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Gears and Transmissions

I was well on my way to complaining about continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) -- because I like to, and because I can -- when I came face-to-face with another transmission issue: gears coming out the wazoo.

The CVT debate will eventually come to an end as it has been proven by the excellent 2013 Honda Accord that they can work. From there, stronger, quicker and better programmed boxes will be the norm. And with a proper set of steering wheel or column-mounted paddles, I’ll keep my complaining to a minimum. In fact, I may enjoy it.

Modern cars, and I do mean modern, have at least five gears in their automatic transmissions. Actually, five is kind of weak as six really is the current norm. In my book, that’s plenty cogs to not only get performance, but decent to good fuel economy as well. A well spaced or geared set of six gears should have the car rocking along to 100 km/h in little time, and should also get the engine to sit on low revs once the speed is attained.

All was good until…
And then came along gears seven and eight, and the future holds numbers nine and 10. Have we gone mad? Here’s my issue with an 8-speed automatic transmission: I recently test drove a 2013 BMW 335i with said slushbox. Between you and me, it worked great: smooth, almost invisible and it managed engine speeds at a hair above tick-over on the highway. It was brilliant.

2013 BMW 335i interior
Photo: Mathieu St-Pierre

Until…
Now this is a 300-hp-with-equal-torque German performance sedan and I expect, as would any other, for this thing to rock on kickdown. It does, but from 8th gear at 100 km/h, the box needs to drop at least four gears (five is very possible!) in order to get the straight-6 back into its juicy power range to get things going. The delay was nothing short of annoying. Even in the Sport mode it would take a “while” for the transmission to cycle through the gears before it got to the right one.

Keep in mind that an automatic or automated transmission must clear all gears one by one and cannot skip over cogs in order to downshift. The same applies to upshifting for that matter…

Before someone goes about telling me that the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette’s and Porsche 911’s 7-speed manual boxes are no better, remember that the driver can, in one swift and well-choreographed move, slide the shifter from 7th to 3rd and be off with a blast.

What will it be like when GM, Ford and other manufacturers unleash their 9- and 10-speed transmissions? Not to mention: How expensive will these things be to fix when they breakdown just outside of warranty? I’m not so inclined to find out firsthand.

I think a voluntary cap should be set at six gears for an auto and seven for a manual.