Fiat SpA's Alfa Romeo acts on an astute insight into one ergonomic problem that, to now, has vexed the new breed of sequential-shift automatic transmissions: the gear lever offers the driver no perception of which gear is being used.

Many drivers of automatic-transmission vehicles equipped with a "manual" sequential-shift function - often called "Tiptronic" after the system name coined by early adopter Porsche AG - have complaints. They say the lackof aural and tactile feedback from the driveline - combined with a gear lever that remains centrally situated regardless of which gear is being employed - makes it difficult to discern one gear from the next.

This is particularly a problem for sequential-shift automatics hooked to larger-displacement, 6- or 8-cyl. engines that are too refined to give much seat-of-the-pants indication about gear selection. Drivers of sequential-shift automatics thus must drive by the tachometer or peer at a usually too-small digital gear indicator located in the gauge cluster.

Alfa Romeo solves the problem with its all-new "Q-System" 4-speed automatic for the 156: its manual-function "quadrant" effectively replicates that of a manual transmission (see diagram), with the four forward speeds arranged in the standard "H" pattern.

Rather than simply moving - or "tipping" - the gear lever forward or backward sequentially for up- or down-shifts, the Q-System's gears can be selected much like those of a manual transmission, with no need to move sequentially from one gear to the next. And because it's an automatic at heart, the Q-System, like all sequential-shift gearboxes, of course doesn't require a clutch.

Most important, the Q-System's gear lever, by moving through a distinct H-pattern, provides the driver with a quick visual confirmation of which gear is engaged. In effect, the Q-System provides for much more intuitive information about gear selection than a Tiptronic-style gear lever.

In addition, a digital display placed in the tachometer offers a readout of which gear is engaged - the only indicator with most other sequential-shift systems.

The Q-System was designed as the automatic transmission for the Alfa 156 after its launch with only manual transmissions, which means Alfa Romeo was able to engineer the H-pattern for the shifter from the onset; most sequential-shift automatics were designed to make use of an already existing automatic transmission's gear selector and console housings, making it more difficult - and costly - to incorporate a manual-transmission-replicating gearlever and shift "pattern."

For now, Alfa Romeo says the insightful Q-System is available only for 156 models equipped with its 2.5L DOHC V-6.