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Automatic for the People

Lately, automatic transmissions have gotten so good, they sometimes are preferable to tried-and-true clutch-and-stick manuals.

Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

Judges’ Remarks

As a gearhead, I have abhorred the automatic transmission since my father handed me my first set of car keys.

But after this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Engines judging, I’ve changed my tune and have come to embrace, albeit reluctantly, automatic gearboxes.

Yes, our competition is more about engines than transmissions, but the two are so intertwined that either can change a vehicle’s overall character.

The reason for my sudden reversal is that technology-rich automatics run through the gears more quickly and efficiently than can most drivers shifting on their own.

The game changer, of course, is the dual-clutch transmission, which carries a variety of brand names, such as Volkswagen AG’s Direct Shifting Gearbox (DSG) in the Jetta TDI and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s Twin-Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission in the Lancer Evolution MR.

DCTs combine two clutches – one controlling odd gears, the other even – allowing one gear to be engaged while the next gear is pre-selected, dramatically shortening shift times.

Sophisticated computers distribute power evenly, all but eliminating the torque-interrupt generally associated with torque-converter automatics and manual transmissions.

No matter how skilled the driver, it’s difficult to argue today’s advanced automatics have not gained the edge on the traditional manual.

With automatics getting so good, manual gearboxes no longer reign supreme in the “fun-to-drive” category, and they are losing ground in fuel efficiency, too.

Back in the day, most vehicles with a manual transmission got better mileage than their automatic counterparts. But due to the split-second adjustments enabled by today’s automatics, real-world fuel economy is typically better.

There were a handful of vehicles in this year’s competition in which we evaluated both manual and automatic models. With few exceptions, the judges generally preferred the automatics, which is difficult for us to admit.

As recently as five years ago, Ward’s 10 Best Engines judges always requested manual gearboxes, when available, as a way to connect more directly to the engine and wring out the most power. But automatics no longer are perceived as wimpy, clumsy or inefficient. Sometimes they’re just better.

Such was the case with the Cadillac CTS, which sometimes shifted awkwardly with the manual due to a hyper-sensitive clutch pedal, but was fabulous with the automatic.

Even in Europe, where the manual has long been the gearbox of choice, consumers increasingly embrace DCTs and other advanced transmissions.

As transmission technology advances, expect more automatic gearboxes mated to future 10 Best Engines winners.

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Ward’s 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward’s Automotive Group.

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