It’s been about two decades since automatic transmissions started trickling into India through the likes of the Daewoo Cielo, Opel Astra and the Maruti Esteem AX. Today, most of the high-end cars are 100 percent automatic, but in the mainstream market, this transmission system hasn’t really gained traction with Indian buyers. In fact, despite a proliferation of automatics by premium brands, the total sales of cars with automatic transmission still accounts for less than five percent. However, that scenario may soon change.
The Auto Expo 2014 played host to the launch of the Maruti Celerio, which comes with an Automated Manual Transmission (AMT). And, more importantly, it’s the cheapest auto car you can buy in India today.
According to market sources, there has been an overwhelming response to the Maruti Celerio. Some dealerships claim that the Celerio EZ Drive or AMT version accounts for 70-80 percent of enquiries in certain dealerships.
Predictably, other mainstream carmakers are now embracing AMT tech. Though passed on in Europe for newer transmission technology, it is set to see a resurgence in India. Tata showcased the Nano Twist Active that, apart from the recently fitted power steering, also features an AMT ’box. This should help the Nano unlock its true potential as a city runabout. Tata also showcased the new Zest saloon AMT that, interestingly, is mated to the diesel engine. Mahindra too showcased an AMT-equipped Quanto ‘auto shift’, indigenously developed with help from Ricardo.
AMT technology was pioneered by Magneti Marelli (MM), the component arm of Italian carmaker Fiat. Unsurprisingly then, Fiat too is mulling the introduction of an AMT-equipped Grande Punto hatchback and Linea saloon. However, this won’t be the first time it uses this tech – it had featured on the old Punto (not the Grande Punto) previously.
So why the sudden renewed interest in a relatively old technology? It’s primarily down to the economics AMTs offer that makes them difficult to resist. They appear to have addressed the two main hurdles that stunt the demand for automatic cars: price and fuel efficiency.
The Celerio EZ Drive, just around Rs 38,000 more than the equivalent manual version, is a breakthrough in terms of price. To prove the point, the cheapest manual Honda Brio costs Rs 3.99 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) while the automatic ’box is available only on the top VX trim and starts at Rs 5.99 lakh. This means the consumer has to essentially fork out an additional Rs 2 lakh just for the automatic box – an uncomfortably high percentage of the car’s price.
By offering the AMT ’box on even the base LXi Celerio, Maruti has made the automatic transmission an affordable option, rather than a luxury feature. The manufacturer has unequivocally addressed fuel consumption concerns by claiming that the AMT Celerio delivers identical fuel efficiency as its manual counterpart – the ARAI fuel economy figures for the Celerio manual and automatic are identical at 23.1kpl!
Since AMTs are essentially mechatronic units that piggyback on the manual transmission’s clutch and gearbox, the price difference between the manuals and AMTs tends to be fairly constant across segments. Hence, as you move up the ladder, AMT-equipped compact saloons and small SUVs should offer exceptional value, since opting for the auto will be just a fraction of the cost of the car. In the near future, we can expect carmakers to offer AMT ’boxes across portfolios, giving consumers an option to choose an automatic like never before. There’s already talk of Mahindra equipping the Bolero with an AMT after the Quanto, while Maruti is already considering AMT versions of the Wagon R and Alto. But the big news is that Nissan, which has bet big on CVT technology, is exploring AMT solutions for its low-cost Datsun brand.
The only real drawback of AMTs is that they lack the smoothness and refinement of regular automatics (torque convertors, CVTs and dual-clutch autos), which is why their use isn’t widespread in sophisticated markets abroad. But in a price-sensitive market like ours, where budget car buyers won’t complain about trading comfort (or the lack of it) in favour of ownership and running costs, AMTs should do well to cajole the masses into ditching manuals.
That brings us to the biggest challenge – the lack of culture or a mindset for automatics. Many drivers find automatics an alien concept and shy away from them because they aren’t confident of switching to two pedals after years of driving a manual. Maruti is conducting extensive test drives of the Celerio EZ Drive to convince customers of the obvious benefits, and we expect other carmakers to be aggressive with their pitch as well.
This may just be the start of the country letting go of the clutch. AMTs are mechatronic units that piggyback on the manual transmission’s clutch and gearbox.