Observations on Automatic Gearboxes

Well, I’m now staying down near San Jose again. I’ve rented a car again (this time out of my own pocket) and despite going for the cheapest option, Hertz have given me a Mazda (prounced in American English with a long a, according to the TV) with a semi-automatic option on the shifter (I think technically it’s actually Tiptronic, which is subtly different).

The first car - a Toyota which I gave back a week ago - had just standard automatic transmission, and was straightforward once I got the hang of it (never having driven an automatic before). This car is easy too, despite the even sloppier handling. The semi-automatic option is interesting though. I’ve tried flipping it across from ‘Drive’ (handle the gears for me please) to ‘Manual’ (pull stick toward you to change up, and push stick away from you to change down). And it sure does work. It’s even clever enough not to let you do stupid stuff (like downshifting when that would blow the engine, or upshifting when that would stall the car).

But I soon gave up. Partly because the gear ratios are apparently quite different in an automatic - leave it to its own devices and it will happily drive in 4th gear (out of 5) at 25mph. But partly because I also began to see the appeal of the automatic shifting. Sure, you lose some fuel economy. More seriously, you lose some control (although as I discovered, once you know the speeds at which it shifts, you can encourage it to do so using the throttle). But it is technological progress - like address books on mobile phones or automatic metering on cameras, it hides an interface that should never have been exposed, and only ever was because the technology was imperfect. Maybe it’s time we in Europe took another look at automatics.


Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I've been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks
What I want to know is when will we get autos with the same fuel economy as manuals.They must make someone a better driver not having to be concerned about gear changes!!!
I have the same opinion on auomatics, whats the point? Driving a car is about a total experience, and changing the gears is a big part of this. Automatics are for the people who just use a car out of necesity. Long live the manual.
Yeah I hate automatics too, I mean it's like you aren't even doing anything. In the same way I hate remote controls for TVs and I knit my own clothes. I mean who wants the easy life eh? I'd rather be shifting from gear 1 to gear 2 400 times a minute in traffic than just simply relaxing. Come to think of it I do also compile my own device drivers.....
Please, don't take another look at automatics. I hate them. Not only do I feel like I'm losing some control over the vehicle, I also have the strange feeling I'm not driving a car, but playing a racegame. With an automatic shift, a lot of the fun of driving is gone. Especially when an automatic car is also fitted with cruise control, then there's no fun at all anymore. You, as the driver, are only left with the steering, and I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before we're driving cars with automatic steering. I try to avoid automatic cars best as I can, because I love manual shifting. Finding the balance between clutch and the throttle, the fact that you can change gears befóre you floor the throttle when you want to overtake somebody, and the fact that you're in full control and can do with the gears what you want (even if that means you'll blow the engine)...I love a manual ;)
Yes, in semi-automatics the downshifting is not the same. Doesn't help much on a slippery road if you don't have ABS.
i had a <a href="http://www.partstrain.com/ShopbyBrand/Superwinch" rel="nofollow">superwinch</a> gear box and it annoys me that good auto gearbox exist only on those luxury cars. They're excellent for everything other than 'spirited' driving.
Interesting. The second car I rented certainly had a 5-speed box (the manual shifting and LED display on the dashboard were a bit of a giveaway :) But, yes, it's my understanding that most automatics are 4-speed: not just American ones. Although that might be a 'problem' if you're worried about fuel consumption, I don't necessarily think that's the biggest one. All the gas-guzzling trucks on the road are probably more significant (again, assuming you're worried about it: that's another discussion!).
I read in the paper several months ago about the difficulty in moving car manufacturers to 5 speed gearboxes for automatics. America is apparently worse than the rest of the world, using a 4 speed gearbox for most automatics (and therefore most cars). 5 speed is far more fuel efficient, and 6 speed would be even better (most motorbikes are 6 speed)
Having said all that, I used the semi-automatic extensively when driving back along highway 17 from Santa Cruz last night (a very fun drive - a twisting freeway through the mountains). The engine braking really helped keep everything smooth.
Had a Steptronic gearbox in my 5-Series bimmer for 3 years and it was just re-defining my impression of automatic-gearboxes. It just worked so perfectly that I almost used it all the time instead of the "auto"-mode. The actual car was ordered with a manual gearbox as I think in an 1-Series bimmer this fits the cars characteristics better than an auto-gearbox. Newer automatic gearboxes actuel save fuel and improve fuel economics as for example the 7-shift auto-gearboxes in newer Mercedes-Benz'. //Stephan