Auto News: Mr. Green Car: Shifting automatically

March 21, 2012

The Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE features an automatic transmission with select shift. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I recently made a trip to Florida to do some research for a sailing magazine I write for, Good Old Boat. In renting a car at the airport, I insisted I wanted the small, cheap car I had reserved.

I am accustomed to small cars, and no, I did not want to pay $10 per day more to upgrade to a Volkswagen Jetta.

Well, in typical rental car company fashion, when I got to the lot to pick up my car — lo and behold, I was assigned a VW Jetta anyway. Nice try … employees must be on a profit-sharing plan.

I soon discovered that the Jetta 2.5 SE had an automatic transmission with select shift. This is an increasingly common feature, often on upgrade packages of cars. While I’ve tested cars briefly with this feature in the past, this would be my first opportunity to do a long-term evaluation.

What I found was that in normal “Drive,” the computer-controlled six-speed transmission was responsive to demands for acceleration and did well enough. At lower speeds, the transmission shifts quickly through the gears at low rpm (the Jetta has a nice tachometer), then settles into sixth gear, even at relatively low speeds. This made for a bit of sluggishness in acceleration in city driving. Also, being in top gear at low speed had the effect that the engine would not provide much braking action. To maintain proper following distance in traffic, I had to touch the brakes quite often.

The instrument display on the Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

In Ft. Myers, where I was driving, there are a lot of 45 mph zones that are congested enough that there is a lot of speeding up and slowing down. I found that by moving into select shift, semi-manual mode, I could maintain my distance better by using fourth or fifth gear, keeping around 2,000 to 3,000 rpm. While there may be some loss of fuel efficiency for doing this, it probably is not much, and made driving much easier. I found up-shifts at 3,000 rpm produced good acceleration without getting carried away; in “Drive,” the shifts are much sooner.

Since you are in manual mode, the computer expects you to make the up-shifts. The Jetta has a very comfortable console-mounted knob for shifting. (Some cars have steering wheel-mounted “paddle shifters,” too.) Moving back and forth between “Drive” and select shift was seamless, and could be done at any time. Generally, I liked shifting, and tended to zoom a bit and feel the fahrvergnügen of the free revving, four-cylinder engine.

The Jetta is quite sporty when revved with spirit. In the case of merging onto Interstate 75, which has a 70 mph speed limit, I’d redline the shifts at 6,000 rpm, and acceleration was exciting and excellent. In “Drive,” the computer would shift at 5,000 rpm when full-throttle acceleration was called for.

Out on the highway, with the transmission in sixth gear, it is the same as being in Drive. If some traffic slowdowns occurred, I’d shift down to fifth or fourth, although the engine will pull you along fine in sixth down as low as 1,000 rpm. I noticed that the computer senses speed and will do automatic down-shifts at certain speeds if you have not done so yet, even while in manual mode.

Gear shift on the Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

When you come to a stop, the transmission automatically resets to first gear. While driving in town, I’d usually up-shift between stoplights, coast toward the next one, then let it reset to first automatically at the next stop, rather than bothering with downshifting. And, like a normal manual transmission, you can down-shift for quick acceleration, hill climbing and exuberant cornering.

Unlike a manual transmission with a clutch and moving the shifter into different positions that pretty much lets you know what gear you are in, with a select-shift automatic, you’ll need to keep an eye on the digital display in the instrument pod. The Jetta’s shift indicator was subtly blended into its nice info display between the tachometer and speedometer. There was a slight tendency to forget to shift sometimes as some of the routine that comes with a manual transmission shifting was missing.

Overall, I did enjoy the experience and flexibility to chose which mode I wanted to drive in. I definitely did not miss operating the clutch pedal or accidentally killing the engine when you get a bit clumsy letting out the clutch.

It used to be that you paid a penalty in gas mileage for having an automatic transmission. Some of that was because of the weight of the transmission. Some of it was because of the slippage and inherent loss of the torque converter. But now, lock-up torque converters and the new two-dry clutch automatic transmission have closed the gap — making computer-controlled shifting more fuel efficient than us old-timers who still like to do the shifting ourselves.

While the select-shift technology is hardly new, recent involvement of computers in the driving process have brought us to the point where the manual transmission will be a thing of the past. We are nearly there now. Only a few select car models offer the manual transmission (usually as a base model) or as a sporty option. For driving enthusiasts, there is no shame in opting for the select-shift automatic — you can have the best of both worlds for a reasonable price.

From the March 21-27, 2012, issue

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