Everything you ever wanted to know about the automatic transmission on European vehicles
Robotized or automatic with torque converter, dual clutch: different solutions that vary according to technology, pricing, pricing and complexity, but, also and especially, performance. Easy handling, docility, precision, smooth drive and pleasure increase hand in hand with system complexity. Let’s see the systems adopted by the most commonly used vehicles in Europe featuring automatic gearbox.
Comfort-Matic, Hi-Matic, 7G-Tronic, DSG, Quickshift: each brand has coined its own name for the systems their vehicles are equipped with. However, there are substantial differences among the various systems today available on the market. Very often, in fact, we tend to divide the gearbox types in two broad categories: manual and automatic. Actually, there are four categories at least: beside the initial two, in fact, we need to consider those including automated /robotized systems as well as the double-clutch-equipped systems equipped. A table summarizing the possible combinations available on the market today should display the items in the following order: manual, robotized, automatic, dual clutch. Leaving the classic manual gearbox aside, we should focus on the three remaining systems, which, although very different from the technical and technological point of view and showing obvious differences related to operation smoothness, fuel consumption, wear and tear, vehicle handling as well as weight, costs and overall size, are designed to offer the driver the utmost comfort, relax and driving pleasure.
FIAT DUCATO: Comfort-Matic
In Europe, FIAT Ducato in unquestionably the most popular basic vehicle: the Ducato chassis recreational vehicle version equips quite naturally any type of vehicle, from compact van to maxi motorhome without forgetting low-profiles and cab covered, with a wide range of prices, sizes and weights, from 30.000 euros to 150,000 Euro, from 5 to 9 meters and from 30 to 54 quintals assured by the AL-KO AMC exta series chassis combined with dual rear axle. Ducato features unsurpassed versatility, resulting from four engines (115 bhp 2.0 Multijet, 130 bhp 2.3 Multijet, 148 bhp 2.3 Multijet TGV, 177 bhp 3.0 Multijet Power), three different conversion chassis (side-railed standard, lowered Camping-Car Special and extra series AL-KO AMC) and, importantly, three different gearboxes. While the “small” Ducato 2.0 Multijet is available only with the classic five-speed manual gearbox + RM, the more powerful versions feature both manual six-speed gearbox + RM and Comfort-Matic, six-speed automated gearbox + RM. A “MTA” – Manual Transmission Automated – automated manual gearbox, then, that uses the same vehicle of the manual version, although aiming at offering more comfort and ease of driving thanks to the absence of the classical manual linkage, replaced by an actuator electronically controlled by a special transmission control unit (TCU – Transmission Control Unit). Comfort-Matic, in particular, provides the driver with the option to use it both in sequential mode, with the desired gear ratio selectable via the classic joystick on the front panel and in fully automated one, thus exploiting some interesting features designed to achieve an optimal use of the engine power and torque. In particular, Comfort-Matic benefits from: Uphill-Downhill Mode, featuring software-managed, special gear shifting modes in order to ensure a more appropriate gear ratio use in relation to the road gradient, Warm-Up Mode, featuring a special operation cycle apt to reduce the pollutants emissions resulting from cold starts, Brake-Assistance Mode, with a reduction of the gear ratios used according to the engine-brake logic system, to help the vehicle deceleration and thus limiting the brakes usage, Kick-Down Mode, with the classic prior down gear shifting following the highest performance request with the accelerator pedal fully depressed (for example, during an overtaking) and Detestino Fast-Off, with gearbox inhibition when the accelerator pedal is quickly released. All these modes, instantaneously managed by the on board electronics, sums up to a special “UP” feature, selectable via a dedicated button on the dashboard, which introduces a special profile for the mountain drive or in heavy operating conditions: the latter aspect is essential for the vast majority of recreational vehicles. As already mentioned, Comfort-Matic is available on all the Ducato chassis recreational vehicle version with 130, 148 and 177 hp engines: in conjunction with the two more limited cubature and power units, the system includes a specific management unit featuring a sophisticated electronics expressly designed to best support the torque curve provided by the propeller. Proposed by Fiat with a surcharge of around 1,600 Euro, Comfort-Matic, at weight level, features only a 17kg burden between the automated and the manual system. If we consider these latter details, it seems clear that the automated gearbox proposed by Fiat can be appealing not only to high-end vehicles where the price and mass increase in running order resulting from the adoption of the system appear totally negligible as compared to the total value of a full-equipped camper, but also and especially to lower classes, by reaching the psychological limit of 50,000 Euro and thus attracting an infinitely wider and heterogeneous customers’ group. The classic wealthy couple who decides to invest a significant amount of money in a large and prestigious dual axis motorhome, of course, but also younger crews, numerous or dynamic who, on their new vehicle, do not intend to renounce to a convenient aid to make a better use of those rapid-transfer stops that, in the journey economy, are less interesting and more stressful.
