Automatic for the people

I’m surprised to learn that I’m increasingly fond of automatic gearboxes. Which is good given that my Honda Prelude has one. I’ll concede that driving my manual Citroen XM through some of the less pleasant, and busiest parts of Britain recently has further highlighted the benefits of two-pedal motoring.

Automatic gearbox not the smoothest, but easy on fuel.

Honda automatic gearbox not the smoothest, but easy on fuel.

It’s not like I’ve ever been anti-auto in the past, it’s just that I firmly believed that an auto should be mated to a nice, enormous engine. Something like the Rover P6B V8, Mercedes-Benz W124 300E and Alfa Romeo 164 Lusso that have joined my fleet in the past. I’ve always thought that four-cylinder engines have no business being mated to an auto, but I think I was wrong. It depends entirely on the engine and gearbox.

And it must be said, there are some shockingly awful gearboxes out there. Automated manuals tend to be pretty dreadful, and the original Smart still stands out as one of the worse. I would definitely have bought one of them if only they had been built with a proper gearbox. Automated manuals are too often unable to be as good as either a full manual or auto.

Mind you, some full autos are pretty bad. I never got on with the one fitted to an E39 BMW I drove some years ago – far, far too eager to kickdown. All of the sodding time. Whereas the one fitted to a Saab 9-5 I had the mispleasure of covering great distance in was just utterly stupid. It had an uncanny knack of being in the wrong gear, at the wrong time. It would then suddenly panic and kickdown. Twice. By which time all the turbo boost had gone and you were left sitting on a roundabout, moving forward with all the haste of a committee meeting. You know, the ones where everyone falls out. That’s exactly what it feels like. Hopeless.

Bentley knob

Bentley do a rather good automatic transmission, even with this gaudy knob.

But a good auto, that’s worth holding on to. The Honda seems to be one of those, and I recently discovered that the Toyota Supra MkIV’s automatic gearbox is ASTONISHINGLY good. Mercedes-Benz used to be pretty good at them too. Both my W123 300D (very slow) and W124 300E (very quick) had delightfully smooth transmissions. M-B knew what they were doing. It’s why Porsche pinched the slushbox for their 928. In fact, both the 928s I’ve driven had the two-pedal option, and it didn’t stop me loving them. Then there are Jaguar’s with the J-gate transmission – a lovely bit of design that makes it easy to slip into a more manual mode of gear selection. I would have a Jaguar X300 like a shot if I could live with the horrendous thirst.

I enjoyed the three-speed unit in my Citroen CX too. Like the Rover P6, it just aimed to get into third as soon as possible, and wafted along on a sea of torque. Most un-BMW-like. Fantastic.

Sure, you do lose some of the sharpness of controlling gears yourself, but having done a fair bit of two-pedal hooning of late, I’ve really got to like it. It must be said, I’m getting good economy in the Prelude too. The last tank (the second of my ownership) delivered 30mpg, and that includes a couple of hours of driving in a very brisk manner. So, 34mpg when I drive carefully (at motorway-ish speeds) and 30mpg if I’m pushing on a bit? I bet my wife could get 40mpg out of it.

The only thing I don’t really like is the creep. It has its uses, but I don’t like the feeling of having to fight that power with the brakes. It seems pretty wasteful. Which is why overall, I probably still prefer electric when it comes to two-pedal driving. After all, as a Tesla rep told me, “it’s like the best automatic gearbox in the world.” She was right. You can’t beat the smoothness of electric power, and you don’t have to ‘fight’ the creep even if your EV has that functionality.

I s’pose this is a roundabout way of saying that I am starting to think about the XM’s replacement. I’m in no rush, as it still rates as one of the best cars I’ve ever owned by some distance, but the four pedals, heavy clutch and clunky gearchange are certainly not aspects I could ever miss and, a bit like with the CX, I think I’d actually be happy to have owned just one XM and leave it at that.

So, any recommendations for good autos? Must have good suspension! That’s why the Prelude will not be replacing the XM any time soon.

4 thoughts on “Automatic for the people

  1. Almost half of the 18 cars I´ve owned in the last 10 years had auto-boxes and almost every auto-box was absolutely horrible. 😉

    The worst were the 2007 Mazda 6 2.0i (absolutely no torque at all, nervous gearchange the whole time), the 2010 Honda CR-V 2.0i (no power from the engine, very tired auto-box that runs at low revs only) and the worst was the 1989 Mitsubishi Pajero 2.5 TD (very nervous, horrible gearchanges).

    The best auto-box I ever owned was in the 2000 Volvo S80 2.4i. Funnily it was the worst car I ever had but had the best auto-box. 😉

  2. Given your preference for the older automobile,isn’t a significant disadvantage that autoboxes have a shorter working life than the simple box of cogs?

  3. The Prelude probably has an Aisin-Warner gearbox, which are built with the right targets: Low RPM level in general, the right spread between gears and-most important:no life-long lubrication filling and an accessable filter to change the oil.Everything else kills an auto gearbox.Thats all you have to watch for.My best experience was the MB W124 320 with 5 gears.A Lexus LS400 must be at the very top even with 4 gears only, but its a little thirsty…what a car though:1 million miles is no issue.Btw: You can lower the drag of “the creep” with this:

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