by Patrick Rall • special to allpar.com
Chrysler's newest technology to improve performance and fuel economy is their segment exclusive 8-speed automatic transmission, hitting the market in for model-year 2012. At first, it will be offered in the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 models equipped with the 3.6L Pentastar V6 and recently, we had a chance to log a few miles in the 2012 Dodge Charger Blacktop equipped with the 292hp V6 and the new 8-speed transmission.
The 8-speed automatic transmission comes with the innovative news touch-shifter on the console with manual shift control included by means of Chrysler's new steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. This paddle shift system made its debut recently in the high performance SRT lineup but when these new 8-speed models begin reaching dealerships around the country, this will mark the first application of the Chrysler paddle shifters on a non-performance model…supposing that you don't consider the 292 horsepower Dodge Charger a performance model.
Lots of automakers offer some form of steering wheel mounted shift control ranging from F1-style paddles to buttons mounted in the back of the steering wheel spokes, but with their new paddle shift system, Chrysler has done it 100% right. They have used metal for the shift paddles with a sleek, smooth finish that adds a great look and feel with plenty of accessibility under hard cornering. (The SRT8 has the + and - signs filled in with black paint, while the V6 uses unpainted impressions.)
Some paddle systems leave you hunting for the paddles when you get to crossing over your hands for shifting under hard cornering but that is not the case with the Chrysler paddle system with the ergonomically perfect levers making for quick, smooth shifts. The paddle shift system from Chrysler mated to the 8-speed ZF automatic transmission looks great and performs even better.
The other component of the new Chrysler 8-speed automatic transmission is the unique console mounted shifter that uses a "slapstick" motion rather than the traditional shifter movement. The low profile shifter bears a similar shape to the old school slapstick shifter and rather than the normal PRNDL pattern, the 8-speed automatic shifter has just Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive/Sport mode. When you get in the car and fire it up, the shifter is located in the middle of the shift console and when you pull it back to move into reverse, it clicks into gear as indicated on the dash but the shifter does not stay in place – instead returning back to the middle position. As you shift from Reverse into Neutral and then into Drive or Sport, the shifter clicks through the gears but always returns to the center position of the shift console.
The driver information center keeps you updated as to what gear you are in since the shifter does not but should you get confused and try to shift "past" the Park or Sport shift modes, the information center nicely reminds you what gear the transmission is in. Also, much like the slapstick shifter consoles of the original muscle car era, the 2012 Dodge Charger with the 8-speed automatic transmission features a minimalistic shift console with the small shifter surrounded in a flat carbon fiber panel.
In the long run, the goal of Chrysler's 8-speed transmission was to be able to combine aggressive gear ratios for the lower gears to bolster torque multiplication and low end acceleration while also offering very fuel economy friendly higher gears to improve the MPGs of this sporty sedan when cruising on the open road. The problem is that the average American consumer seems to frown upon the idea of an 8-speed transmission, believing that they will spend their time complaining about how often the transmission shifts but having spent time soaring around Chrysler's test track in Chelsea Michigan, I was blown away at the smoothness of the new ZF 8-speed automatic.
Under normal driving circumstances, such as accelerating away from a stop sign like you would on the open road up to a cruising speed of 55mph, the ZF-designed Chrysler 8-speed is seamless in normal Drive mode and you can barely tell when the transmission is shifting. Once you have gotten to a smooth cruising speed of 55 to 70mph and the transmission has gotten through the gears, the extremely low RPM range allows for minimal amounts of fuel consumption on the open road. However, unlike some traditional transmissions that use non-aggressive gear ratios to bolster fuel economy, the Chrysler 8-speed has plenty of gearing to get the 2012 Charger with the 3.6L V6 from 0-60 in a hurry – as well as allowing the Pentastar to do a pretty impressive smoky burnout.
On the other hand, if you want manual control of the 8-speed Chrysler transmission for some spirited driving fun (or more smoky burnouts), you can pop the slapstick shifter into Sport Shift mode at which point the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters take over. From there on, the driver has full control of the upshifts and the transmission only downshifts when necessary to prevent the engine RPMs from dropping too low. Under most driving conditions, your hands don't need to leave the 10 and 2 positions so the paddles are in ideal areas for quick shifts during sporty driving situations and when using the manual shift mode while exercising all 292 horsepower, the shifts are much more positive – like you would expect from a modern sports sedan.
Based on my time behind the wheel of the 2012 Dodge Charger Blacktop equipped with the 292hp Pentastar V6 and the new ZF 8-speed automatic transmission, it is clear that this new gearbox does a great job of combining a sporty driving experience with high fuel economy. The sport shift mode allows the driver a more engaging driving experience and when left in Drive mode, the new transmission works through the gears with no notice of the high number of shifts.
Chrysler "broke the rules" once again with the introduction of an 8-speed automatic transmission to the passenger car segment but once consumers see and accept this great system, we can expect other automakers operating in the US offering similar technology. However, with being the first to introduce the 8-speed automatic the Pentastar V6 is made even more efficient in the beautifully redesigned Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300.
ZF 8-speed • Dodge Charger • David Zatz's Review of the 2012 Charger Blacktop
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