No wonder that Comfort-Matic joined, as an optional feature, the official catalogs of the manufacturers’ vast majority: sometimes as an independent accessory, sometimes included in special packages, the automated gearbox carved its niche also in the catalogs of particularly value-for-money aggressive brands. An example is the spanish Benimar, a Trigano Group member, which provides the Comfort-Matic system, in conjunction with 148 hp engine, included in the rich Northautokapp pack dedicated to competitive low profile vehicles and Mileo and Aristeo motorhomes, mid-range vehicles whose price is between 50 and 65 thousand euros. The Ducato increasing popularity, however, is not just limited to Europe: the Fiat’s commercial vehicle has been on the Australian market for years, with different embodiments (both locally produced and imported) and, more recently, has begun to conquer also the Americans thanks to its stars-and-stripes version, the Ram ProMaster, fitted with two propellers (the 177 bhp 3.0 Multijet Power diesel, renamed 3.0 Biodiesel I4, with Comfort-Matic automated gearbox and the 280 bhp 3.6 V6 Pentastar with six-speed automatic gearbox and torque converter. The Pro-Master has now established itself in the large Winnebago catalog as a basic vehicle, where it equips the Travato van and the low profiles Viva and Trend, Coachmen (the low-profiles featuring Orion tilting units), and that has arrived also in Canada, with the recent Zion van made by Roadtrek, and the ProMaster Series from Safari Condo.
RENAULT MASTER: Quickshift
If the Fiat Ducato’s transalpine brothers, the Citroen Jumper and Peugeot Boxer, built by the FCA and PSA joint-venture, do not currently provide answers to those who want to rely on automated systems, this is not true for another historic French maison, Renault: the “Lozenge factory”, in fact, proposes the Master with a 6 speed automated gearbox + RM in conjunction with the 148 bhp 2.3DCI engine and with front wheel drive versions and those with rear-wheel drive and twin wheels, but not in association with the most performant propeller, the 166 bhp 2.3DCI with a variable-geometry turbine. In spite of the interesting opportunity to offer concrete answers both to the driving lovers, thanks to the front-wheel drive, and to the several supporters of a more pronounced truck setting based on twin rear axle, the Master struggles to find its own space in the recreational vehicles European market, thus limiting its presence in the Adria and Trailer price-lists relating to cab covered and low profiles, Font-Vendome and Karmann, in the field of the increasingly widespread and appreciated vans. The Australian market is quite another story, with the Master Propulsion selected by Sunliner.
TOP OF THE RANGE PRODUCTS
The niche market, featuring the transformation of the two most modern and prestigious vehicles available today, the Iveco Daily and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, is where the game starts to become increasingly interesting. Although not very popular chassis, usually limited to highly technical vehicles, often with overall masses far heavier than the traditional 35 quintals, they are considered as the most active innovators and bearers of automotive technologies, each in its own field.
MERCEDES SPRINTER: 7G -Tronic Plus
Although not brand new, the Sprinter W906 is one of the most powerful convertible basic vehicle available on the market today: capable of uniting blazon, prestige, power, style and technology, for years it has been the one and only true supporter of the automatic gearbox with torque converter applied to a commercial van. The tradition that associates the Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles with the automatic gearbox, began already in the Eighties with the historical 410D and continued until today, through different Sprinter generations. Rear Wheel Drive with single or twin wheels, 4×4, TO-KO AMC lowered chassis, 4 or 6 cylinders Bluetec engines, powers up to 190 bhp, and most importantly, a name that says it all to anyone who is a little familiar with the products of the three-pointed star maison: 7G-Tronic Plus. Sprinter is available in an infinite number of versions to provide adequate responses to any type of request, of course including those related to the recreational vehicles sector, where the Stuttgart commercial vehicles equips low profiles and Auto-Sleepers, Hymer, Frankia, LeVoyageur motorhomes, the flagship van of the maison and, among the craft manufacturers specialized in “tailored” products, prestigious creations such as Robel-Mobil, Dopfer Individual, Wochner Mobil in Germany or Nordic Husbilen in Sweden. Sprinter was, and still is, a true example of cross-vehicle, chosen for its own characteristics and peculiarities in different continents ranging from Australia (Trakka, Sunliner …) to Canada (SafariCondo Mercedes Series, Roadtrek SS Agile, CS, and RS info Adventurous, AND-Trek, TS info Adventurous), United States (Winnebago Era, Navion, View, Reyo and Track, Coachmen Prism and Gallery…) China (Yutong, Zhongyi, Beifang…) without neglecting, of course, Europe.
