Ford is addressing reported problems with its PowerShift dual-clutch transmission by implementing a communications strategy to better explain the technology to consumers.

The auto maker last week sent dealers a memo with instructions to help sales and service personnel enlighten consumers about the behavioral nuances of the fuel-saving 6-speed automatic gearbox, Ward’s learns.

The move comes after the Blue Oval brand’s Fiesta and Focus drew fire from influential third-party groups such as J.D. Power & Associates. The small cars are equipped with PowerShift DCTs, which some buyers slammed as balky.

Dual-clutch transmissions, essentially two manual transmissions working in parallel, each with its own independent clutch unit, sound and feel “different,” says Sherryl Brightwell, Fiesta brand manager.

Although the Ford gearboxes perform as intended, customers relate the frequency and abruptness of gearshifts to their experiences with conventional automatic transmissions. Hence, a perceived problem, the auto maker says.

“What we really want to convey is their experience is something different,” Brightwell tells Ward’s, claiming there is nothing “wrong” with the car.

But it became an issue last month with the release of J.D. Power’s annual initial quality study. The results saw Ford plummet to 23rd place from 2010’s fifth-spot finish, partly because of reported PowerShift glitches.

“Overall, the industry saw an increase in the incidence of engine and transmission problems, concentrated in the area of engine/transmission hesitation,” Dave Sargent, J.D. Power’s vice president-global automotive, tells Ward’s.

“This is symptomatic of auto makers’ efforts to significantly improve fuel economy (in compact vehicles) through a shift towards 4-cyl. engines and mapping of powertrain electronics,” he adds. “Fuel savings can be achieved, but the offset is that some consumers will report a drop in performance, whether real or perceived.”

Brightwell admits Ford was caught off-guard by the grievances. The auto maker’s initial communications strategy stressed PowerShift’s benefits, such as its capacity to reduce a Fiesta’s fuel consumption by up to 9%.

“We didn’t take time to describe why PowerShift is a different technology and exciting and unique,” Brightwell adds.

Ford dealership personnel now will be armed with plain-language explanations of the differences between the PowerShift DCT and conventional automatic transmissions.

But benefits still are part of the message. Among them: the PowerShift transmission is maintenance-free for 150,000 miles (241,402 km).

Its “fun-to-drive” characteristics also will be described, Brightwell says. “Most enthusiasts want a manual and this has the same driving characteristics, only without a clutch (pedal).”

Ford is not the only auto maker to offer DCTs. Volkswagen has had a version of the technology, dubbed the Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), since 2003.

Like Ford, VW experienced some complaints related to the technology, says John R. Chauvin, general manager of Hewlett Volkswagen in Georgetown, TX.

“It’s just a matter of describing how it's engineered,” Chauvin tells Ward’s. “VW customers are usually somewhat familiar with German engineering and may have a different mindset going in, and I would think Ford customers are just not used to it at this point.”

Although Ford currently offers the PowerShift only in the Fiesta and Focus, the technology is expected to migrate to other vehicles.

The transmission was designed and developed by Getrag Ford Transmissions, a joint venture that produces both manual and automated manual gearboxes.

The auto maker offers a similar transmission in Europe, but spokesman Richard Truett says Ford has received no complaints from its European customers.

bpope@wardsauto.com