I’ve driven the latest auto transmission technology – and I prefer the old!

Posted on January 13th, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think that the people responsible for the design and evaluation of cars sometimes lose the wood for the trees.

I am as much as an automotive technology aficionado as anyone I’ve met. I love technology like stability control, radar cruise control, telematics and hybrid petrol/electric drivelines. I look forward to pure electric cars, to better aerodynamic technology and to exotic materials use.

But I think that all new technologies must be assessed within the paradigm of what is currently cutting edge, and not just adopted because in just one or two respects they are advantageous.

I’ve recently driven two high performance cars with transmissions that are clearly, in important aspects, inferior to what is currently available.

The twin clutch SST transmission in the Lancer Evo MR can be lumpy in urban driving, and (worsened by the over-large turbo, high mass of the car and small capacity of the engine), has terrible lag off the line.

Yes, it can change gears quickly and do trick things like blipping the throttle on down-changes, but it has sufficient deficiencies that, in nearly all situations, I would prefer to drive a well set up conventional epicyclic auto transmission fronted by an old-fashioned  torque converter.

The other car I drove was the most expensive I have ever been in – the quarter-million-dollar Lexus LS600hL. I thought the car supreme in many aspects– amongst others, refinement, performance/economy and rolling throttle response.

But when caned off the line, the Toyota hybrid system (called by Lexus an ‘electronic continuously variable transmission’ – but that is to massively understate its complexity) had a 2-second delay before anything much happened.

So in two completely different cars, using completely different drivelines (in fact, almost as different as you could possibly imagine!), and with each vehicle having a lot of available performance, you had to be careful if trying to turn across a line of approaching traffic, or if selecting an inside lane at traffic lights – one that ended after a short distance.

I mean, that car of 20 years ago, the oft-derided VN V6 Holden Commodore, would just kill the Evo X Lancer and the Lexus LS600hL – for the first 50 metres, anyway.

Perhaps the thing that people tend to forget is that a torque converter actually multiplies bottom-end torque – it’s not just a 1:1 fluid coupling.

A book I have, Torque Converters or Transmissions (Heldt, P, 1955) puts it beautifully:

From the automotive standpoint the chief advantage of the hydro-dynamic type of torque converter undoubtedly is that its torque ratio changes automatically in accordance with load conditions and without interruption in the flow of power.

In a motor vehicle the torque ratio of the converter is a maximum when the vehicle is being started from rest, when great torque is required for acceleration.

As the speed increases and the need for further acceleration lessens, the ratio decreases automatically. Other advantages of this, type of torque converter are that it transmits power silently and smoothly, without shock; that its moving parts operate in a bath of lubricating oil and are practically immune to wear, and that it prevents stalling of the engine.

Later in the same chapter, the author points out that torque converter multiplication ratios can be as high as 2.4.

Think about that for a moment.

Not only can a torque converter let engine revs flare so that the engine is already onto its rising torque curve, but it can more than double the torque available at those revs!

This is all kind of obvious for those who have had any interest in automotive mechanics for, as the book’s publication date shows, over 50 years.

But I wonder if it’s been lost from those evaluating cars like the Lancer and Lexus – let alone those designing them!

(Of course, an electric motor can develop peak torque at a standstill, so the LS600hL should launch hard off the line. But then again, its electric torque is ‘only’ 300Nm – sounds great, but perhaps not when there is 2.4 tonnes [plus occupants] to get moving…)

I don’t think a torque converter is some kind of technological panacea. But, in lock-up form, it certainly achieves excellent results in terms of launching a car – and then being fuel-efficient in steady speed driving.

I also wonder why the transmission modes that everyone gets so excited about with the Lancer MR  (Normal, Sports and Super Sports) couldn’t just as easily be enacted with a traditional electronically-controlled, epicyclic + torque converter auto trans…

24 Responses to 'I’ve driven the latest auto transmission technology – and I prefer the old!'

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  1. Ben said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 7:14 am

    “I also wonder why the transmission modes that everyone gets so excited about with the Lancer MR (Normal, Sports and Super Sports) couldn’t just as easily be enacted with a traditional electronically-controlled, epicyclic + torque converter auto trans…”

    Surely the shift points could be carried over, but the ‘blipping’ on downshifts would be hard to do, and very noticeable if it wasn’t there. And each of those modes would probably be looking for different lock-up points in the torque converter. But if the technology exists to change these things, bring it on.

    That said I agree with the rest of the article… But wasn’t the prius (using what appears to be a similar transmission to the LS600HL) very good off the line?

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 7:21 am

    The Lancer’s throttle blipping on downshifts is a relatively trivial part of the SST’s transmission behaviour. Much more beneficial is the extreme differences in shift points that are experienced with the different modes – something easily achieved with electronic control of a traditional auto.

