With The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, Has FCA Finally Sorted The ZF 9-Speed Automatic? Very Nearly
From the get-go, the nine-speed automatic designed by Germany’s ZF in the United States and built and tuned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was deserving of criticism. It was criticism that FCA could not righteously label as unfair, criticism the automaker could not deny.
“We have had to do an inordinate amount of intervention on that transmission, surely beyond what any of us had forecast,” FCA boss Sergio Marchionne said early last year.
The nine-speed, responsible for sending power from a variety of engines to the front wheels of a large number of vehicles, became a reliability nightmare for many buyers who either didn’t perceive its shortcomings on a test drive, or didn’t care. Unless drivers ventured well beyond posted speed limits, the nine-speed wasn’t even able to benefit from its ninth gear. Surely deserving of partial blame for the Chrysler 200’s demise, the ZF 9HP was clearly launched long before it was ready.
Nearly three years since my first exposure to the nine-speed in a 3.2-liter V6-powered Jeep Cherokee, I’m driving a 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited this week. It’s a stunning minivan, and at CAD $62,340, it’s a minivan with which one needs a whole week to get a full picture. Yet only a few minutes into our first drive in the new Pacifica, it was clear that FCA had finally sorted the previously dreadful nine-speed.
Almost. Mostly. Sort of.
How bad was it in the beginning? In that first Cherokee I drove, I said, “Getting up to speed sometimes involved the sensation that the Cherokee was falling into gear, like an elevator in an old building which safely brings its passengers down from the sixth level to the second but then, with a jolt, bangs into the ground floor.”
A few months later in a V6-powered Chrysler 200, the nine-speed was found to be “hanging on to revs before finally falling into second, then third, then fourth.”
More than a year later and with a different engine in the Jeep Renegade, “you’ll discover a transmission that’s typically unwilling to kick down a gear, let alone the two or three-gear-kickdown that’s required.”
In the Renegade’s Fiat 500X partner: “The 9-speed’s weak points — slamming into second and third gear like it’s been tossed off a cliff — are highlighted on a cold winter’s morning.”
To be fair, it wasn’t just FCA’s software tune. Linked to a 3.5-liter V6 in the Acura TLX, the nine-speed “periodically clunks into a higher gear, doesn’t favor paddle participation, and even with eight others to choose from it’s typically not keen on changing into a higher or lower gear.”
In the Land Rover Discovery Sport, writes Car And Driver, “The engine’s slight hesitations are exacerbated by a transmission that downshifts with uncomfortable, pregnant pauses between the accelerator input and the gear change,” continuing the complaining for another 77 words with the Jeep Cherokee lumped in for good measure.
As a result, my expectations for the all-new Chrysler minivan’s transmission performance were low. After all, even rival minivan builders that aren’t linking V6 engines to the oft-dreaded ZF nine-speed don’t exactly shine in the transmission department. The six-speed in GCBC’s own long-term Honda Odyssey is improving with age, but there are still plenty of odd shifts when accelerating uphill. The six-speeds in the Kia Sedona and Toyota Sienna are smoother, but they’re only smooth in the sense that each shift is masked with way too much butter, as though an attempt to snap off anything resembling a quick shift would result in a full-body shudder.
But praises be, after driving the 2017 Pacifica around town for a while the performance of the nine-speed transmission comes to mind precisely because the transmission does not call attention to itself.
At first, an attempt to be mindful of the nine-speed’s shift patterns is difficult. Focusing on largely undetectable behavior is, even for someone who routinely pays particular attention to transmission comportment, no easy task.
Undetectable. That’s the key word. Inconspicuous, perhaps. Some introspection is required to realize that the Pacifica is accelerating more rapidly than other minivans not only because of abundant horsepower (287 at 6,400 rpm) and low curb weight — top-spec competitors weigh between 223 and 326 pounds more than the Pacifica Limited — but because the nine-speed is rapidly shuffling through lower gears without any disturbance under truly heavy throttle application.
All is bliss.
Until, for example, you’re cruising on a highway’s relatively flat plane and for no discernible reason the nine-speed slams into eighth with enough of a jolt to wake a dead-to-the-world two-year-old. Enough of a jolt and shudder for a spectacularly pregnant wife to look over in disgust, and for me to briefly believe that this van is broken.
“What? I didn’t do it, there aren’t even paddles. It’s not like I sent you into premature labor.”
TTAC’s managing editor had a similar experience in this very Pacifica before he fled Nova Scotia with a Fiesta and a U-Haul.
Said Mr. Stevenson this morning: “The Pacifica’s nine-speed is like a jacked best friend with a hair trigger. If you give it the inputs it expects, it’s wholly normal and predictable. But catch it off guard by sneaking up behind it and tapping it on the shoulder with some throttle, it’s as likely to turn around and say hello as it is to kiss you with an enclosed fist. The transmission is completely bipolar, and swings in mood are violent.”
Perfection then? Quite clearly not, as four hours in the Pacifica, with plenty of time left before it leaves our driveway next weekend, have produced wildly mixed results. The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica’s nine-speed automatic performs well when true performance is demanded and when you’re slogging through suburban sprawl. Sadly, all is not well in a variety of other circumstances.
Software update, please?
[Images: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars, FCA]
Ashy Larry on Sep 15, 2016
Honda uses the ZF 9 speed in top trim levels of the Pilot. We own one and even under Honda programming the thing is a strange transmission. No issues on shifts under acceleration, but when you try to downshift heading down long steep grades to use engine braking, the thing hesitates, feels like it disconnects into neutral for a second or two (making the car actually go faster down the hill) before grudgingly moving into the lower gear. There are some odd shifts here and there as well, and some users are reporting transmission failures stemming from a leak in a heat exchanger used on the transmission to balance transmission fluid heat using engine coolant. This transmission seems a bit half baked, especially in comparison to the excellent 8-speed used widely by Benz, BMW, VW and FCA.
Matthew Sherbinski on Sep 16, 2022
Well, our 2017 Pacifica has approximately 35k miles on it and what I consider to still be young. We haven't seen it in 3 months because it is currently being worked on by the dealership. Scary thing is, is they have no idea if they fixed the mad shifting and stalling issue. The dealership spent over $800.00 on a new body control module and the next day the van still wouldn't start. I was told that if this didn't work that I would have to start paying for any other guess work repairs that they perform. This comes after they charged me over $600.00 for a crimped wire in the back of the van which didn't fix the issue either. Then I was told that it was a loose wire under the dash, funny would have thought they would look there first. Needless to say the dealership is not instilling much confidence in their abilities and with a 12 yr old daughter who has brain cancer we can't afford to have one more thing go wrong. And with a van that we cannot trust to be safe what are we to do?!
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