Transmissions: With So Many Numbers, How Do You Choose?

1956 Dodge push button automatic transmission

Once upon a time automotive transmissions were simple things. Three-on-the-tree was a popular manual transmission mounted on the steering wheel through the early ‘70s. Automatic transmissions hit their stride in the ‘50s and have become ubiquitous to the point that they can be found in more than 90 percent of vehicles in America.

That helps explain, in part, why manufacturers offer such a variety of automatic transmissions. Also driving their development has been a need for greater fuel economy as automakers struggle to hit a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Currently, there are 6-speed, 7-speed, 8-speed, 9-speed, manual and continuously variable transmissions on the market. How do you choose? Let’s look at the offerings to give you some perspective.

6-Speed Automatics
These are the most prevalent automatic transmissions on the market. Typically they’re found on smaller vehicles, because they take up less space and weight. These transmissions, like those with more gears, can also sometimes feature manual shifting, which allows drivers to replicate driving a standard transmission without a clutch. You can find them on cars like the 2015 Ford Fusion.

7-Speed Automatics
You’ll often find these mated to dual clutches, which allows the next gear to be selected when the first is engaged. For example, when the transmission picks third gear during acceleration, it also gets fourth gear ready to go. Shifts are imperceptible, and fuel economy is better. You’ll find these on vehicles like the new 2016 Hyundai Tucson.

8-Speed Automatics
These transmissions have hit their second generation, allowing for even better fuel economy and performance. They’ve become more energy efficient, which helps fuel economy. These transmissions, because of their size, are more readily available in larger vehicles and those with rear-wheel drive (RWD). Simply put, there’s more room when they don’t have to compete for space with front-wheel drive (FWD) mechanics and the engine. The 2015 Ram 1500 features an 8-speed transmission.

9-Speed Automatics
The main reason for 9-speed transmissions is higher gear ratios, which allow for much better fuel economy at highway speeds. There were problems when these first hit the market in certain vehicles, but apparently it was a software issue and not mechanical for vehicles like the 2015 Jeep Cherokee, which saw its introduction delayed last year because of transmission woes.

Do you lament the decline of manual transmissions? Don’t. Today’s automatics are as good as—if not better than—any manual on the market. Maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of drivers can achieve better performance with a manual.

When it comes to fuel economy, though, manual transmissions do deliver better numbers in vehicles with diesel engines, like the TDI trims of the 2015 Volkswagen Jetta. That would be the only situation (and it’s a relatively rare case) where you might still want to shift your own car.

Continuously Variable Transmissions
These are more commonly known as CVTs. These are used primarily for fuel efficiency, because they can be used in the tight confines of FWD vehicles while providing an infinite number of gears. They adjust the speed of the engine for the best fuel efficiency.

But CVTs are an acquired taste, to say the least. In effect, there is no traditional shift “click” that people are used to hearing when gears change in a traditional transmission. Some people don’t like this, because they feel the transmission is searching for gears when it really isn’t. Nissan’s 2016 Maxima adds a shift feel to its CVT, in spite of a slight penalty in fuel economy.

-Keith Griffin

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  1. Marko – race car drivers and race cars represent one-tenth of 1 percent (probably less) of America’s more than 200 million drivers. By that math, which I stand by, there would be approximately 200,000 licensed drivers who would be better with a manual than an automatic.

  2. “Maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of drivers can achieve better performance with a manual.” you can see american wrote this article.. I am sure they use automatic transmision in racing cars because they have better performance! oh wait, they don’t? who would have thought..

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