Not Interested: Ford Passes on General Motors' Nine-speed Transmission
Way back in 2013, General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. signed an agreement to collaborate on transmissions. The deal stipulated that GM would get access to Ford’s 10-speed automatic transmission, intended for rear-drive applications, if the Blue Oval could have the Hydra-Matic 9T50 nine-speed under development by The General for front-drive models — and everyone would save some money.
However, things didn’t play out as intended. Ford is now saying the nine-speed auto doesn’t provide enough of a fuel economy improvement to justify the added cost and weight of an extra gear. It won’t be using it, at least not in its current form. Instead, Ford engineers have decided to use a trio of transmissions with fewer gears for front-wheel-drive units.
General Motors has defended the new Hydra-Matic by saying it was engineered with refinement in mind — a point reiterated by company spokesman Tom Read. “Smaller steps between gears in a nine vs. an eight speed enable smoother shifts for customers,” Read told Automotive News.
That premium feel was something General Motors tried to impress upon journalists since the nine-speed’s introduction in 2016. More ratios are able to match the engine with an appropriate forward gear, optimizing operation through a wider spread — 7.6:1 vs 6.0:1 on the popular six speed.
“The smaller steps between the gears, compared to the eight speed, enable smooth, almost imperceptible upshifts for excellent refinement,” Dan Nicholson, GM’s vice president for global propulsion systems, said when the 2017 Malibu was launched. “No matter the engine torque or vehicle speed, the 9T50 is always in the perfect gear.”
For the most part, nobody has balked at this claim. The unit appears to perform amicably in most applications, gaining praise for its refinement. But the issue of economy is a little less black and white. The Malibu only gained an additional 1 mpg over the old eight-speed automatic on the highway. Overall, GM transmission engineering director Chris Meagher estimated the 9T50 would improve fuel economy by about 2 percent across Chevrolet’s lineup.
However, the Chinese-built Buick Envision swapped its six-speed automatic for the 9T50 for the 2019 model year and actually lost 1 mpg on the highway. This gives some credence to Ford’s claim that the unit might not be ideal for all applications, especially since a large portion of its efficiency strategy focuses on weight savings. “The small efficiency benefit did not justify the added weight and cost of an extra clutch and gear,” explained Ford spokeman Mike Levine.
The Blue Oval had already opted out of implementing the gearbox before it started cropping up in General Motors’ fleet. It has decided to adapt the six-speed auto from the 2002 GM alliance for its high-horsepower FWD applications (Ford Edge ST, Lincoln Nautilus V6, etc.). That unit will have eight gears in total. Another eight-speed gearbox, based off of GM’s nine-speed, will go into mainstream models in order to bolster economy without the added weight of an extra planetary set.
There is also a third eight-speed automatic intended for smaller vehicles that generate less torque. The numbers aren’t yet in for Ford’s new transmission, but the automaker says it’s confident it will be able to match the efficiency of GM’s nine-speed Hydra-Matic.
[Image: General Motors]
A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.
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