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The times they are a-shiftin
The times they are a-shiftin
Jean-Michel Normand

PARIS — In today's globalized automotive market, the average driver has two dreams: to purchase an SUV, and to switch from a manual to an automatic transmission. Used by just about everyone in the United States, Japan and China, this transmission mode is gaining ground in Europe and is set to takeoff in India and Brazil too.

"The shift is on and it affects every continent," says Alain Raposo, mechanics director for Renault-Nissan. "We can expect the trend to continue to expand because once you've tried a modern automatic transition, there's no doing back."

Manufacturers agree, and expect that the manual transmission is doomed in the long run. In France, automatics already account for one in every six cars Renault sells — a figure that's similar to the average market share and four times bigger than it was five years ago. Another French brand, Peugeot, is also yielding to the appeal of automatics, which now represent 26% of sales for its new 308 family car model.

A double movement that has seen automatic transmissions both improve and diversify is now threatening to make stick shifts about as relevant as crank handles and starter buttons. What used to be a slow, gas-guzzling and noisy torque converter has now become much more reactive thanks to electronics and the rise in the number of gears (the norm having gone from six to nine).

Of the various options available, dual-clutch transmissions are the most efficient and go well with any type of engine. Semi-automatic transmissions, in constrast, are still a bit sluggish and aren't exempt from fits and starts. There are also continuously variable transmissions (CVT), which have improved significantly and are very popular in Asia.

Better for bad drivers

The variety of products has contributed to the automatic transmission's adaptability. It used to be available only in high-end vehicles. Now, smaller models like Renault's Twingo and Smart's Fortwo and Forfour can fully enjoy the advantages of automatic transmissions too.

But technological advances aren't the only secret to the automatic's market success. Its popularity also has to do with today's consumer demands. Not having to switch gears by hand (and by foot) allows for a more relaxed and comfortable driving experience. Keep in mind too that many urban drivers spend hours every day in stop-and-go traffic.

Of course, comfort has a price. Cars with automatic transmissions cost on average between 1,000 and 2,000 euros ($1,100-$2,200) more, depending on the model. And while the additional cost is less than it used to be, it's still cause for concern among some consumers, especially since automatics are known to consume more fuel. At least in theory.

In pratice, an automatic can end up being cheaper to operate, depending on the driver. "It standardizes gear shifting, so it tends to reduce the consumption gap between drivers," Raposo says. In other words, a bad driver in an automatic will use less fuel than if he had to shift the gears himself.

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