    Anyway, there’s nothing to stop engine rev matching on downchanges with a traditional auto running electronic throttle control. A good driver can do this in a normal auto anyway!

    Yes, the Prius is very good off the line.

  3. Bob Jay said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Again I congratulate you on speaking horse sense.
    I have long realized that on a cost/benefit basis the torque converter auto greatly ADDS to the usable performance of most cars (noting that 0-100 kph figures are slower in extreme testing situations).

  4. BG said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Torque converters really are great things..

  5. Rob said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    @Ben – The ZF transmission in Jags blips on downchanges

  6. Mike said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Julian, how on Earth does one rev-match with an auto?!?

  7. doctorpat said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I’ve thought for a while that the traditional measures of performance (0-100kph, standing 400m) are totally unsuited to real driving in today’s world, and that 0-60 or the standing 50m would be much preferable.
    And to match real driving even better, the test should be done without a “christmas tree” type launch. No “ready, set, go”, just have the car sitting at idle, with a surprise GO.
    Lastly, instead of doing 3 or 4 runs, and choosing the best time (as many testers do), do the opposite, 10 runs, and choose the worst time.
    After all, if you are judging a gap in oncoming traffic, you don’t care about what the best time your car might do, you think about the worst time it is likely to do, and then add your safety margin to that.

  8. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Mike, try it for yourself. In some autos, depending on their speed of gearchange, you can do it when manually downchanging.

  9. doctorpat said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Is that like clutchless changes on a manual? ie. Best practiced on a rental car until you get the hang of it?

    Sorry Julian, just realized you can’t answer yes to that question, you rent cars as part of your job.

  10. Grahama said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I have 2 autos – one is a 1990 1.5L Toyota – it’s gear shifts are lazy and throttle blipping on down shifts is easy and sounds good with the “boy racer” style exhaust. The other is a 1994 Eunos 2.5L V6. It’s auto is a lot tighter and down shifts are very tricky and not worth doing. Also with factory exhaust there’s not even the attraction of the noise.

    What ever happened to the fully manual gear box? I find manuals faster than autos in every situation. I’ve even been able to shift most of the manual cars I’ve owned faster than any auto trans car I have owned.


  11. Ed Stephens said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 12:10 am

    The ZF auto in recent performance falcons blips on down changes doesn’t it?

  12. Ed Stephens said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 12:50 am

    “I also wonder why the transmission modes that everyone gets so excited about with the Lancer MR (Normal, Sports and Super Sports) couldn’t just as easily be enacted with a traditional electronically-controlled, epicyclic + torque converter auto trans…”

    I’m pretty sure AMG does that with the C63 and a conventional auto.

  13. Chris Katko said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 2:56 am

    >but the ‘blipping’ on downshifts would be hard to do,

    I don’t understand why this would be. Automatic transmissions hold gears solely by brake clutches holding onto different patterns of planetary gears. (See howstuffworks.com for a visual example.) So if no clutches are grasping, it’s in neutral. So what’s to stop a traditional auto transmission (coupled to an electronic throttle) from blipping the throttle while in “neutral” (no clutches grasping) and then activating the correct clutches, for the correct gear, at the correct RPM. Am I missing something here?

  14. Ben said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 8:32 am

    No, I just wasn’t aware the technology was there. I was looking at how the BTR 4speed in my EF worked. The only way for it to give time to blip the throttle on downshifts would be to drop line pressure to nearly zero, then rev the engine, then raise the line pressure again. I suppose it does lower the line presure on shifts anyway, so making it zero and opening the throttle wouldn’t be too much of a stretch…

    I never was able to accurately and repeatably rev match on downshifts in it, before I put a manual in anyway.

  15. Rob said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 10:18 am

    @Ed Stephens – Sadly, no 🙁

  16. Someone said,

    on January 14th, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Generally auto manufactures are trying to move away from torque converters because they are heavy and when slipping use more fuel.
    I drove a VW EOS and it has no problem launching with it’s dual clutch transmission. These days a lot of vehicle performance comes down to good software and calibration as much as the right hardware.

  17. Ben said,

    on January 15th, 2009 at 4:43 am

    Yes, but that launch can’t be had at half a moments notice. With an auto you can change the launch half-way through it.

    With a clutch the drive needs to disengage momentarily to be able to re-engage at the right revs. Do the same in the auto, and it slips a little more while at the same time delivering more torque.

    Grahama, try this in a manual and an auto version of the same car. Cruise along beside someone (on a dual lane road) with a passenger in your car. Get them to randomly yell out ‘now’ and see which gearbox gets you in front of the other car faster. Provided you are in a cruising gear in the manual (ie 4th gear in most cars at 60km/h) the auto will probably be faster.

