Auto focus

Ford Fiesta Automatic Review

S. Muralidhar | Updated on: Nov 21, 2011
SBTB16_FORD1

SBTB16_FORD1

SBTB16_FORD3

SBTB16_FORD3

SBTB16_FORD4

SBTB16_FORD4

SBTB16_FORD5

SBTB16_FORD5

SBTB16_FORD6

SBTB16_FORD6

SBTB16_FORD7

SBTB16_FORD7

SBTB16_FORD8

SBTB16_FORD8

SBTB16_FORD9

SBTB16_FORD9

Ford India has stayed out of the automatics game for many years, despite many competing car makers attempting selective offerings with the auto gearbox. Amongst the many reasons for not considering an automatic transmission in any of its cars were – the market wasn't big enough, people were loathe to pay a higher price just to free their left foot, automatics weren't fuel efficient and there was no need to offer the chauffeur the benefit of an easier, more comfortable driving experience. All very valid reasons, after all if a car's automatic variant would cost 15-20 per cent more and offer 15-20 per cent lesser mileage than its manual transmission variant, the reaction of the cost-conscious buyer is likely to be “my left foot”. 

But the market has changed and is changing even faster everyday. Chauffeurs are becoming expensive, the slow-moving traffic and road conditions in our crowded cities is frustrating, and new generation automatics are becoming as efficient or even better than manual transmissions - all of these factors are driving more buyers towards automatics. Of course, new buyers for auto trannies are also emerging from the ‘IRABCD' class – India Returned American Born Confused Desi! 

Ford has sensed the change in buyer preferences and the result is a quick homologation of one of its newest automatic transmissions that has been specially formulated and developed for the new Fiesta (and the Focus in some markets), and is said to be specially relevant for emerging, cost-conscious markets like India. And, for the first time in this segment, buyers will get a dual clutch automatic transmission, an advancement that has seemed to be the privilege of luxury and super sports cars till now.

Ford is planning to launch the new Fiesta Automatic only with the petrol engine version and only in January next year, after showcasing it at the forthcoming 2012 Auto Expo in Delhi. But, motoring journos were given a chance to try out the new transmission variant in Goa last week. Here are my first impressions.

By design

From the outside, the new Ford Fiesta automatic is no different from its manual counterpart. It bears no signage or stickers to distinguish it. And it looks like Ford might just keep it that way, without any sort of appendage that identifies its clutch-pedal-less form. There are going to be new colours, including the Red you see in these pages, but apart from that the car will pretty much be the same. The design still looks new though - same great hatchback design that the sedan still carries off with panache and the same look of unified Ford design that the manual Fiestas are already making us fans of.

What's changed is the powertrain's transmission part, without almost any measurable difference to the output characteristics of the same 1.5-litre Ti-VCT Duratec engine that also powers the manual gearbox variant. However, replacing the 5-speed manual transmission is a new six-speed dual clutch transmission with what Ford calls PowerShift technology.

In developing the new gearbox, Ford engineers have focused on two highlights – fuel efficiency and reliability, refinement has been an inevitable added bonus. Fuel efficiency of previous generation automatics has been a big issue.

They were auto gearboxes which needed to be constantly engaged without better electronic assistance, with the engine tuned to a high rev and with a lot of efficiencies lost during transition. The result was that compared to such automatics, even bad drivers could have got better mileage from their manual gearbox cars.

With maximising fuel efficiency in mind, Ford engineers first chose a dual clutch system – one each for the odd-numbered gears and even-numbered gears. So, at any point in time, one clutch is engaged and the other is in standby. 

All Geared up

The configuration of the new PowerShift automatic gearbox and the mapping and additional software assistance that has been built into the power control unit ensures that the fuel efficiency is optimal. Ford officials claim that it will be better than the manual and up to nine per cent better than traditional four-speed automatics. ARAI certified mileage numbers were still awaited as went to print.

To capture all the efficiencies that would otherwise be lost in traditional automatics, Ford engineers chose a simple pair of internal dry clutches and eliminated the other parts that one would find in a traditional automatic with a torque converter configuration. By eliminating the torque converter, the rest of the package was also not necessary – stuff like the transmission fluid and its casing, the hydraulic pump for building up pressure, the planetary gears and the cooler lines.

