Ford gets the PowerShift dual clutch transmission right, but is it too late?

In 2010, Ford launched output of the PowerShift dual-clutch automatic transmission for the 2011 Ford Fiesta. Photo credit: FORD

Before a recent trip to Las Vegas, I reserved a rental subcompact car online from Avis. Bottom feeders like me never know what car they’ll get until they are handed the keys at the counter.

The keys I got fit neatly into the ignition of a 2015 Ford Fiesta.

It’s been a few years since I’ve driven anything with Ford’s PowerShift dual clutch transmission, which launched in 2010 with more problems than an algebra book, some of which were real, while others were imagined by customers.

Ford made the mistake of calling the PowerShift an automatic, without explaining to consumers that the transmission was really a manual transmission that is shifted automatically. That blunder brought with it a customer expectation that the PowerShift would change gears just as smoothly and behave exactly the same as a regular hydraulic automatic transmission.

So, when the PowerShift didn’t behave that way, Ford’s complaint lines lit up and its quality scores took a big hit. There were a few initial technical problems that Ford engineers quickly addressed with a combination of redesigned parts and software changes.

Which brings me back to the Fiesta rental car.

The Powershift transmission was nothing short of excellent. The shifts -- up and down -- were flawlessly executed every time, regardless of throttle position. Still, the PowerShift didn’t quite feel like a hydraulic automatic transmission. And it never will.

The early problems with the PowerShift, also used in the Focus, may have damaged the long-term viability of dual clutch transmissions in high-volume mainstream cars in the United States.

Americans simply want their transmissions to behave exactly like hydraulic automatics. That’s one reason why the CVT (continuously variable transmission) has also had a tough time gaining traction in the U.S.

But like it or not, there is going to be more than one flavor of automatic transmission in some of America’s favorite cars.

The automatic transmission in the 2016 Honda Civic is a CVT. Nissan has also embraced CVTs and has moved away from hydraulic automatics in everything but pickups, large luxury cars and some larger SUVs.

I recently asked James Verrier, CEO of BorgWarner, the giant supplier of transmission parts, turbos and other powertrain components, if dual clutch transmissions have a future in the United States. He said yes, but not the ones we have now.

There are two types of dual clutch transmissions. One version, as used in the Fiesta and Focus, is a dry clutch type and is used for low-torque applications. The wet clutch type is usually used in diesel-powered vehicles and those with large displacement engines.

The appeal of a dual clutch is that it helps keep an engine running in its sweet spot more of the time, boosting fuel economy by as much as 10 percent. And, as smooth as hydraulic automatics are, they are not energy efficient. A dual clutch transmission sends the power to the wheels with far less energy loss.

Verrier knows what’s in automakers’ future product plans and says this about the dual clutch transmission’s prospects:

“Yes. They have a future in America, but it will be primarily the wet DCT for higher torque applications.” He says the dry dual clutch “will continue to grow in China and it will be very strong in Europe.”

Those higher torque applications, Verrier says, could mean diesel-powered vehicles as well as those with gasoline turbo engines.

The lesson here for automakers: Americans are very picky about the transmissions in their cars and SUVs. If a vehicle’s transmission uses different technology that causes it to behave differently than a hydraulic automatic, automakers need to find a way to educate customers before the sale. If not, quality ratings could take a hit, even if there are no technical issues.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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