    Don’t get me wrong, I prefer having a clutch for driving hard, but auto’s have it nailed for everyday situations and when you really need to be 5m ahead of yourself as soon as you can…

  18. Brandon said,

    on January 15th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    @Ben and Julian, with regard to the Prius

    The Prius’ low-weight (compared to the Lexus) and electric motor would be useful with this type of transmission.

    The Lexus massive weight means that even though the electric motor provides 100% tourque from standstill it cant overcome the transmissions lag.

  19. Mark Love said,

    on January 15th, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    For a different approach to transmission, you might want to check out http://www.torotrak.com. I’d love to have one of their transmissions.

  20. Bob T said,

    on January 20th, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    In terms of driving involvement, for me the SST transmission or for that matter a manual box beats an auto hands down. As a new Ralliart Lancer owner I can confirm that it has the same problems as its big brother the EVO MR – heavy car, small engine and a pain in stop start traffic as it first struggles to keep pace because it has found itself in too high a gear then wants to take off faster than you ever intended when the turbo starts kicking in. Oh and you forgot to mention lack of adjustment to the driving position and heavy fuel consumption.

    But that misses the point. It is fun to drive.

    How’s this for an idea; why not change down a gear before you accelerate? Or how about this; change into the correct gear for the corner as you enter under brakes then smoothly balance the car under power from the apex to the exit? Manual gearboxes allow the driver much finer control of the wheels through the throttle. The SST just allows quicker selection of the gear.

    The SST should really be compared to a manual transmission. People who enjoy anticipating the road ahead and changing their own gears might quickly learn to enjoy the SST. In traffic and when driving aggressively I use the paddles to select my own gears. The changes are lightning fast, I’m having a ball and I didn’t have to buy a Porsche or Ferrari to experience it.

  21. Grahama said,

    on January 21st, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    In response to Ben who said “try this in a manual and an auto version of the same car. Cruise along beside someone (on a dual lane road) with a passenger in your car. Get them to randomly yell out ‘now’ and see which gearbox gets you in front of the other car faster. Provided you are in a cruising gear in the manual (ie 4th gear in most cars at 60km/h) the auto will probably be faster.”

    Are both drivers/cars allowed to down shift? I did this in my 94 Eunos 800 – a luxury car, not sports. It took more than 5 seconds to downshit afterflooring the accelerator. In that time it hardly accelerated. I’d have had my old manual car into 2nd, chirped the tyres and been at 100kph by then. Any other comparison could vary on the gearing of that gear on each car.

    Julian, is this something you could test? I’d be interested in the results.

  22. George T said,

    on January 21st, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Recently I’ve been driving a Peugeot 308 1.6 Hdi EGC, attracted by the fuel consumption figures combined with an “automatic”. Turning across traffic it has some limitations similar to those referred to by Julian. Initially a bit of turbo lag as with most turbos, then it takes off smoothly in 1st gear but with a bit more throttle than otherwise intended because of the lag. As you turn across the traffic back off a little and the box makes a lazy change into second gear, leaving one with that feeling of being stuck across the oncoming traffic. Sure it can be driven manually, but left as an auto it is none too convincing. Looks like it needs some tuning. Going to a full auto in the same car means going for a 2.0 litre motor and conventional auto, with a 40% increase in fuel consumption!
    Is there a medium 5 door hatch out there with good dynamics, safety gear, auto and excellent fuel economy? The cost and open road dynamics put me off the Prius i-tech.There are some excellent manuals, but most autos seem to add 25% to the fuel consumption even with the same size motor.

  23. Ben said,

    on January 22nd, 2009 at 4:45 am

    I was basing that on the time it took my EF falcon (when it was automatic) to downshift and start accellerating, and the time it took me to do the same (4th to 2nd in both cases, strangely). The automatic in my falcon was reasonably quick to respond to throttle inputs, especially large ones.

  24. Darin said,

    on January 23rd, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I’ve read all the comments with great interest. I’ve got a 300zx type auto with a stage one shift kit behind a vl turbo motor in an r31 skyline. The auto has no other mods. With nice, cool crisp air the old style turbo system produces plenty of torque, which when combined with the shift kitted auto, gives an effortless driving experience and nice firm shifts without any thumps. Kickdowns are very quick even under max pedal. I manually downchange it a lot, it goes from 4th to 2nd almost instantly. Throttle blipping is possible, it seems to be more of an issue of coordination than anything else. One of the best (and cheapest) mods I’ve ever had done! Sure beats those slow, slurring gear changes. Hot weather isn’t so good though (turbo gets laggy) and it could certainly do with an extra ratio at times, but for the city it’s great.

    I’ve always thought an SST type trans would be the bees knees. I’ll have to find one to drive now and find out for myself.