In the new Fiesta automatic, the dual internal clutches are made with dry friction material facings and the elimination of the rest of the parts that a regular torque converter would have needed has lead to a weight savings of about 13 kgs. The PowerShift gearbox unit along with low-friction gear lube is sealed for life, which basically means that for the life of the car, the gearbox is maintenance-free.

So, apart from the efficiencies garnered from the weight savings, Ford engineers have also worked on the algorithms for the power control unit to make sure that the gearbox is tuned to perform at its efficient best in city driving conditions.

And, the focus shows when you are on the road with the new Fiesta Automatic. The closely set gear ratios mean the transmission is too eager to shift up to save fuel and though it holds the gear all the way to the red line near 5,800-6,000 rpm when you want to accelerate in a hurry, it is a reluctant down-shifter. Stomp the throttle and the Fiesta's gearbox doesn't get flustered and the electronics do go into a tizzy immediately. The lag in down-shift response is very evident, mostly when you are driving in the low rpm range. When the engine is being held in the mid-range, the shift down to a lower gear to offer quicker acceleration is definitely better. Ease up on the throttle and the PCU immediately directs the gearbox to move up the slots to maximise fuel efficiency.

So, there were a couple of overtake manoeuvres where I felt a quicker response might have helped. Spending more time with the car could have improved my understanding of the mapping and response time of this transmission.

It might have been more helpful if Ford had offered a manual shift option for the gearbox either with a (+/-) stick shift or a steering mounted paddle shifter. That might have enabled a manual override even in Drive mode for owners looking for a more engaging drive. Competing cars with older trannies offer this option. In addition to the D mode, there is also an L mode, which will be more useful in low speed, high torque conditions. Fuel efficiency in this mode will be lower and the engine also tends to stay in high rev mode.

Ford officials say that their research shows that very few owners actually tend to use the paddle shifters often. I would tend to agree and of course, that also does lead to a fall in mileage. Most car owners will also tend to be driving in city conditions most of the time where an efficient auto will be needed more than the ability to select gears manually.

But then, the central premise of an automatic gearbox variant in the Indian context is to cater to owners who drive the car themselves. So, a paddle shifter just might be missed. The PowerShift tech though is a real pleaser. Shift quality is superb, refinement levels are very good and though you hear the transmission go up and down the gear hierarchy, you can barely feel it. There is no lurching and there is only the very minimum fall in engine rpm as the gears shift up smoothly. Loss in engine torque is much lower than in the other automatics in the segment.

There are other features that have also been loaded into the new gearbox. Controlled clutch-slippage to ensure smoother shifts and lower rpm levels in overdrive mode give the gearbox more refinement and better efficiencies. It also gets the creep-forward function to allow the vehicle to move forward slowly even without any pressure being applied on the throttle to aid while parking or in slow-moving traffic.

The new PowerShift gearbox also includes a segment-first hill assist function. Called Ford Grade Assist system, the gearbox selects lower gears while climbing a gradient and then provides downshift control engine braking to help during the descent. Another feature that has been packed in is the Hill Launch Assist, a feature that helps maintain enough brake pressure for up to 2.5-3 seconds from a standstill even with your foot off the brake pedal to enable the driver to then go forward without the risk of the vehicle rolling backwards.

Stuck in a jam midway up the flyover...no problem! The feature also works in reverse when backing up an incline.

Bottomline

An automatic gearbox in the Fiesta is a sensible addition. Ford is likely to pitch to buyers who will appreciate the auto gearbox's refinement and the ability to offer to as much or better mileage as the manual gearbox variant.

But, unfortunately, since this gearbox has been developed only for the 1.5-litre Ti-VCT petrol engine, an auto gearbox for the diesel variants won't be available. And that almost eliminates about three-quarters of the buyers market in this segment.

The new Fiesta automatic could also be priced at a premium of between Rs 70,000 and one lakh rupees to the manual petrol engine variant.

The age of intelligent automatics is upon us, but how much we are willing to pay for it is something the buyers' response will show.

Published on November 16, 2011
COMMENTS
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like

Recommended for you