The people have spoken. In fact, they have complained, they have groused and they have muttered. A few — if my reading of is anything to go by — are even in high dudgeon. Their cars are betraying them, say the studies — J.D. Power, Consumer Reports — proof that modern high-tech cars are not “built like they used to be.”
For the first time in anyone’s memory, J.D. Power is reporting that the dependability of three-year-old cars has declined. It reverses a 15-year trend that has seen the entire industry — yes, even Land Rover, for you skeptics already heading for the comments section to vent about your wonky old Discovery — pull up its socks and build the most reliable cars in automotive history.
“Until this year, we have seen a continual improvement in vehicle dependability,” said David Sargent, vice-president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “However, some of the changes that automakers implemented for the 2011 model year have led to a noticeable increase in problems reported.”
What’s unusual is that, along with the usual suspects — those annoying high-tech electronic gadgets you can never shut off, the indecipherable submenus that plague nearly all infotainment systems — the main culprit is the hitherto most dependable partner in the automotive parts bin, the transmission. And the worst offender is the technology that no less an authority than Automotive News once called the “Next Big Thing,” those dual-clutch “manumatic” transmissions that have filtered down from high-tech sports cars all the way to Ford’s lowly Fiesta.
Dual-clutch transmissions (DCTs) are just part of the revolution happening aft of the flywheel. Along with DCTs, what was once a straightforward choice between a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic has become a bewildering array of paddle-shifted continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and multi-speed automatics (as many as nine gears now and, soon, when Ford’s 2017 F-150 goes on sale, 10) that confuse and annoy the hell out of consumers.
The problem is two-fold. The first are the actual reliability issues. The five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions of yore might have been long in the tooth, but with age comes wisdom — or at least, reliability — and automakers had become remarkably proficient at their fault-free manufacture. Not so much with the newfangled autoboxes. Witness the number of Nissan CVT drive belts that go clank in the night, or the Ford DCTs that seemingly need constant software updates. Rushed, perhaps, to market, their technological foibles are real.
Even more prevalent than hard reliability issues, however, are soft complaints — especially with DCTs — that are seriously undermining customer satisfaction. And, in large part, these complaints are not so much the result of unreliable engineering but poor communication of what these new transmissions are and how they work. You see, no matter what the salesperson in the showroom tells you, the dual-clutch transmission that he or she promises will shift itself is definitely not an automatic. Automated? Absolutely. But definitely not automatic.
A DCT, despite being programmed to shift automatically, is in actual fact a manual transmission. It has gears like a manual, even a clutch. Hell, most of them have two clutches. One thing’s for sure, there’s nary a torque converter among them. Essentially, what automakers have done is place a whole bunch of little robots inside a manual transmission to save you the trouble of having to “manually” shift gears or depress said clutch(es).
Why have they gone to the trouble? The main reason is that, all things being equal — number of gears, gear ratios, etc. — the much-maligned manual transmission is still more efficient than a traditional automatic. Transmitting power via two mechanical clutches will always be more efficient than the fluidic connection of a torque converter.
How much more efficient? Well, statistics reveal up to a five per cent improvement over a similarly geared automatic and, in real-world driving, the advantage can be even greater. Indeed, although it is unlikely you’d ever see such a massive leap in technology in a single generation, moving from an archaic four-speed automatic to a modern seven-speed dual-clutch manumatic might see as much as a 10 per cent spike in fuel economy, no downsizing of engine needed. For manufacturers looking to eke out every mile per gallon they can, it’s a boon they can ill afford to pass up.
The problem is that consumers, promised the equivalent of their traditional automatic transmission, aren’t happy with some of the foibles that come along with automating what was once mechanical. Instead of what should be a nice, squishy-smooth takeoff from a stop sign, they are sometimes subjected to the rapid engagement of, well, a clutch. Ditto shifting gears. What is completely imperceptible in a true automatic is “all but” in a DCT. Unfortunately, at least according to J.D. Power and Consumer Reports, it seems like “all but” isn’t cutting the mustard.
One solution — and, yes, this was my initial reaction — would be for all those princess-and-the-pea consumers to get over themselves; the shifting of even the most supposedly of cranky DCTs is hardly abrupt. But, of course, that’s never going to happen — the people never being wrong.
Solutions to this fuel-economy-versus-shift-smoothness conundrum could fall into two categories. First, automakers could take the time to explain — in their marketing campaigns and through their dealership service managers — that DCTs are not automatics and, more importantly, why that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, automakers are better at engineering than explanation. More realistically, then, it looks like the solution most manufacturers are choosing is to just increase the number of gears in traditional automatics. Oh, a slushbox will never be as efficient as an equivalent manual. But, an eight-speed automatic can be made as fuel efficient as a six-speed manual, automated or otherwise. With the seemingly vociferous consumer rejection of DCTs (and, to a lesser extent, CVTs), we should therefore expect even more gears crammed into our automatics. Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, six-speed automatics are considered as retrograde as a four-speed is today.
Why do more gears equal better fuel economy?
Why do more gears in a transmission automatically improve fuel economy? The answer is two-fold. First, since there’s less of a “jump” between gears, the tranny will upshift at a lower rpm, and running at a lower rpm almost always results in more kilometres per litre.
Perhaps more importantly, more speeds in the transmission allow automakers to gear the top ratio “taller” — tech talk for the engine turning more slowly — and, again, rpm reduced is fuel conserved. This last is especially important on the highway.
A BMW 750Li, for instance, will spin its 4.4-litre twin turbo less than 1,500 rpm at a steady 120 km/h, the 445-horsepower monster rated at just 9.1 L/100 km (and averaging an even more impressive 7.9 L/100 km during my testing). That “tall” top gear is the reason why multi-speed automatics seem to make a greater improvement to highway consumption than city mileage.