When was the last time you thought of your favourite driving road and imagined yourself in an automatic car? If you’re a driving enthusiast like me, I’m guessing never. I’d rather work my feet and hands to set up the car for the next corner and revel in perfectly matching the revs on a downshift, than let the car do the driving for me. But sadly, we don’t get to drive those roads everyday, and the commute to and from work is never a smooth affair. I love driving, but as much as I hate to admit it, I hate driving on my commute. The people who cut you off are bad enough, but the stop-and-go traffic can inflict an ungodly amount of pain on your clutch foot. These days, the commute gets so bad that I just want to leave the car somewhere and find other ways of getting home. This even kills my weekend plans, because just the thought of driving more is tiring.
I do see one way out though — automatic transmissions. Now stay with me here, I’m not a full convert just yet, but I do admit that there are some perks to the more boring way of driving. So, in order to test out the viability of an automatic transmission car, we brought together three relatively new entrants into the market and put them through a battery of tests. The main criteria these will be judged upon are how they work in city traffic, out on the open roads and engine performance.
The place where you’ll notice the most difference is on crowded city streets, where you need to do a good amount of clutch work to keep going smoothly. To get a good feel for this, we took the cars into a city which is getting increasingly worse for traffic — Mumbai at rush hour! In this venue, the Ford’s DSG transmission is as smooth as the other torque-converter ‘boxes, but the shift points are a bit more performance oriented, so you’ll see a lot more revs before the transmission shifts to a higher gear. This is great to fill the gaps in traffic, but for your pocket, that means a bigger fuel bill. The Fiesta offers a hill descent mode as well as a low ratio mode on the transmission. The low ratio mode sees the transmission use as low a gear as possible for your current engine speed, which is useful when climbing steep inclines or flyovers, and you can use this in conjunction with the hill descent control (which provides a good amount of engine braking) while coming down.
The Skoda Rapid has a bit of a laziness problem, because the transmission takes its own time with downshifts. Upshifts happen at a lower rpm than the Fiesta though, but before the transmission can figure out the right gear for the moment, that car creeping next to you has already occupied the spot in front of you. There is both a sport mode and a manumatic mode (where you change gears with the flick of a switch) here. Sport mode means it waits a while longer before shifting, but downshifts are equally slow. Flick the shifter to the left from ‘D’ and you have full control of the transmission, which is nice, but defeats the purpose a little.
The Honda City provides you with all these options too, but you won’t be tempted to use them as often as in the others. It only comes with a 5-speed unit, unlike the 6-speed units in the others, but less gears mean that the transmission won’t have to decide between too many gears, which makes the whole drive a bit smoother. Downshifts are quick, and if you foresee a need for more power, there are paddle shifters right behind the steering wheel, so you can flick the left paddle and be on your way. The effortless steering and controls let you sit back and enjoy your music while you’re stuck in traffic.
So they can provide some relief in the city, but what about out on the highway, where having a row-it-yourself box is more enjoyable? When you can quickly blip down a gear or two to overtake the slow-moving vehicle in front of you? For that, nothing will come close to a real manual that you have full control over, but of these, the Fiesta comes closest. Its quick shifting transmission is very eager to drop a cog or two to send you on your way. At speed though, the Fiesta makes a bit of a drone, which can find its way into the cabin.
The Rapid downshifts, then upshifts, then drops one more gear, by which time you’d have lost the opportunity to pass. The six ratios on offer are well spaced, but the algorithm that controls the shifts definitely needs some more work to make it smooth.
The City does just fine with the five gears in the city, but out on the highway, cruising rpm is a little higher than the other two, not that the 1.5-litre engine shows any signs of stress though. However, looking at the tacho needle hover close to the 3,000 rpm mark is a little unnerving. Mileage doesn’t suffer much, thankfully.
Coming to the performance numbers, the City, being the most powerful of the lot, sprints to 100 kmph quicker than the other two at 11.9 seconds, while in-gear acceleration is good too. The sprint from 0-100 kmph involves one less shift from the City’s transmission, so you’re left with a quicker time too. From a standing start, with the Rapid in sport mode, the transmission works as it should, since you’re on wide open throttle; there is no room for it to second-guess the ratio you need to be in. It hits the ton in 13.28 seconds.
The Fiesta comes in second only to the City. The 1.5-litre engine may not be as much of a hooligan as the older 1.6-litre engine, but it’s a great performer nevertheless, sprinting to 100 kph in 11.9 seconds. The DSG gearbox doesn’t let you launch the car off the line, but the quick shifts make up for it.
At first glance, the Fiesta seems to be the most loaded one of them all, with a fully integrated, large screen infotainment system. The centerpiece of this is the voice control system that lets you control functions ranging from the climate control to the Bluetooth functions of the phone.
The steering-mounted controls let you manage the stereo as well as the cruise control system. The City also comes with cruise control and a USB enabled audio system. The Rapid and Fiesta come with climate control systems, while the City has to make do with a manual one. It doesn’t matter in the big picture, but if you want to do spec racing, it’s worth noting that the Rapid doesn’t come with cruise control. These are little things, but they do make a difference on your commute. Otherwise, feature-for-feature, they are about evenly matched, but the Rapid lacks steering-mounted controls and substitutes a USB port for a less common but still widely available SD card slot. Front seat comfort is good on all, but could be a lot better if they had adjustable lumbar support. Rear seat comfort, too, is good, but getting into and out of the Rapid is a bit of a problem, as the seat bottom is quite low. The Fiesta has comfortable quarters, sure, but the high waist-line means the rear seat passengers are definitely going to feel a little cramped. This is where the City comes out ahead of the others; it has a light, airy, beige interior which is easy to get into and to spend time in, as well.
So, which one, then?
3 . Skoda Rapid — Of these three, coming last isn’t really an insult, but the Rapid’s transmission makes a stressful commute even more so. You can’t floor the throttle for fear that in the lag period, some other car may occupy the space you’re gunning for and on the highway, kickdowns take a bit of time, so really, stick with the manual version if you want the Rapid.
2. Ford Fiesta — No, it doesn’t win, but I definitely love it. It’s the one that comes closest to emulating the manual experience, but then again, this is an automatic shootout.
1. Drumroll please! Honda City — it does what an automatic is supposed to do — take the stress out of driving. You can slot the transmission in ‘Drive’ and just forget about it in traffic.
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Hyundai is a manufacturer that gave us the option of not shifting your gears manually for a long time now, and this started with the bread and butter models in their range all the way to the flagship cars. Barring the new Eon, all the other models have automatic options and with the Verna, they are also the manufacturer to offer one of the most affordable diesel automatic sedans in the country. We couldn't get one to compare to the others, but it’s worth noting that the Verna is also in the contention here.
Both the petrol and diesel engines are mated to a 4-speed transmission. The others in the segment come with either a 5 or 6-speed units, but in this case, more is not always better. With fewer ratios to choose from, the transmission is quicker to shift and is less confused too. The torquey engines pick up the transmission's slack, so you're okay on that front. The Verna may not handle as well as the others here, but for a plush, comfortable city ride, it's a great companion.
For comparison, the prices for the petrol Verna start at Rs 10.2 Lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai while the diesel Verna goes for Rs 11.53 Lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai.