change quite a bit between each mode. Here’s what I mean --

Normal: As you can expect, this mode is pretty lackluster. When you hear people complain of the car skip shifting and hesitating which gear it should be in, it’s likely because they never switched it out of normal. Additionally, the MagneRide really loosens up in this mode allowing the car to cruise with comfort - seriously, it rides like a Cadillac. I managed to get over 28 MPG on the highway in this mode with the 10R80.

Sport+: This is my favorite drive mode to ride around in; and what I kept it in for ~90% of my time behind the wheel. It holds the gears just a wee bit longer, downshifts a bit more aggressively as you’re on the brakes and makes spirited driving fun and easy. I’d say about 75% of the time it knew what gear I wanted to be in and held it at a pretty good clip as you’d take a corner. The MagneRide stiffens up a decent amount allowing you to feel the road significantly more than Normal mode - which is a good thing.

Track: After finding the right backroad, I was excited to get a feel for how this transmission reacts to some more aggressive driving. I have to say I’m a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super impressive and I can’t expect this car to read my mind, but I found myself fighting to get the car in the right gear almost every time I was coming out of a corner. Better than any auto I’ve ever driven, it held the gear entering the corner perfectly - right at the top of the torque curve - but easing into the throttle out of the turn, it’d always want to downshift 1 or even 2 gears when all I wanted it to do is hold that gear into the next turn.

Now, I know that there is a learning curve to driving this auto on some twisties. Especially coming from a Mustang owner who is purist when it comes to the manual transmission. Unlike a manual, the auto has to take your throttle position into account and try its best translate that into a particular gear and how fast you’d like to accelerate - all before you exit that turn. With that in mind, this 10R80 is very impressive when it comes to the turns. With a bit more seat time on how the car behaves with throttle position and knowing how it’s going to react, it should get better with time.

You know what fixed it all immediately, though? Using the paddle shifters - then all was right with the world! My only gripe there... is for shuffle steer-ers like myself, I wish the paddles were mounted on the column rather than the wheel.

Drag Strip: This mode is a new one for the 2018+ Mustangs. Since reading about Drag Strip mode in numerous articles since the 2018 Mustang’s release, I was pretty curious about this mode. Truth be told, it’s truly an all-or-nothing mode. You can’t be partial throttle nor can you hesitate, otherwise, it’ll throw things off like cutting power or skip-shift to the next gear. I can tell you that if you do lose traction while using Drag Strip mode, it will do just that -- traction control kicks in by cutting power and even activating ABS if necessary.

Now, if you’re at an actual dragstrip with a properly prepped surface and sufficiently warm tires, then you’re going to have a field day in this mode. The shifts are hard. With the Lund Racing tune, I’d even go as far as saying that they feel harder than a hard shift in my MT-82-equipped 2015 GT.

Ruby Red Mustang GT on the Road

One thing I want to stress with this car is the sheer speed that's possible with the new 10-Speed 10R80 Automatic Transmission and the Gen 3 Coyote Engine. Having driven both a completely stock PP1 Auto GT and this Lund Tuned GT, the sheer acceleration is incredible; due largely in part to this impressive transmission and how it keeps the engine right in the power band as long as that pedal is mashed to the floor. For comparison's sake, take a bone stock 2018 GT which runs roughly an 11.8 in the quarter mile. A stock 2015-2017 GT with the MT-82 manual transmission will run that same quarter mile in 12.8 seconds. That's roughly a ten car length difference at the end of the track!

Hopefully this insight into the new 10R80 10-Speed Automatic Transmission will give you a little more ammunition to make an informed decision on your next Mustang purchase and whether you'd like to row your gears yourself, or have the quick-shifting auto do it for you. Needless to say, today's technology and Ford's engineering department is making it rather hard to ignore the truth that the auto is definitively faster and almost as fun.

Now That You Have The Info, It’s Time To Decide

If you enjoy getting killer times at the dragstrip with fewer mods due to faster shift times and easier, more consistent launches, then an automatic Mustang may be for you. On the other hand, if you purely enjoy the driving aspect of the car to feel more from your Mustang’s drivetrain, then a standard gearbox may be best for you. Regardless of what you decide, it’s important to do the research so you can be happy with your decision.

From A Drag Racing Perspective...

CJ Pony Parts' Gotta Have It Race (GHIR): 2013 Mustang GT, Full Bolt-On With MT-82 Manual Transmission, All-Time Best: 11.05 @ 123.86 MPH

Josh Hubbell's 2018 Mustang GT With 10R80 Auto Transmission, Similar Modifications as CJ's GHIR (Details in Video Description), 10.94 @ 127.55 MPH:

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.