Focal points of a so widespread success and appreciation are obviously a range of extremely efficient engines that see in the powerful 3.0 V6 190hp and 440N/m pair one of the most successful propellers available today as well as the possibility of combining the sophisticated automatic gearbox with 7G-Tronic Plus torque converter not only with almost all the available engines (129, 163 or 190 bhp), but also with the four-wheel drive 4×4 featuring both single and twin rear wheels. Offering comfort, quietness, and road car performance, Sprinter 7G-Tronic Plus is available with a number of different gearbox ratios to the rear axle, so as to best match the different use requirements (and their overall masses at full load) and, as already pointed out, with four-wheel drive that can be inserted and optimal DSR – Downhill Speed Regulation system in conjunction with Tempomat for an optimal management of the dynamic behavior even in the presence of steep slopes.
As to the chassis, the adoption of the automatic transmission 7G-Tronic Plus increases its tare of about 50 kg, while additional 150 kg may derive from the adoption of the four-wheel drive with insertable front. As regards the prices, the automatic gearbox is proposed at about 2,500 Euros, while the cost resulting from the four-wheel drive is much more significant, with a surcharge that easily exceeds the 10,000 Euro compared to the standard version.
The strength of Sprinter has always been the combination of reliability, comfort, technology, security and the service capillarity, if needed: qualities that, especially in their dynamic component, are immediately apparent once you drive the vehicle, with an impeccable and precise behavior in any condition aided by an impressive accuracy of the gearbox coupling. This applies to both the six speed manual systems Eco Gear, and fortiori, to the 7G-Tronic Plus. It is enough, in fact, to press the brake pedal, act on joystick moving it from P (Park) to D (Drive) to enjoy a uncompromising smoothness, with the possibility, when necessary, to move the vehicle a few centimeters and with no need to use the accelerator pedal, and, at higher speed, a total absence of vibrations or interruptions in the power and torque delivery for a relaxing and safe drive even on long journeys. The seven speed system, just by virtue of a gears number higher than the average, gets the right intersection between torque curve, speed and driver’s requirement, allowing a reduction in fuel consumption and offering extremely reduced maintenance intervals.
IVECO DAILY: Hi-Matic
An even higher number of gear ratios – up to eight – combined with the truck-type chassis performance, with real C side rails, are some of the Iveco Daily strengths. Historical name in the world of light vehicles, Daily has more than thirty years’ successful career: always at the forefront, it was the first to introduce, over the years, direct injection, intercooler, front and rear disc brakes, common rail injection and to gain a wide group of cross-customers thanks to an extraordinarily wide range of versions including compact vehicles with a total mass even below the 3.5 tonnes and performant chassis constituting a genuine alternative to the heavier (and more expensive) EuroCargo. If, in fact, Daily was the basis that, over the years, has equipped a good number of recreational mid/high class vehicles with a weight limit of 3.5 tonnes which allowed the drive with the ordinary driving license B, in recent years Iveco has increasingly shifted its focus on premium class, going to fit luxury vehicles aimed to expert and demanding users with 170 and 205 bhp 3.0 versione and with 65 and 70 quintals chassis. A customer who is to buy a highly prestigious motorhome and make a definitely important investment, often higher than the 200,000 Euro, has his/her mind set on buying a real luxury suite on wheels, offering maximum comfort and maximum autonomy during stops as well as on the road. As a result, these vehicles need to offer a level of comfort and driving pleasure comparable to that of a modern luxury car: certainly not a super-sport car, because mass, weight and size are significantly different, but the core-concept is to ensure a pleasurable and a comfort worthy of a modern and exclusive bus coach. Thus we have sophisticated self-levelling suspension systems designed to dampen the roughness of the ground, powerful engines that can be combined with a true automatic gearbox with torque converter. The latest Hi-Matic system, the automatic transmission designed and made by Iveco in collaboration with the specialist ZF, may be considered, for the torinese vehicle, as the true fulfillment of a transformation or, better, an evolution: along