Fortunately motorcycles have largely managed to avoid the affliction of automatic transmissions, so we’ll move up to the heavier metal for today’s discussion. Couple weeks back I saw a PR (Press Release) from Volvo Trucks promoting their “XE13” powertrain package. This “latest high tech wonder” starts with something I rather like- a midsize diesel truck engine tuned for low and mid speed torque. Peak power is 425 horses if I remember correctly, and this motor produces that down to 1300 RPM with peak torque and still over 300 horses at 1050 RPM. Two decades ago Mack produced a similar motor, the low RPM Maxidyne with 300 peak horses at 1600 RPM, peak torque at 1020 RPM, and governed maximum RPM at 1800. I drove many of these in UPS Mack semi-tractors, and it was a sweet combination- 65 MPH cruise at 1600 RPM, the point of peak economy and power, and you could lug it down to 40 MPH (1000 RPM) before downshifting. Coupled with the simple Maxitorque 5 speed manual transmission, it typically was good for at least a million miles before needing rebuild.

Now Volvo’s XE13 economy package goes downhill aft of the engine, for the only transmission option is Volvo’s own automated manual. Now I love a real automatic like the Allisons- damn near unbreakable with similar mileage to the manuals now that they’ve gone to electronic controls. And for city driving and on/off road use, the Allisons rapildly pay for themselves in reduced driveline wear & tear.

Now the big trucking companies have by now deduced that the great, soon to be unwashed (truck stops never have enough showers) masses they hope to cheaply fill their truck’s drivers seats with mostly can’t drive a manual transmission. So to better allow their own in-house “truck driving schools” to spend only a week instead of two training newbie drivers before they turn ’em loose on the public highways, said big trucking companies have decided to buy new trucks with automatic transmissions. Now real automatics like the Allisons are pretty pricy, so transmission maker Eaton is trying to fake it with an automated manual transmission for several thousand dollars less.

Now Volvo is in the transmission biz too, and they don’t like seeing customers ordering their new trucks with Eaton instead of Volvo transmissions. Eaton’s automated manual is a crude device, and trying to creep along with it while backing into a tight loading dock or spreading gravel requires using both brake and throttle at the same time, which tends to wear the automated clutch out rather quickly. Word of this has gotten around, and used truck buyers are steering clear of the Eaton “Automatics”. From what I’ve heard Volvo’s automated manual works a lot better, but it’s based on a european single countershaft design that probably won’t make it a million miles before rebuild like Eaton’s automatics do. For Europe where trucks maybe cover only half the miles American trucks do that’s fine; But for America where companies put two drivers in a truck and run it 250,000 miles a year, they expect and get a million miles from a transmission.

Now where Volvo’s XE13 concept falls apart is aft of the engine, because the only transmission Volvo will let you have with the package is their automated manual. And it’s going to be a busy transmission, because Volvo is including some rather long rear axle gearing in the package. So after cruising along at 65 at 1100 RPM you come to a hill, and the Volvo “automatic” has to make a first downshift to bring the engine up to maximum power at 1300 RPM, then two seconds later another downshift to keep the engine in the powerband as it looses speed on the hill. I suspect that Volvo’s automated manual will be lucky to make it a million kilometers, never mind a million miles. In fact, I did a google search for an unrebuilt Volvo transmission that’s made it a million miles and found none, automatic or manual. There’s a bunch of other compromises in the package too- an 80,000 pound Gross Vehicle Weight limit and operation on freeways mainly. Around here the max GVW is 97,000 pounds, and the nearest freeway is 40 miles away. So if your looking for a really big depreciation deduction, Volvo’s XE13 is probably the truck for you- you’ll probably have a hard time giving it away!

Now this stupidity (and more) largely came from the car biz. If you’ve been following the ads, both Ford and Chevy are claiming MPGs around 40 for their smaller cars like the Focus, Fiesta, and Cruze. The Formula for these fantastic MPG numbers is similar to Volvo’s- an automatic transmission with 6 speeds that’s programmed to stay in the right gear to stay in the “sweet spot” of the engine’s fuel map. And yup, those overworked little automatics are suffering and dying- Consumer Reports latest reliability ratings take Ford to task for reliability problems with these high tech automatics. I looked at the actual survey data and the problems don’t seem as bad as CR suggests, but they’re there.

Now for those of you that suffered through the auto industry’s first attempt at electronic 4 speed transmissions over the last couple decades, this is nothing new. There was a whole history of recalls, and one manufacturer had such a high failure rate (often at less than 20,000 miles) that they virtually set up an assembly line system to remove, rebuild, and reinstall their transmissions. Looking through the descriptions of government vehicles offered at auction, the number one “deal killer” defect is automatic transmissions. The transmission failures are much more common than engine failures, often occur before 100,000 miles, and generally result in the vehicle being scrapped prematurely.

So I’m saddened that Volvo Truck and Ford, companies that I’m proud to own stock of, have fallen for the current “engineering” fads instead of building the simple reliable vehicles they’re known for. And while you can theoreticly still buy a Volvo truck with a similar engine to the XE13’s and a manual transmission, Volvo isn’t being real public about it and sister brand Mack isn’t even offering the XE13 engine. It’s a similar story at Ford- they say you can get a manual transmission in a Fiesta or Focus, but good luck finding one. So the customer buys a new Volvo truck or Ford small car off the lot with these automatics, experiences repeated failures, and never buys a Volvo or Ford product again. Suffice to say, blown transmissions are remembered long after a couple tenths of a MPG improvement are forgotten!

Back to the motorcycles, the airheads in particular… Took the long way home with the GS last night and had a fun time on the gravel back roads, even scraped some paint off the sidecar’s frame. But noted a bit of clutch slip when I got back on the pavement at heavy throttle. Adjusted the clutch and couldn’t get it to slip today. Hearing more rocks and such hitting the underside of the outfit on the gravel, so I really need to look into Twin Headlight Ernie’s bash plates for the GS.

Also stole the tachometer from the LS and put it on the ST, now I have a working tach but the charge light is still intermittent- guess I need to dig through the wiring.