MUMBAI – Maruti Suzuki launches its Celerio EZ Drive global hatchback at India’s recent Auto Expo with a new-to-market technology that uses manual gears but has no clutch.

The car’s automatic manual transmission provides both the comfort of an automatic gearbox and the higher fuel efficiency of a manual at considerably lower cost than a full automatic.

Although it is called clutchless, the clutch is there but the clutch pedal is not. The three control movements for the clutch, gears and transmission are ensured by three specific hydraulic actuators controlled by hydraulic electronic valves. The driver’s intentions are indicated by moving the gearshift into the respective gear.

The AMT system is described as mechatronic. It combines the transmission’s electronic-control and hydraulic-actuation components into a single kit. This improves performance, both in terms of speed and of comfort when changing gears.

Automatic transmission until now has been considered a convenience offered only on super- luxury premium cars sold in India. It enables smooth, refined driving but both its capital cost and maintenance are high, and fuel consumption is increased.

Early in the 1990s, new cars such as the Daewoo Cielo and Opel Astra tried to break into India’s closed market with automatic transmissions. Maruti also offered an automatic on the Esteem AX, but consumers would not accept the higher costs and automakers had to discontinue the models.

AMTs, meanwhile, were in common use in Europe, and the technology now is making inroads into the price-sensitive India market. Automakers are making AMT-equipped cars more affordable by adopting the simplified technology that achieves equal or higher fuel efficiency.

Maruti is the first to come to the local market with an AMT, based on supplier Magneti Marelli’s technology, installed in the Celerio EZ Drive. At dealerships, 70% of inquiries and 50% of the bookings are for EZ Drive. Maruti also plans to deploy it soon in the Wagon R and Alto 800.

The Celerio manual and Celerio AMT both provide the same fuel efficiency 54.3 mpg (4.3 L/100 km). The price difference between the two is just Rs39,000 ($630) compared with the price difference between the Celerio manual and full automaticp of Rs100,000-Rs200,000 ($1,600-$3,200).

Mayank Pareek, Maruti chief operating officer, says, “Like air conditioning in the ’90s and power steering in the 2000s, the automatic transmission will be the defining technology in India in this decade.” 

The automaker estimates sales of AMT-equipped cars might reach 50,000 by the end of this year. Managing Director Kenichi Ayukawa predicts AMT cars eventually will constitute 30% of total sales.

Each automaker has developed its own application of the AMT. Honda Cars India earlier this month launched its new-generation City sedan equipped with a CVT with an infinite number of gears. It is more fuel-efficient than the manual, delivering 42.3 mpg (5.56 L/100 km) compared with the manual’s 41.9 mpg (5.61 L/100 km).

Nissan’s Sunny will launch with an Xtronic CVT.

Volkswagen is focusing on advanced automatic-transmission systems in a bid to improve the ease of driving, which is emerging as the key product differentiator in the cutthroat midrange hatchback and sedan segments. It may offer its 7-speed dual-clutch technology, in which the gearbox contains two wet clutches with two driveshafts, one for odd and reverse gears and the other for even gears.

Tata says its Nano microcar, now repositioned as a city car, soon will adopt AMT technology. At the Auto Expo the automaker showed off its forthcoming Bolt hatchback and Zest compact sedan, both featuring AMT. Tim Leverton, head of R&D, notes “Ease of driving is becoming extremely important, and AMT technology offers the right mix.”

Also at the Auto Expo, Mahindra & Mahindra displayed its Quanto CUV featuring Auto Shift, an automatic system developed in-house with the help of supplier Ricardo. The XUV 500 and Bolero are next in line to receive the technology, likely by January.

Some drivers accustomed to manual transmissions report feeling uncomfortable when shifting gears because they have no clutch pedal to work.