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Choosing the right transmission for you

Written by

Scott Murray

It used to be a simple choice between automatic and manual, when it came to cars.

You either choose gears yourself, or let the car do it for you - and you’re probably going to pick ‘the auto’.

But, there are now three different kinds of auto transmission you need to be aware of. Why does it matter? Because there are caveats to which automatic you buy.

They might all look the same from the driver’s seat, but there are two modern transmissions which have two pedals like the old-style auto, and require slightly different driving styles and conditions.

You need to understand your transmissions in order to look after them, tweak your driving style, and avoid abusing them, while getting the most out of them.

Here are the four transmissions, how they work, and how to choose the right one for you.

A normal automatic (conventional epicyclic)

This one you probably know as the set-and-forget transmission. It’s as simple as stopping and going; accelerating and braking, accelerating and braking. It’s sometimes known at the T-Bar, but is also known as column-shift in America, where the stalk is commonly mounted to the steering wheel. Either way, you pull down from ‘P’ to ‘R’, then ‘N’, to ‘D’.

The normal automatic transmission is technically known as an epicyclic or planetary automatic. It’s still used today for its resounding benefits in serviceability and robustness.

Essentially, it takes input-speed from the engine and converts it into the appropriate road speed for the wheels. A ‘torque converter’ allows you to creep forward in traffic at very low speeds.

The two main drawbacks with these regular automatics is they require routine maintenance (as do all transmissions, it must be said), and they require a small amount of power from the engine to operate the torque converter.

This means a regular auto is not as economical, in the real world, as our next two transmissions.

Pick an epicyclic auto if you just want to drive from A to B without any fuss or care about looking after it in traffic, while towing or if you aren’t concerned with fuel economy.

CVT: Continuously Variable Transmission

The CVT is a misunderstood piece of automotive technology. Plenty of people sook about having one or rubbish it completely. But it’s unfair criticism.

Essentially, CVTs strive to give you ‘peak power’ at all times. Compared with the ‘normal’ epicyclic automatics, a CVT doesn’t reach the ‘powerband’ and change gear to start all over again, striving to reach peak power again. It spends most of its time there, especially when you put your foot down. They’re also very compact.

In a CVT there’s no wasted engine work - it’s very efficient - which is why it saves you fuel compared with an equivalent normal auto. The CVT is constantly offering you peak power.

But this doesn’t means you can drive it like a race car, because CVT transmissions, unlike normal automatics, rely on a pulley system with a belt that adjusts under tension based on how much performance you demand from the engine.

You can very easy abuse a CVT by trying to drive it like a high performance vehicle. For normal, civilised, road driving, a CVT is perfectly suitable to the vast majority of drivers. CVTs do make a bit of a drone noise when you put your foot down, but this is hardly worth your attention; in fact, you should ignore it.

Using a CVT is the same as a normal auto. Select P, R, N or D, you can pull the selector toward you to manually select gears, or, often you can use paddle-shifters which are pretty common now.

City commuters benefit from CVTs because they give you efficiency and good performance in those environments. But just be sympathetic to that steel belt expending and contracting whenever you apply the throttle. That doesn’t mean it’s a design flaw - they’re actually very reliable. Just as a general rule with any transmission, be gentle and it’ll last you a very long time with minimal servicing. All machines can be abused and if you prematurely break a CVT belt, that can be very expensive.

So: 1) Keep it serviced on time, 2) Drive conservatively and 3) Don’t slam the transmission from ‘Reverse’ into ‘Drive’ while you’re still moving, because that steel pulley drive belt needs a split second to change direction; be stationary before slotting into ‘D’.

CVTs are brilliant - take one for a test drive.

DCT: Dual Clutch Transmission

The DCT is the new benchmark in performance transmissions. Why? Because they’re quick.

A good DCT offers lightning gear changes, which is what you want in the modern world of incremental fuel economy improvements and for fanging up your favourite twisty backroad.

But you also need to be aware that it’s going to be less than ideal driving in congested, stop-start city traffic. Fortunately, you can have the best of both worlds.

Like the early CVTs, dual-clutch transmissions had a difficult birth due to poor reliability (and subsequent customer support failures) for multiple brands some 10 years or so ago. But today, they’re much improved and brands like Hyundai and Kia have got an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission which has proven very efficient, slick and quite durable.

Durability is important because there's plenty of hard work going on for a dual-clutch transmission, and they are much more complicated than the super-simple CVT or the venerable epicyclic automatic.

Put simply, there’s actually two small sets of gears and they rely on two clutches to decide which gear is in use. A clutch is just a plate that connects the back of the engine to the gearbox. In a dual-clutch, there are two clutches, and while you’re using one set of gears, like first gear, the second clutch pre-selects second gear and waits ready to engage in the fraction of a second when the computer tells it to.

