Not so long ago, dual-clutch transmissions -- with their superior fuel economy and lightning-quick gear shifts -- were widely viewed as the Next Big Thing.
Automakers were counting on those gearboxes to improve fuel economy ratings 6 to 10 percent without compromising performance.
After Volkswagen introduced dual- clutch transmissions in 2003, several mass-market automakers followed suit, only to encounter quality bugs and consumer complaints.
Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. suffered a spate of complaints after introducing dual- clutch transmissions in the Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta and Acura TLX. And Fiat Chrysler -- which once planned to produce 700,000 dual- shift gearboxes a year in the U.S. -- has dropped it from its long-term plans for North America.
Consumer Reports and J.D. Power have both reported a sharp uptick in complaints about faulty transmissions, as automakers seeking better fuel economy rolled out dual-clutch gearboxes, continuously variable transmissions and eight- and nine-speed transmissions.
"In the past, transmissions were things you could count on, but that's no longer true," said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of auto testing. "We are seeing major problems that will leave people stranded on the side of the road."
Dual-clutch transmissions are twin gearboxes linked by a pair of clutches. One gearbox handles the first, third and fifth gears, while the other covers the second, fourth and sixth gears.
With one clutch for odd-numbered gears and the other for even-numbered gears, the transmission can pre-select the next gear the driver is likely to shift into. That allows quicker gear shifts than manual transmissions.
And since the dual-clutch gearbox does not require a torque converter, it's more efficient than an automatic transmission.
Supercar makers McLaren, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche all adopted dual- clutch gearboxes, whose rapid shifts rendered manual transmissions obsolete. And in 2003, the Volkswagen Golf was the first mass-market model to feature a dual clutch transmission.
After Volkswagen rolled out the "direct shift gearbox" for its namesake brand and Audi, the technology appeared ready for the mass market.
In 2007, Chrysler announced plans to build a $530 million plant in Indiana that would produce up to 700,000 Getrag AG transmissions a year.
One year later, Ford announced plans to build a $500 million transmission plant in Irapuato, Mexico, in a joint venture with Getrag. In 2010, the plant began churning out dual-clutch transmissions for the Ford Focus and Fiesta.
But Chrysler and Ford both ran into trouble. In 2008, Chrysler pulled out of its joint venture with Getrag after it rejected the supplier's financing terms for the plant's tooling. That same year, the joint venture filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Currently, just three FCA models -- the Dodge Dart, Fiat 500L and the Alfa Romeo 4C -- feature dual-clutch transmissions made by Fiat in Italy. And the company's powertrain strategy unveiled last May identified dual- clutch gearboxes as a promising technology in Asia -- but not North America.
In the U.S., FCA is betting on eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions, said Jeff Lux, FCA's North American vice president of transmission powertrains.
Conventional transmissions "continue to evolve in efficiency," Lux said, "so there isn't much eagerness [at Fiat Chrysler] to make trade-offs between driveability and better fuel economy."
Performance brands such as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo will continue to use dual-clutch gearboxes, Lux said, but there isn't much appetite for their use in mass-market models.