Auto Expo 2014: Are AMTs a natural progression towards Automatics?

There's finally an affordable alternative to the manual gearbox in the AMT. Will India finally accept automatics as a mainstream option? Read on.



Maruti Celerio EZ Drive




We’ve seen three cars from three different manufacturers at the 2014 Indian Auto Expo reveal a ‘revolutionary’ new gearbox technology called the Automated Manual Transmission (AMT) – Maruti with the EZ Drive Celerio, Tata with the F-tronic Zest and Mahindra with the auto shift Quanto. What exactly are these new gearboxes and why are they such a big deal in the Indian automotive context?


The AMT is a semi-automatic gearbox that has existed for ages around the world. The gearbox was conceptualized from the need to provide an easier driving experience in stop-go traffic conditions and the technology eventually progressed to proper automatics that are already on sale today. The AMT doesn’t require a manual clutch so in a sense, the physical absence of the clutch pedal makes it an automatic for the driver. The clutch is engaged and disengaged with the help of hydraulic actuators. These actuators respond to rpm and throttle inputs to keep the car in the right gear. In addition, the gearbox has an extra gate for manual mode. Once slotted in this mode, the driver can shift gears by moving the gear lever either up or down. 



Maruti Celerio Front




But why have Maruti, Tata Motors and Mahindra decided to take the plunge now into this gearbox technology? The short answer is - the need for an automatic and the cost of making one. Let me explain… 


Automatics are expensive compared to their manual counterpart. The price difference could be anything between Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh, and in our price-conscious market, it’s too steep a price to pay. Automatics are also not as frugal as manuals so you are not only paying extra for the gearbox, you are also spending more time at the pumps. This is a crucial reason for the fairly limited success of automatics in our country. Tata Motors says that the AMT gearbox will return at least 5 percent better efficiency that the manual gearbox equipped Zest and Maruti claims that the Celerio AMT is as economical as the manual. The Celerio is the only car among the three that has already been launched with a price increase of Rs 40,000 over the manual model. Expect the Zest and Quanto with equivalent AMTs to be priced similarly.




Tata Zest Front




In incessantly clogged traffic conditions in most cities around India, the manual gearbox is finally facing a potent successor. People in cities do not want the added effort of shifting gears. By paying a mere Rs 40,000 over a manual with the assurance of the same efficiency, the AMT becomes a hassle-free, and more importantly, affordable alternative.  Sure the Celerio’s AMT gearbox we tested feels lethargic and not too refined but it still is an easier car to drive in the city. 


Price sensitivity in India has forced us to not accept automatics as a mainstream option. But it’s all a relative comparison that has edged out automatics to the fringes of the car buying decision. Now consider this – What happens if the AMT in the Celerio is a runaway success? Tata and Mahindra are already in the hunt and every other manufacturer will follow suit. The AMT isn’t actually revolutionary technology so it will not take too much time for other manufacturers to introduce a version of their own. Soon enough the pricing benchmark will go up a notch and the automatic gearbox will only be Rs 30,000 costlier than an AMT. We only need one successful AMT equipped car to shift the buying trend towards automatics. Better automatics will follow and CVTs and DCTs will make their way to mainstream cars eventually. It’s all about the baby steps to embracing better technology and I think the AMT is a damn good first step.


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