While you’re in second gear, using clutch 2, third gear is being selected by clutch 1. When third gear (clutch 1) is engaged by the computer, clutch 2 prepares fourth gear. And so on. However, DCTs have a tendency to get a little confused when it comes to anticipating the next gear the driver might wants - because that’s the design feature that makes DCTs so good at saving fuel.

That clutch-swapping saves lots of time between changes, meaning the engine is doing more work and being idle less. Over the life of, say 1 million gear changes, that makes a significant difference in fuel.

The confusion a DCT can - but not always - experience is when you give the computer all the input-information (like throttle percentage) that suggests Gear X is going to be needed, and then suddenly something happens and you need a different gear in the opposite direction - a down-change, for example, instead of an up-change.

So it’s important to know if you’re interested in a vehicle with a DCT, ensure you test drive it accordingly. That doesn’t mean aggressively, because that’s dangerous. But trying to trick it with sudden changes is how to figure out if it’s a well-sorted transmission. You want to tell it you’re accelerating and needing higher gears, then suddenly slow down and require lower gears. This isn’t always easy to do on a test drive from the dealership.

Having said that, overall, the DCT is pretty good now. It’s getting very hard to trick them, particularly the well-designed units from Hyundai/Kia.

However, what you should definitely not do in a DCT is creep in slow or stationary traffic. Either stop, or get going. Otherwise you’re going to prematurely wear out your clutch.

The DCT looks like a normal auto inside, much like the CVT, but it definitely is not an conventional epicyclic automatic. So don’t creep in crawling traffic.

Try to be clear with what information your right foot is telling the computer and what gears the clutches need to be preselecting. A DCT is very clever, but can be punished if you don’t treat them with mechanical sympathy.

And don’t spend 10 minutes trying to reverse a heavy trailer up the driveway. That’s also not good for clutches - in any transmission, for that matter.

Done well, the dual-clutch transmission is, in many respects, even better than doing it yourself.

Manual: DIY gear shift

You never forget your first - best friend, dog, love, first car.

Your kids will probably never understand, but there was once a time where we used to have three pedals divided by two feet, and two hands each doing a task of its own. Remember that?

The mechanical orchestra of your first car’s row boat symphony is something you’ll never forget, Alzeimers notwithstanding.

Fortunately, in many respects the manual gearbox has all but disappeared from showrooms. It’s slow, it’s laborious, it’s inefficient, and for many it was a barricade to getting their licence and learning to drive. Some people struggle with the cognitive juggling act that is driving a manual car in real-world traffic.

Clutch-gear-throttle-clutch–gear-throttle-brake-clutch-gear-throttle.

Very few new cars, especially in the family car category, will offer a manual transmission. But it’s generally for the better.

There’s a small platter of sports cars still available with an H-pattern stick bolted to the floor.

Sports sedans/hatches Hyundai i30 N and Fastback N and Subaru WRX, sports cars like Mazda MX-5, Toyota BRZ and Subaru 86, the BMW Z4, and the micro Kia Picanto GT which is a brilliant value first car for your kids. You can also have some single-cab and dual-cab utes with a manual gearbox in the base models, but you’ll need to be very careful and double check before buying, because models like the Mitsubishi Triton have ditched the manual - and this could happen while yours is on order.

You’ll notice some changes with the manual today from the one you remember learning to drive with mum and dad. They’re much more efficient, smooth and typically have very short bite points on the clutch and with very short throws for the gear stick.

If you’re a carmaker and you’re having to keep making a gearbox that’s sold in about 5 per cent of your total vehicle sales, you don’t want to overdo it on materials and the most efficient manual gearbox integration has minimal materials used in manufacturing each unit. So they’re small, light, simple and efficient now.

No more big dramatic boat-rowing gear changes, so yes, if you can find a manual new car today, you’re actually probably going to enjoy the experience.

The flip-side of the manual gearbox is you are forced to commit to driving that transmission as the car demands it. If you get lazy, you’ll grind a gear or ride the clutch. If you can’t be bothered, you won’t go anywhere. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll stall, and if you’re stupid enough to be on your phone when the light goes green, you’ll embarrass yourself trying to get going again as the traffic beeps you from behind.

But, when you do put in the effort, when you give your full attention, when you’re focused and undistracted, when you get it right and can go forwards, backwards, parking slow or giving a bootfull en route to your favourite spot, and when you pull in, pump that clutch pedal and give the lever that wriggle in neutral before turning everything off, you can get out satisfied.

There’s nothing logical or efficient or rational about choosing a manual transmission in 2022 and beyond. Except when it makes perfect sense.

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About the Author

Scott Murray from BestFamilyCars.com.au

Scott

Murray

Scott Murray

BestFamilyCars offers honest information & discounts for your next new car. Our lives depend on cars, but most reviews don’t answer the real questions. I live with the cars I test, to report their strengths and weaknesses, ad free