ZF lines up makers for 6-speed business

ZF Friedrichshafen AG is gaining speed with its six-speed automatic transmission.

The transmission, the first such entry in the light-vehicle market, debuted on the 2002 BMW 7 series.

ZF says it has four or five more manufacturers lined up to use the transmission during the next two years. It will appear next on the Audi A8, debuting in mid-2002, said Bernd Habersack, president of ZF's North American operations. An unnamed North American customer has selected the six-speed to use on multiple vehicle lines, likely beginning in the 2004 model year.

"I think that transmission will be hugely successful, especially in the North American market, simply from the standpoint of fuel economy and emissions," said Eric Fedewa, director of global powertrain forecasting for CSM Worldwide Inc. in Northville, Mich.

Compared with ZF's five-speed automatic, the six-speed offers a 10 percent to 15 percent weight reduction, a 5 percent to 7 percent gain in fuel economy, and performance enhancements of up to 5 percent, said Stanley Meyer, director of sales and planning for ZF's joint venture with Ford in Batavia, Ohio. The six-speed also is shorter, enhancing engineering flexibility.

Although ZF wouldn't say whether the North American customer is Ford Motor Co., officials did acknowledge that the German supplier has gained significant inroads with the Dearborn, Mich., automaker. The six-speed is slated for use on larger rear-wheel-drive platforms, first in the luxury segment.

Transmission competitors are likely to emulate ZF with six-speed automatics of their own.

Said Fedewa: "If someone creates a new vehicle segment, others are going to follow."

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com

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