Will this be the decade when more buyers shift towards automatic transmissions in cars? The 1990s was when air-conditioners in cars were no longer considered a luxury and became a necessity. The 2000s saw power steering becoming the norm in cars. As discerning buyers go for comfort, performance and efficiency, car manufacturers believe that this could be the decade when automatic transmissions slowly become the preferred mode of changing gears.

Current numbers

Right now, hardly five per cent of the cars sold in the country – about 2.5 million passenger vehicles will be sold this financial year – feature automatic transmissions. That is because cars with automatic transmission are more expensive than manual transmission cars – anything from Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh costlier than the comparable petrol model (see table) – and mileage drops by 15-20 per cent. It is a perception issue too, say manufacturers.

Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai Motor India had automatic transmissions in their Zen and Santro hatchbacks about a decade ago, but did not do too well mainly because of the price and that their mileage fell substantially when compared with the manual transmission cars.

Automatic transmissions are more widely accepted in luxury cars and SUVs, accounting for more than half the cars sold in this category. Of course, this is a small, but growing category of passenger vehicles. For instance, more than half the Honda Accord luxury sedans and Honda CR-V SUVs bought are automatic transmission, according to Jnaneswar Sen, Senior Vice President (marketing & Sales) Honda Cars India.

But, that may change if early indications are anything to go by. Creating a buzz on automatics is Maruti’s launch of the Celerio small-car with an automated manual transmission, not quite an automatic transmission, but one that has substantially helped reduce the price gap between manual and automatic transmission cars.

The automated manual transmission of the Celerio, developed by Suzuki Motor Corporation of Japan, is based on an electronic control unit which drives a hydraulic actuator to control the clutch engagement and the gear shifting. The most important reason car buyers in the West prefer automatic transmission is the comfort and driving convenience it affords. In Japan, continuously variable transmission (CVT) is quite popular because of its good fuel efficiency. And, people are prepared to pay for that comfort. Buyers in India, especially those who have driven automatic transmission cars abroad and enjoyed the convenience, are leading the change here.

Options available

What makes the Celerio automatic attractive, according to CV Raman, Executive Officer – Engineering, Maruti Suzuki, is the pricing and the fuel efficiency that the vehicle manages to offer. Maruti says the Celerio automatic gives a mileage of 23.1 km a litre, while the automatic variant is only Rs 40,000 more than the comparable manual transmission. “Two of the features which work against automatics have been addressed,” says Raman.

Another reason Maruti has been able to bring down the cost of the AMT in the Celerio is that it is manufactured here, when all manufacturers import automatic transmissions, as the volumes are still low.

However, Rakesh Srivastava, Senior Vice-President – Sales & Marketing, Hyundai Motor India, feels it will be quite some time before there will be a substantial shift towards automatic transmissions. This is because of the price differential between manual transmission cars and automatic transmission ones, and the lower mileage. India is still a price sensitive market and more than two-thirds of car buyers go for hatchbacks.

When Ford India launched its compact sports utility vehicle EcoSport with an automatic option, it had reckoned that about five per cent of buyers would opt for it. However, it had to quickly stop bookings for the automatic transmission variant, as the demand exceeded the company’s estimate by almost an additional five percentage points. Ford India gets the automatic transmission from Mexico and globally there was a huge demand for the automatic variant of the EcoSport.

As vehicle density on roads increases and as people spend more time in cars, automatics become attractive, points out Vinay Piparsania, Executive Director – Marketing, Sales & Service, Ford India. “Commutes become longer and there is the fatigue factor (of constantly having to shift gears),” he adds.

Sen of Honda Cars says automatic cars are costlier not just because they are imported. They are more expensive to make because the technology is costlier. The technology of automatic transmissions has also vastly changed and they are as fuel efficient as manual transmission ones. For instance, Sen says, in the new City sedan, the mileage in the automatic variant is as good or better than the manual transmission one. “Technology has changed vastly, but perception is still to change completely,” adds Sen.

As cities grow and commutes become longer, car makers are banking on what many consider a luxury now becoming an automatic necessity.

(This article was published on March 20, 2014)
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