CARS.COM — In the never-ending search for better fuel economy, some automakers are blowing past the ubiquitous six-speed automatic transmission for nine- and 10-speed automatics. The benefit is that they can keep the engine in its most efficient running speed while still allowing for a stepped, “geared” feeling, unlike a continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT has no gears, just a set of pulleys, and hasn’t proven as popular with buyers who have come to expect a shifting sensation. But the nine-speed automatic transmissions that have shown up so far haven’t proven to be very popular, either, though some are better than others.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has had a litany of issues launching its nine-speed, causing several delays and even recalls as it struggles to get the tuning right. Honda has launched a nine-speed in the top trim levels of its Pilot and Acura MDX SUVs, while General Motors has just launched its own Hydra-Matic nine-speed automatic in three models: the new Chevrolet Malibu, on sale now, and the upcoming Cruze diesel sedan and Equinox SUV.
I recently drove the new Malibu at a press event in Detroit and compared how it performs versus the other nine-speeds on the market.
To say that we haven’t been a big fan of nine-speed automatics thus far is a fair statement — the only one that has been deemed acceptable is the new Chrysler Pacifica‘s unit. The FCA nine-speed doesn’t seem to like being paired with a four-cylinder engine, as every example we’ve tried from the Jeep Cherokee to the Chrysler 200 sedan has been unpleasant. Lurchy shifts and slow kick-downs contribute to an anemic quality that makes the four-cylinder-equipped FCA cars and trucks feel slow and underpowered. But put that nine-speed in a V-6-equipped vehicle like the Pacifica and it’s a fine companion; it’s smooth and easy to drive.
We have different complaints about the Honda nine-speed, however. Like the Pilot’s standard six-speed automatic transmission, the optional nine-speed works well, paired with the 3.5-liter V-6 that’s standard in the Pilot, with reviewer Jennifer Geiger saying that it “handled Kentucky’s rolling hills with authority, promptly and smoothly ticking off shifts for strong low-end power. Unlike some other nine-speeds, it didn’t feel too busy or awkwardly hunt for gears.” It’s not quite the same in the more expensive Acura MDX, however, with reviewer Mike Hanley declaring the nine-speed to be less than fantastic and slow to respond to inputs: “While the nine-speed is mostly unobtrusive in city driving (though it did make a few clunking sounds and lurching shifts), it doesn’t kick down to a passing gear quickly enough on the highway.” One issue in both vehicles is with the gear selector design, a push-button affair that’s not as easy or intuitive to use as one might expect.
Our spotty history with nine-speeds is a big reason why the new Chevrolet transmission was such a surprise. In the Malibu equipped with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, it behaved beautifully, shifting with a fine smoothness but without the hunting behavior of other nine-speeds. Kick-down was immediate, smooth and almost intuitive, with the car sensing your desired responses and providing quick acceleration when called upon. It wasn’t easy to confuse the transmission by changing your mind mid-throttle and letting off the accelerator pedal. It’s exceptionally well-tuned and was an excellent companion to the torquey turbo engine. Highway cruising is quiet and serene as well, the advantage of having more gears and a lower rpm for higher speeds.
It will be interesting to see how the GM nine-speed feels when it’s hooked up to a Ford engine and drivetrain, as well — the transmission is a joint-venture effort between GM and Ford, but will have different software and controllers in Ford vehicles. Chevy has done an admirable job with the transmission in the Malibu, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it handles other GM engine combinations as it spreads to other vehicles.