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Four-speed “UltraDrive” to finally leave

by David Zatz on

Back in 1989, Chrysler launched its first four-speed automatic—which, unlike any competitors, was a revolution in transmission design. It dropped the old bands and hydraulic controls; instead, while still using hydraulics, the “UltraDrive” was controlled by a computer which activated solenoids.  A604 Ultradrive 41TE

It was an unmitigated disaster. The transmission was at least a year of testing and refinement away from being ready. Reportedly, at a meeting of executives, Lee Iacocca blew his top and told the group that he was going to the bathroom—and when he got back, he expected someone to take responsibility for fixing it. That “somebody” was Chris Theodore, who led efforts to fix minor and major problems over the next two years (he told his story to Allpar). Starting around 1991, the transmission reached normal lifespans, and, eventually, people forgot that the UltraDrive/A-604 was ever problematic.

Chrysler still makes the unit, renamed to 41TE, but it’s only used in a single vehicle, the Dodge Journey. A six-speed version proved to be far superior in most applications, with a greater range of speeds; the lower first provided better acceleration, and the high sixth raised highway mileage and cut noise. But a four-speed is usually cheaper than a six-speed, so it’s used on the low-priced Journey.

Automotive News sifted through the UAW labor agreement and found out that the Kokomo transmission plant will finish up the four-speed automatics in 2020, after roughly 32 years of production. Chances are few will miss it. It seems likely that the Journey itself will be dropped at about the same time, since its replacement has long been rumored.

The last traces of Chrysler’s first modern automatic will continue on for a while, at least; the 62TE six-speed version is used by the Grand Caravan (which will probably also end production in 2020) and gasoline-powered Ram ProMaster. The cheaper ProMaster City uses a ZF-designed nine-speed.

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