This article was first published in the third quarter 2016 edition of Personal Finance magazine.
“That does it,” I growled to my wife. “My next car will be an automatic.” The comment came after yet another stressful hour negotiating Cape Town’s rush-hour traffic. During the 7.2km commute, I probably depressed and released the clutch pedal as many as 150 times as I switched from first gear to second, back to first, then neutral, back to first … and a couple of times achieved the heady satisfaction of engaging third gear.
If I had been driving a car with automatic transmission, the homeward journey would undoubtedly have been easier and less stressful. Aside from saving wear and tear on the clutch, pressure plate, release bearing and related transmission components (not to mention the large bill for a replacement clutch plate lurking in the future), I would probably have been in better shape myself when I got home.
What other reasons are there to choose a car with automatic transmission? When you have learnt to drive in a manual car, there’s something compelling about a vehicle that requires only your right foot to get going, keep going, and stop when required. It goes without saying that learning to drive in an automatic takes a lot of stress out of the equation, although it should be borne in mind that if you take your test in one, your licence will restrict you to automatics. You’ll have to retake your test to drive a manual car.
An automatic enables you to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, which is obviously a good thing. In equally practical vein, an automatic makes it much easier to stop and pull away on an incline, and has the added advantage of eliminating the risk of an embarrassing and potentially dangerous stall.
Any advantages for the manual option? The feeling of total control is one – particularly when you’re negotiating a twisty mountain road and definitely don’t want the gearbox to switch cogs on the apex of a hairpin bend. You are also likely to use less fuel. (The jury is still out on this one, but estimates vary from a modest five percent to a significant 10 percent, or no savings whatsoever.) Much depends on your environment (urban or otherwise, duration of journey, and so on) and, perhaps more importantly, your driving style. If you drive a manual and habitually floor the gas at traffic lights in a bid to humiliate the automatic driver in the next lane (unlikely, it should be said), any advantage in fuel efficiency falls away.
Generally speaking, the more gears you have, the more efficient your car. In the old days, cars with automatic transmission usually had just three gears, against four or five in cars with manual transmission. Today, automatics have up to nine gears, making them vastly more efficient than their predecessors. In days of yore, automatics were not very good at choosing the right gear for the occasion; today, computer algorithms do an excellent job.
Nicol Louw, the technical editor for the motoring publication Car magazine, says increasingly sophisticated technologies have boosted the efficiency of automatic cars to the point where the aforementioned fuel-consumption gap has been narrowed quite significantly. At the same time, these technologies have allowed increasing numbers of small cars to operate quite happily with automatic transmission, in dramatic contrast to the small automatics of yesteryear, many of which were pretty dire. (How bad were they? Imagine an agonising climb up a hill as the transmission switches back and forth between third and fourth gears while the engine alternately screams and whines.)
There are several types of automatic transmission, each with its own characteristics. Probably the most familiar is the traditional design that employs a torque converter. This is a type of fluid coupling that transfers rotating power from the engine to the gearbox, taking the place of the mechanical clutch, and from there to the driving wheels. This allows the driver to switch gears without lifting his or her foot off the accelerator.
As a rule, the car’s onboard computer decides on the optimum time to change gear, but some cars equipped with this type of gearbox also feature a manual mode that allows the driver to make the call by nudging it forwards or backwards. This type of gearbox tends to swop cogs more slowly than the dual-clutch design, making the car slightly less fuel-efficient.
The dual-clutch automatic gearbox produces very quick gear changes by employing two clutches. It relies on a computer to line up and select the required gear, whether you are speeding up or slowing down. This type has its own quirks (for example, it may be less than smooth when you’re manoeuvring at low speed). Interestingly, this kind of transmission may actually be more fuel-efficient than the manual option.
Next up, the automated manual. This is a rare form of automatic transmission (you’ll find it in cars such as the Alfa Romeo Selespeed and the Suzuki Celerio 1.0 auto), and it’s something of a hybrid, with a manual gearbox plus mechanical clutch, but no clutch pedal; instead, it operates electronically. When it’s about to change gears, the gearbox automatically disengages drive, switches to the desired gear, then re-engages drive, all without your intervention.
Finally, there’s the continuously variable transmission (CVT). My first encounter with this increasingly popular option matched that of other first-timers: as I steered the car up a mild incline, I had the distinct impression that the clutch was slipping. It wasn’t, of course; instead, the sophisticated transmission was doing its job of controlling the engine revs for optimum operating efficiency.
In most cases, manufacturers charge a premium for automatic transmission – generally between R10 000 and R20 000, which is probably not that significant when you’re paying upwards of R300 000 for your new car, but it could influence your choice if cash is tight. As an example, the manual version of Audi’s Sportback I.8T SE costs R405 000 and the automatic comes in at R422 000 (a difference of R17 000). BMW’s popular 320d manual sells for R493 500 and the automatic for R512 400 (an R18 500 difference). At the more affordable end of the market, the Ford Fiesta five-door 1.0T Trend manual costs R230 900 and the automatic R241 900, a difference of just R11 000.
You could pick up a little Chevrolet Aveo 1.6LS automatic for R189 200 (the manual version is about R15 000 cheaper at R174 300). Honda’s Brio Hatch 1.2 Comfort automatic sells for R171 300 and the manual version for R158 300.
Joost van der Ploeg, the owner of Gearbox Exchange in Cape Town, specialists in automatic gearbox repairs, says most automatic transmissions don’t require more frequent maintenance than the manual variety and should last for the lifetime of the vehicle – although, inevitably, there are exceptions.
How much would it cost to fix the automatic gearbox on a mid-range car? “The bill will obviously vary a lot from car to car, but as an example, an Audi might cost anything from R25 000 to R35 000 to fix, depending on the electronics. We recently tackled the mechatronics (a combination of mechanical and electronic components) on an Audi TT; it took about an hour and the cost was R30 000. Then there’s the Mercedes-Benz A169, which is really expensive. We do out-of-warranty work only and charge a lot less than the dealerships, which may contract out some or all of the work,” Van der Ploeg says.
Seraaj Amlay, the workshop foreman at the William Simpson dealership in Cape Town, says automatic gearboxes undoubtedly cost more to repair than the manual variety, “but much depends on the vehicle make and model”. He agrees that an automatic transmission should “theoretically” last the lifetime of a vehicle – that is, 200 000km or more – but adds that some motorists abuse its component parts, by, for example, manually selecting an inappropriate gear for the car’s speed, engaging “park” instead of the handbrake to immobilise the car, or worst of all, selecting “park” while the car is still in motion.
Owners of vehicles equipped with CVT can expect a long life of trouble-free motoring, but there’s a teensy caveat: the required change of special transmission oil at the 90 000km mark (this can vary according to make and model) may be covered by your service agreement, but if you have to foot the bill, you shouldn’t expect much change from R3 000 for the oil change.
Mechanical sympathy is key to the longevity of any transmission, says. “I would estimate that more than 90 percent of drivers ‘ride’ the clutch in cars with manual transmission and habitually rest their left foot on the clutch pedal while negotiating traffic, although all of them will deny it.”
* Alan Duggan is a freelance journalist and former editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.