with strength, performance and power, the Daily today offers total comfort and driving pleasure. A true automatic gearbox with torque converter, with eight speed plus reverse to exploit the 106 and 126 bhp 2.3 Multijet engines and the more powerful and performant 170 and 205 bhp 3.0 Multijet engines, Hi-Matic was designed to combine pleasure and ease of driving, by offering two operation modes (Eco and Power) characterized by an extremely fast and prompt gear shifting (about 200 milliseconds) and by operations programs designed to minimize the consumption (constant use of the highest gear ratio available) and maximize performance. Three are, in fact, the versions available: Hi-Matic Urban, meant to be used in the city traffic is marked by a self-adapting gear-shifting that optimizes the gearbox control by choosing among 20 different programs, Hi-Matic Regional, dedicated to those who look for the maximum versatility and flexibility, and Hi-Matic International, with double over-drive in longer gears and torque converter with torsional damper to ensure maximum efficiency in the consumptions of those who need to travel long distances. A system that wonderfully combines with vehicles dedicated to frequent long-range travels, used by crews accustomed to spend several weeks away from home, who can always count on autonomy and ease of management. In particular, on large and prestigious Germany-manifactured motorhomes, made on especially constructed Daily chassis cowl modified and adapted to receive a full body, the repositioning of the steering wheel, dashboard and controls has sometimes generated differences in the positioning of some commands compared the original version, forcing the driver to adapt to the new situation. A fact that the new Hi-Matic promises to overcome, because, thanks to the sophisticated automatic gearbox electronic management, the interventions on its joystick are definitely reduced: in practice only upon departure and parking, as it happens with the Sprinter 7G-Tronic. The new Daily, launched during 2014, was favorably welcome in the world of high-end recreational vehicles: if, in fact, the construction of vehicles with total mass below/equal to 3.5 tonnes has diminished, the construction of prestigious vehicles with 50, 60, 65 or 70 quintals chassis is constantly increasing. From Niesmann+Bischoff to Concorde, from Carthago in Morelo, from RMB to Phoenix via Detleffs, LeVoyageur, Bimobil, the torinese commercial van represents a unanimous choice in premium European class and begins to consider even the Australian market, where it has been already present for a long time and where it is currently used by several manufacturers, including Sunliner, for what concerns low profile and cabcovered characterized by wide side slide-out. Speaking of prices, the Hi-Matic system is proposed with an overcharge of approximately 4,500 Euros, while for what concerns the weights, these vehicles feature additional 40 kg compared to the traditional six-speed manual gear. Last but not least, the double clutch gearbox represents, even for commercial vehicles, a crucial step toward the future: half way between a manual and an automatic gearbox, it features a structure similar to the manual one but an operation similar to an automatic one. Actually, it is a gearbox including two shafts connected to two clutches, which, in turn, are connected to the drive shaft: the odd gear ratios are placed on the first shaft, while the even are on the other one. The two shafts turn at the same time, but only one, thanks to its own clutch, transfers the rotary motion from the engine to the drive shaft. Thanks to this process, while the vehicle is traveling with a gear ratio on, the system always prepares the next one and, in the case of gear shifting, this is almost instantaneous, without interruptions, shocks or the usual system slippage with torque converter. As to weight, a very popular topic when it comes to recreational vehicles, the double clutch system not only proves to be more lightweight than an automatic, converter-equipped one but also has slightly lower fuel consumption.
VOLKSWAGEN TRANSPORTER: DSG
On commercial vehicles, the dual clutch gearbox was introduced by Volkswagen: the Wolfsburg maison, in fact, has equipped for some years the Transporter (both the fifth and the brand new sixth-generation) with 7 speeds DSG 7 gearbox: an extremely innovative solution that will soon be available also in conjunction with four-wheel drive 4Motion and that, in all likelihood, will also be available for the next generation of the Volkswagen Crafter, which is scheduled for the next year and whose front wheel drive trucks are already in advanced stage of testing on the European roads.