Transmission Wars

I’ve mentioned many times in my Sound Classics newspaper column the current horsepower wars.  Its amazing how much power manufacturers have thrown at all their vehicles…even Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna produce more power than Corvettes of the past. 

What has gone fairly unnoticed is the transmission arms race. It seems that all of a sudden, how many gears and how many shifting options are the key to a successful car. If you didn’t catch the news, the 2007 Lexus LS will feature an eight speed automatic.  BMW and Mercedes have both offered seven speed trannies in their high-end vehicles for a couple years.  Cars priced above $30,000 are scorned for delivering anything less than six speeds. We’ve come a long ways since two speed Powerglide automatics and three-on-the-tree manuals.  Just to think – cars in the late 1980s still came with three speed automatics and four speed manuals. 

The product marketing trait du jour is to offer manumatic shifting via paddles or a side shift gate.  It amazes me how many educated people don’t understand that an automatic transmission with manual gear selection is nothing new.  I could select and hold low gear in my 1955 Packard Patrician then move the selector to drive with the column stalk.  Just now, every sedan and coupe seems to have buttons or a up-down push to accomplish the same thing…with the same delayed shift results. 

Speaking of manumatics, when is someone going to institute a standard for lever-actuated shifting.  What I mean is that on many transmissions, such as Toyota and Volvo, one pushes up for the higher gear and pulls back for a lower gear.  On other brands of cars, it’s reversed.    Note to those like Toyota and Volvo:  you’re doing it wrong!  Physics kind of takes the lead on this one: if you floor the throttle, you get pinned to your seat, which means one must fight g-forces to push a stick forward to gain a higher gear.  Similarly, when the brakes are stomped, it’s easier to push forward as your brain gets tossed towards the hood ornament.  This why every single manufacturer of sequential manual transmissions for World Rally Championship competition works in a pattern of pull for higher, push for lower. 

BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maserati utilize true clutchless manuals.  I’ve driven the BMW, and aside from the perfect computerized blip of the throttle, I was somewhat disappointed.  Basically, when I shift gears, my brain is on clutch foot, selecting the next gear, dialing the phone, scratching myself, and trying not to drive into the ditch.  Takin away the clutch and stick maneuvers,  I was painfully aware of the time delay between gears…even though it actually takes less time for the computer to shift than I could. Dual clutch sequential manuals are out, and should rectify the time, as well as somewhat jerky motion. 

CVT trannies are nothing new, but Audi, VW and Nissan would have you believe that they are revolutionary.  Subaru’s cheap Justy had one fifteen years ago, and it was met with the same lackluster reception. 

As usual, the manufacturers might be focusing too much on quantity and not enough on quality.  My 2006 Toyota Avalon is plagued with a six speed automatic with sequential shifting that frequently freewheels looking for the correct gear and suffers from jerky downshifts at 32 mph.  The official company line: the tranny is computer controlled for maximum fuel efficiency and that’s “normal operation.”  Ask any Toyota service manager, and they’ll tell you that it’s just a crappy tranny that wasn’t properly tested.  Ask an owner, and they’ll say “I’ve been nearly creamed making a turn across traffic at least two or three times.” 

The process of fixing the problem is easy – the bug is in the computer control which tries to learn how the driver tendencies. Since the Toyota Avalon’s six speed (which also goes into the V6 Camry and Lexus LS350) is integral in the EPA mileage estimates, any modification (BUG FIX) has to go through EPA certification. (A media representative confirmed this for me.)  While the feds are taking their time, drivers are out there dealing with problems that in a Turbo Hydromatic 350 could have been solved with a wrench, screwdriver and a socket set. 

Then again, it’s evidently more important to the executives to say “I’ve got more gears” vesus “our trannys are bulletproof.”


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