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Cars with automatic gears are safer

Unnoticed by most people, a quiet revolution has been taking place among India's cars. Today, practically every car maker offers automatic transmission in the the top-end versions of its cars.

Apart from most models of imported cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), from Audi to Volvo, even smaller cars, such as the Tata Nano, Maruti Celerio and Hyundai i10, offer an automatic variant. Believe it or not, as many as 40 models of locally made or assembled cars offer automatic gears. The Delhi showroom price of a Tata Nano GenX with automatic transmission is only Rs 2,72,000. Besides, automatics of Maruti's Alto K10 and Celerio are available at affordable prices.

According to Maruti, the sale of automatic gearboxes for its cheaper models is about 30 per cent, but the car maker reports that the demand is growing fast. Since these automatics are offered only for the top-end models, they are more expensive than the base models with manual gears. However, it is only a matter of time before things change.

Most people think that not only are automatic transmissions expensive but they are also heavy on fuel and unreliable. But they forget that technologies are closing the gaps very quickly. Till recently, a typical car with automatic gears would consume about 15 per cent more fuel than its manual counterpart, but that is no longer the case. Not too long ago, BMW demonstrated the performance of two of its cars with manual and automatic gearboxes and showed that the little microchips in the automatics were able to shift gears better than top professional drivers. The early automatics had fluid drives that allowed great slippage and only had three gears. Modern automatics, on the other hand, have six or more gears; some are continuously variable with no gears at all.

Maruti Celerio It is amazing how quickly the luxuries of today become the necessities of tomorrow. Forty years ago, an air-conditioner was considered to be an expensive luxury, but today it is almost impossible to sell a car without an AC. Twenty-five years ago, people considered power steering to be a luxury. Today, it is thought to be not only a great aid for drivers, but also a boon for vehicle safety. Similarly, automatic gears became more affordable owing to growing popularity and technological advances.

The United States, Japan and East Asia were quick to adopt automatics, while Europe and the United Kingdom resisted it for years. That, however, is history: most cars and commercial vehicles boast automatic transmissions.

In the increasingly heavy traffic in most cities of the world, an automatic transmission makes driving easier. The driver only has to look at the road ahead and push the accelerator and brakes without having to change gears or press the clutch pedal every few minutes.

It was Honda that first introduced the "continuously variable transmission", which comprises a hi-tech steel link belt between a set of tapered rollers, linking the engine speeds to the load on the wheels for jerk-free driving. It is also cheaper than a conventional automatic. India's relatively less expensive cars, such as the Tata Nano, Alto K10 and Hyundai i10, have opted for another technology called the "automated manual transmission", which is an ingenious box that sits on top of a conventional manual gearbox that shifts the gears according to the commands of a set of sensors and microchips. It may not be as smooth as a regular automatic, but it is much better than manual driving, besides being a lot cheaper.

Many drivers, somehow, think that there is something sissy about driving a car with automatic gears and believe that a good driver will only drive a car with manual gears. Good gear shifting is certainly the mark of a good driver, but it is no longer the best way to drive.

When I first drove a big American Cadillac with automatic gears about 40 years ago, I got into a tangle - I kept pressing the brake pedal because I was used to pressing a clutch to gear down before braking. This made the drive very jerky in the beginning, but it took only a few minutes to get the hang of it and then it was great fun.

Technology drives more technology. All the top-end cars and SUVs have many refinements so that the sensors can prevent a car from rolling back while climbing a hilly road or freewheeling too fast down a slope. Many transmission systems are also interconnected with brakes, suspensions and steering for safe and comfortable driving. Some buyers of luxury cars opt for manual options if they are available because they wonder why they should pay extra when they are being chauffeured in the back seat, while the driver gets the benefit of easy driving. They, however, forget that easier driving is also safer driving and that there are fewer jerks in a car with automatic gears.

Times are a changing and car buyers have to go with the flow. It will not be long before it will be considered non-chic to be in any car without automatic gears.

"Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait," as Audrey Hepburn crooned in My Fair Lady.