Automatic choice: Maruti has taken gearless cars to the masses

  • Sunny Sen, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 30, 2015 12:45 IST
Maruti Suzuki launched the AMT version of Celerio in February 2014 and has sold 75,600 vehicles. (File Photo)

Sucharit Choudhury, a lawyer in Ranchi, recently bought a Maruti Alto with automatic transmission. After 13 years of driving cars with manual transmission, Choudhury decided he needed a gearless vehicle to tackle the city’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. And the Alto AMT (Automatic Manual Transmission) at Rs 4,12,000 was just Rs 30,000 costlier than the regular variant with the same specifications.

“At least I have one leg and one hand free while driving. I will perhaps never buy a car with manual transmission again,” Choudhury said.

Till a couple of years ago, automatic transmission was something one associated with luxury cars. Even smaller cars that offered an automatic variant, such as the Hyundai i10, had a Rs 1 lakh price premium over its geared counterpart. But the introduction of AMT changed that equation.

The seed was sown four years back when Maruti Suzuki studied the rapidly worsening traffic conditions in Gurgaon and Bengaluru. The company was looking at an automatic variant at an acceptable price without compromising fuel efficiency or green norms. After testing other technologies such as automatic transmission and continuously variable transmission, it settled for AMT.

The company introduced AMT in its SX4 sedans that were used to ferry officials during the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, as a pilot project. It later introduced the technology in the Alto and the Celerio, and recently, in the WagonR. It has sold 75,600 vehicles since February 2014, when it launched the first Celerio AMT.

Says Raman CV, Maruti Suzuki’s research and development head and executive officer (engineering): “When we launched the Alto K10 (AMT), 25% of model’s demand was for the automatic version. For Celerio, the demand was a much higher 40%.”

In the past one year alone, the proportion of automatics has risen from 2% of all passenger car sales to 5%, thanks to AMT. According to industry watchers, the number is expected to double in the next couple of years. By comparison, 98% of the vehicles sold in the US have automatic transmissions, and 45% in Europe.

Maruti is not the only carmaker with the AMT technology. Tata Motors has the GenX Nano and the under-four metre Zest sedan. Though Tata does not share numbers of sale of automatic cars, the company said that the AMT variant of Nano constitute 40% of its all-Nano sales. “We have ramped up production owing to demand and the waiting period on the AMT variant is now around 30 days,” the company told HT. Mahindra & Mahindra is also learnt to be testing the technology on its smaller vehicles such as the Quanto.

When Maruti first decided to sell AMT vehicles, it imported gearboxes from Italian component maker Magneti Marelli, but seeing the demand it forged a joint-venture to develop the gearboxes locally, which would keep the pricepoint attractive. AMT is 97% locally manufactured in the joint-venture plant. The result — Maruti has already sold more automatics in the eight months of this fiscal year than it sold in the entire year last fiscal.

However, other two-pedal (the clutch pedal is absent) technology gearboxes are still not made in India. Maruti’s Raman is waiting for demand to pick up before his company looks at AT and CVT. The new Baleno is available in CVT and the Ciaz and other high end models have the AT.

“Our endeavor is to offer the two-pedal technology across models. Once a customer uses an AMT, they will later upgrade to a CVT or an AT,” Raman said.

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