6 Reasons Why Transmissions With Loads Of Gears Are Ridiculous

Whoever coined the phrase “more is better” should be clocked in the mouth for leaving it so open-ended, because auto manufacturers don't understand that it doesn't apply to everything

Remind me later
6 Reasons Why Transmissions With Loads Of Gears Are Ridiculous  - Blog

Am I the only one who thinks manufacturers are going a bit mad with their bazillon-speed transmissions? Fortunately the insanity is tied to automatics, which I’m sure most CTzens will agree are not the transmissions of choice for those who breathe tyre smoke and enjoy the smell of racing fuel. That said, modern automatics are pretty outstanding compared to the boxes of yesteryear, and I’m not one to completely write-off a potentially fun-to-drive vehicle just because the gearbox can choose its own ratios.

However, I don’t see one single reason why a freaking passenger car needs anything more than seven speeds. I get the concept - more gears provide a larger ratio spread, providing better acceleration and fuel economy. But when you take a closer look, simply adding more gears actually isn’t much of a solution. I suspect it’s become less about performance and more about one-upping the competition. I’m not buying into the hype, and here’s my decidedly non-engineering opinion as to why.

1. Added complexity means added cost

6 Reasons Why Transmissions With Loads Of Gears Are Ridiculous  - Blog

More cogs means more material, plain and simple. But you also have all the additional bits like clutches that need to be stuffed in there, and that, of course, adds more cost to the sticker price. And the added complexity also means more opportunity for failure, and I have no doubts if your spiffy nine-speed transmission decides to explode when you’re out of warranty, you’ll pay the equivalent of a decent used hot hatchback to get it rebuilt.

2. More gears means more weight

6 Reasons Why Transmissions With Loads Of Gears Are Ridiculous  - Blog

Even with clever packaging, all those components add weight to cars that already weigh far more than their predecessors. Weight is the enemy of performance; manufacturers should be finding ways to make cars lighter for better performance, not throwing in more gears to compensate for the excess weight that comes from, among other things, more gears.

There’s also the space required to use such transmissions, which is why you don’t find these abominations on small front-wheel drive cars. When they are used in a front-wheel drive application, the extra weight positively destroys handling balance in a layout that’s already nose-heavy.

3. They shift all the time

I know, most of these uber-speed automatics are supposed to “learn” driving habits to provide less intrusive performance, but the fact still remains that the lightest press of the gas pedal usually results in a downshift. Even my 2004 Mazda 6 with a five-speed automatic annoys me on the hills around my home with the way it instantly drops to fourth at the mere suggestion of an incline at highway speed.

It doesn’t take an engineering degree to understand that the more parts move, the more wear they’re subjected to. Think about that the next time you’re in stop-and-go traffic with a hyperactive automatic that shifts 10 times in the span of one city block.

4. Fuel economy gains are all hype

6 Reasons Why Transmissions With Loads Of Gears Are Ridiculous  - Blog

Fuel economy seems to be what most manufacturers tout as the advantage to such gearboxes, but it’s complete and utter rubbish. Most of these cars show perhaps a couple of miles per gallon advantage at best over older models with fewer ratios. That’s such a small difference that driving style, atmospheric conditions, even tyres can have a much larger effect on mileage.

Case in point: my 2002 Infiniti I35 with a 255bhp 3.5-litre V6 and four-speed automatic averaged 31 mpg on my recent road trip, and the vast majority of those miles were done at 70 mph or more. The new Chrysler 200 with its 295bhp V6 and nine-speed automatic advertises “up to” 32 mpg. Fail.

5. Performance gains are mostly hype

I won’t deny that tighter ratios help acceleration. That’s why my old Infiniti would be so much quicker with a six-speed auto as opposed to its four-speed, but that doesn’t mean nine gears will make it quicker still. Ask anyone who has a 21-speed mountain bike what gears they use the most - one through seven, then 14th and 21st. Translated to car speak, five reasonably close ratios with one or perhaps two tall gears for highway cruising will give the same acceleration as something with nearly double the gears. That’s why a new Mazda 6 with a six-speed auto is just as fast and efficient as a new Chrysler 200 with a four-cylinder, despite the Chrysler having three more gears.

6. CVTs are the true performance automatics of the future

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Manufacturers are basically trying to make conventional gearboxes work like a continuously variable transmission. I know CVT is a bad word among enthusiasts, and their less-than-stellar track record for reliability is a valid reason for that. But my friends, CVTs have epic performance potential. Holding an engine in its sweet spot for all of eternity is what every racer dreams of. On the flip side, having an engine barely running so as to deliver awesome mileage with minimal emissions at speed is what every environmentalist dreams of. The CVT with its gearless belt can provide infinite gear ratios, making the dreams of both sides come true.

And if you doubt its performance applications, watch this video from the 1990s of the Williams team testing a CVT for F1 - something the FIA shut down in a hurry because of its potential for complete domination.

I know, people say it just doesn’t feel or sound natural to not have an engine going up and down in RPM. There’s something to be said for the aesthetics and art of driving, but as a petrolhead I tend to place performance over panache. If the CVT seems unnatural, well, get used to it because it can be epic. There will always be cars with manual transmissions to enjoy the art of driving, but for just going fast, let me put it this way: you can either wait for VTEC to kick in, or it can always be kicked in. CVT yo - how can that be a bad thing?