- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

It's time to gear up.

From BMW's new, shift-by-wire, six-speed automatic to Hyundai's first-ever six-speed manual on a U.S.-spec car, transmissions are adding gears and new technology.

Even Cadillac's newest and lowest-priced model, the CTS, has noteworthy transmission features. The sedan's automatic transmission is a five-speed, which is a first for parent company General Motors Corp. All other current Cadillacs have four-speed automatics.

The CTS manual transmission a five-speed is the first in a rear-drive Cadillac since 1952.

Christopher Cedergren, head of auto research firm Nextrend in Westlake Village, Calif., says the new transmissions are largely designed to provide greater performance, more responsiveness and driving satisfaction, and to reflect current trends.

"It's that new generation of consumer out there," he says. "They've lived, and they really want to have more excitement when they're in their car. They're used to having more experiences, and they want that to extend to the driving of their car, too."

Mr. Cedergren and industry officials also note that technology advances during the past 10 or so years have led to the proliferation of new transmissions, including a growing number of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) that operate with an infinite spread of gear ratios.

Certainly, BMW's newest transmissions showcase technology.

The new compactly sized, 2002 7-Series six-speed automatic uses shift-by-wire, meaning the connection between the gear lever and transmission is electric, not mechanical.

In addition, the gear settings were tailored: higher first and second gears chosen to provide strong response when the car is starting up and a low sixth gear designed for relaxed highway cruising.

Combined with new engine advances, the transmission helps improve both fuel economy and performance in this more- than-4,300-pound sedan, BMW says.

The difference can be noticeable for passengers, too, as gear shifting in BMW's biggest car can feel silky smooth.

The new efforts aren't confined to luxury cars. Mazda's 200 MPV minivan, which began arriving in showrooms early this year, has a five-speed automatic to help improve performance. The previous MPV had a four-speed automatic.

Buyers of BMW's M3 can opt for a new sequential manual gearbox called SMG II.

Developed with the help of Formula 1 drivers, this transmission offers quick-reacting, six-speed shifting via paddles on the steering wheel and without the driver needing to depress a clutch pedal.

The technology includes intuitive shifts that allow downshifts to come sooner if the car is in a corner or braking than if the car were being driven steadily in a straight line.

However, it does take some getting used to in the placement of the gear paddles. "Most of the world wants this, but in the United States, most people still want it on the floor," acknowledged Tom Purves, chairman and chief executive officer of BMW of North America.

Even the placement of more normal-looking shifters is changing in some cases.

The new 2003 Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix have manual gear shift levers that are at the bottom part of the dashboard, not mounted on the vehicle floor.

Both models include six-speed manual transmissions for their sportier, up-level versions.

Cadillac boasts that the CTS five-speed manual, which was intended to appeal to drivers in Europe where manual transmissions are more prevalent than in this country, helps boost 0-to-60-mph performance to less than 7 seconds.

Even the placement of the CTS clutch, brake and gas pedals were optimized for drivers who like to use racers' heel-and-toe actions.

Hyundai says it offers both a five- and six-speed manual in the new 2003 Tiburon. The company's news release says the six-speed will appeal to drivers who demand the best and love the "snick-snick sound and feel of a precise six-speed transmission."

Volkswagen is adding its first six-speed manual, too. It became available early this year on the 2002 New Beetle Turbo S.

This newest and sportiest New Beetle has the most powerful engine of any Beetle 180-horsepower, 1.8-liter, turbocharged four. With the six-speed manual, the car can zip from 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, according to VW.

Besides helping a bit on fuel economy, spokesman Tony Fouladpour says the six-speed really improves driver satisfaction because it just offers more driver choices in the gears.

He adds: "It makes a lot of sense for our brand. A six-speed is another indication of us being a 'driver's brand.'"

Come May, the six-speed will be offered in a Jetta GLI model that's targeted at driving enthusiasts.

"Even if we maybe only sell 5 percent of a particular car like the GLI, it's still a great image car for us," Mr. Fouladpour says.

Buyers are starting to see more CVTs that drivers operate as they would an automatic without clutch pedal and manual shifting.

Saturn added a CVT to its lineup this model year when its Vue sport utility arrived. Audi's 2002 A4 now offers a CVT called the Multitronic.

Although widely known for improved fuel economy, a CVT can provide strong performance, too.

For example, Audi says its V-6-powered A4 with Multitronic accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, which equals the time in a V-6-powered A4 with six-speed manual.

An A4 with V-6 and automatic transmission takes 7.7 seconds to go from standstill to 60 mph.

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