When we think of cars, we think of many different things. Engines, wheels, aerodynamics, cabin space and perhaps even the entertainment. One of the most vital elements of every car is routinely neglected: the transmission.
Transmissions are truly fundamental. They provide for a smooth driving experience, make sure the car can meet the challenges of each road situation and keep fuel consumption to a minimum. They also protect the motor from overheating and the wheels from spinning.
In this special, we’ll award some attention to this vital car part. As with anything else, knowledge is (literally and figuratively) power.
More choice: It takes four to drive
For decades, there was only one type of transmission: A manual. Then, the automatic transmission changed up the game. For another few decades, customers could now choose between the two.
Recently, two new types of transmission have been added to the mix: The CVT and the automated manual. The traditional automatic transmission is also a lot better than it used to be. Which means that there are now four different types of transmission. Each has its very own unique benefits and disadvantages.
Let’s take a look at them in turn.
A special bond: The manual transmission
Almost everything in our cars these days is automated. So it’s quite remarkable that something as elemental as a transmission should still be entirely mechanical. And yet, in the UK, about 70% of all cars have a manual transmission.
If you’re looking for convenience, then that may be hard to understand. Why would you voluntarily go through the trouble of shifting gears by yourself if your car could do this for you?
The ongoing relevance of the manual transmission can only be explained by one simple fact: The engine and the wheels are mechanical, too. With a manual transmission, you are in direct contact with these parts. A shift in gear with the stick leads to a cascade of changes in the transmission. There is no intermediation by electronics or software. You can literally feel how you’re interacting with the vehicle.
Manual transmissions are still quite economical. And with electronic parts often prone to damage, they are probably your most reliable option, too. They are, however, probably no longer your best choice for keeping petrol consumption to a minimum.
Smart and smooth: The traditional Automatic
An automatic transmission is built on the very same premise as a manual. You still have a certain amount of gears. Each is suited for a particular driving situation. The difference is that you no longer need to select the right gear yourself.
The four gear transmission – which can still be found today – has the following basic modes:
It’s all about speed
If you’re driving through the city traffic, an automatic transmission continually selects the right gear. It bases its ‘decisions’ on your speed, i.e. whether you’re moving at a snail’s pace or fast. Switches tend to be smooth to the point of being unnoticeable. Overall, this creates a smoother, more elegant driving sensation.
Automatic transmissions can have a lot more gears these days. This makes them both a lot more ecological and economical. They are still pretty heavy, however, tend to cost more and break down more often.
No gears, no limits: The CVT
Contrary to the automatic transmission, the Continuous Variable Transmission is a disruptive force. It introduces an entirely novel concept of thinking about gears without borders.
The CVT effectively sheds the concept of gears altogether. In a manual or automatic transmission, each gear translates to a fixed constellation of wheels and pulleys. These cause the wheels to rotate at different speeds and lead either more or less power into them. With a traditional transmissions, you switch between these constellations, like changing channels on a TV.
One setting, endless ratios
A CVT, meanwhile, only has one single setting. By manipulating the size of a driving belt, the transmission changes the ratios of the system. Some of these settings match those of a traditional manual or automatic transmission. But between these, there is an infinite amount of alternative constellations. There is literally no end. You can create your own gears depending on your personal preferences.
In theory, a CVT should be the perfect transmission. In practise, it has quite a few disadvantages, which still keep many from making the transition. We’ll get to those in a minute.
Automated manual transmission
An automated manual transmission sits somewhere between a manual and an automatic transmission. Okay, given the name, you would probably have figured that one out by yourself. So what does this mean in practise?
With an automated manual transmission, your car still has all the benefits of a mechanical. So you can feel the immediate contact between yourself and the transmission. However, you no longer need to use the clutch pedal to shift gears. The car does this for you automatically.
If this sounds very similar to how an automatic transmission works, then that’s because it is. However, an automatic transmission includes many parts which a manual transmission does not. Importantly, it places electronic elements between the driver and the transmission. Therefore, it does not quite provide that special, intimate bond between yourself and your car.
Despite this, automated manual transmissions are today widely considered the best option, if your budget allows for one.
Which transmission is best for you?
It can safely be said that no transmission is perfect for everyone. This explains why all four types are still available today, although some of them are clearly more innovative and progressive than others.
Here’s an overview of the different pros and cons of the different transmission types.
Manual transmissions are your cheapest option. They’re virtually indestructible, require next to no maintenance and offer excellent performance and economics.
They provide what has been described a great ‘driver/vehicle unity’. On the other hand, they can be a nuisance and tiring to operate in city traffic. They also no longer provide the best fuel economy.
Automatic transmissions: Inner city driving
Automatic transmissions have come a long way since their market introduction. Modern versions are convenient, smooth and great for city driving. They are a lot lighter than they used to be and excellent for insecure drivers or beginners.
Safety is another consideration, as a commenter on the RAC website emphasises:
“When you park the car, in an automatic, in my car anyway, you can’t remove the ignition key until you put the gear selector in “Park”, thus locking the car transmission and preventing the car from moving. I also cannot forget to apply the parking brake, the car does it for me and also releases it as soon as I drive off.”
They do feel a bit ‘cold’ and ‘unemotional’ and not all of their gear choices are always ideal.
CVTs: Always a solution
The infinite amount of CVTs make them a natural transmission for the future. No matter what surface you’re driving on, no matter how fast you’re going or how much baggage you have in your trunk – a CVT will find a solution. Most electric cars use one of these transmissions, so it won’t be long before everyone will have one.
On the downside, they still have some quirks that need ironing out. Also, the limited gears of a manual transmission can actually be helpful if you need to switch fast between two gears.
Automated manuals: Half a step towards the future
Automated manual transmissions are a great way to bridge the time between current CVTs and the next generation. They feel great, are extremely convenient, offer fantastic economy and only very rarely need to be repaired.
They are obviously more expensive than a regular manual, so you will have to let your budget decide whether or not you can get one or not.
So, as you can see, the future may be automatic, but the present is still very much diverse. This is also why we offer a wide range of cars with different types of transmission in our Manchester showroom. Just drop by to take a look and find the one that’s for you!