If you’re new to thinking about the inner workings of the car parked in your driveway, you may not be aware of a critical bit of your car’s oily bits: the transmission.
Just like the gears on a ten-speed bike, the gears inside the transmission of your car shift to best deliver the power your engine is making to the wheels in order to move your car forward – or, in the case of reverse, move it backward.
You may be aware that some cars are stick shift and require you to manually shift between each gear as you increase speed, using a gear lever and a clutch pedal. A “manual transmission” is sometimes also called a “standard transmission.”
And you’re probably aware that most cars sold in America today are not “stick shift”, but are “automatic” and don’t require dealing with a clutch.
But wait, that’s not all – there’s more! There are automated versions of a manual transmission, and there are automatic transmissions that let you shift the gears.
And, did you know that there’s even a new kid on the transmission scene these days, too? The continuously variable transmission, commonly called a CVT, is showing up in more and more car models each year.
If you’re confused about all of this, don’t worry! You don’t have to be a mechanic to understand it all, it’s really simpler than it seems.
In this article, we’ll explain all the various types of transmissions available in cars today, and we’ll help you figure out how to tell what transmission is in your car.
What Different Types of Transmissions Are In Cars?
Transmissions can be divided into two main categories.
One type uses a clutch to match up the speeds between the car’s driveshafts and the engine, whether that clutch is operated by the driver or by the transmission itself.
The other category of transmission uses a fluid-based coupling called a torque converter to do a similar type of job.
There’s a third category of transmission (mentioned above), the CVT, which operates quite differently from any of the others.
Manual Transmission and Automated Manual Transmission.
A fully manual transmission requires the driver to operate a clutch, while the gears are moved via a lever mounted in the center console of the car, a gear stick topped off with a shift knob.
The oldest and simplest form of transmission, it is also the type that requires the most skill from a driver.
Dual-clutch transmissions, sometimes called “automated manual” transmissions, also require a clutch to be engaged and disengaged to switch between gears, but this clutch operation is automated by the transmission itself.
There may be paddle shifters behind the rim of the steering wheel, or there may be a slap-shift option with the center-console shifter
Functionally, A DCT is two manual transmissions working together, thus the common name of “dual-clutch” transmission.
Dual-clutch transmissions are most commonly found on higher-end, enthusiast-oriented cars, such as Lamborghini, Porsche, and BMW.
Although a DCT is rather mechanically complicated, it can shift much faster than any human can.
Many car makers have a proprietary design and name for the dual-clutch transmission that they’ve developed for their sports cars. Porsche calls their dual-clutch transmission the Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, or PDK, for example.
Purpose-built dual-clutch transmissions are frequently used in motorsports.
Automatic Transmission and Shiftable Automatics
An automatic transmission shifts between gears as well, but does so automatically and with a much greater level of complexity than a manual transmission.
The great advantage is that anyone can drive an automatic transmission car; no learning to drive a stick shift is needed.
If you’re interested in the details of how an automatic transmission works, we can recommend doing a little bit of reading on the topic – and this article is a great place to start.
You may encounter a shiftable automatic transmission. Mechanically, this is identical to a regular automatic transmission, with the addition of a “manual mode.”
The manual mode of a shiftable automatic transmission allows the driver to choose when the shift happens.
Although the transmission fluid inside the torque converter works as fluid coupling, there’s no friction plate operated by the driver to match the transmission and engine speed when an automatic transmission shifts.
In a shiftable automatic car, there may be paddle shifters on the steering wheel or a slap-shifter option in the center console when the car is put into manual mode.
Usually, the transmission computer can override manual mode and shift up if the computer determines a shift is needed and the driver hasn’t made the shift, in order to protect the engine.
A Note About Paddle Shifters and Slap-Shifters
Strictly speaking, only a car which requires the driver to operate the clutch with his or her left foot can be correctly called a manual transmission car.
As you can tell from what you’ve read so far, though, the terminology can be confusing.
It’s unfortunately common for car sellers and dealerships to get things confused and label any car which allows some sort of gear selection as a “manual” car, even though it’s not a true manual transmission car.
So, always look at the photos carefully when shopping online for a vehicle.
The New Kid: The Continuously Variable Transmission
The basic idea behind a CVT has been around since da Vinci’s time. However, it’s only been in the last fifteen years or so that the CVT has come into common use in mainstream cars.
Highly efficient, a CVT is part of a collection of advancements in car design and engineering that help make today’s cars much more fuel efficient than cars of even twenty years ago.
Better explanations than ours exist online, and you’re certainly encouraged to do some reading on those if you’re interested to learn more about this type of transmission.
However, you can essentially think of a CVT as a strong belt or band that rides between variable size spindles, one attached to your driveshaft and one attached to your engine, with the ability of those spindles to vary their diameters and thus the length and functional “gearing” involved.
Does it Really Matter What Transmission Is In My Car?
If you’re shopping for a different ride, be that a new or used one, you may wonder if it really matters what transmission is in your car, as long as you like the car and it’s the right price.
There are some considerations about driving style and your vehicle needs to consider as you shop.
Driving Needs Vary, So There’s a Transmission for Every Need.
If gas mileage is of paramount importance to you, you’re likely to gravitate towards cars that are equipped with a CVT transmission, as their ability to stay in the most efficient areas of your engine’s power mean they can maximize fuel usage.
However, if you’re seeking maximum driver engagement in your driving experience, you’re likely to be happier with a manual transmission car which gives you – the driver – the highest level of control over how the engine and wheels are interacting.
Different Maintenance Needs
Maintenance needs are different between all of these transmission options!
A manual transmission is perhaps the most mechanically simple of the various options, and is generally the least expensive to repair and maintain, but it does include parts that wear out, like the friction plate.
If you’re a “clean” stick shift driver with good technique, a clutch can last quite a long time. However, on a used car, you may have no idea how the previous owner handled the clutch, and may face having to have a new clutch done sooner than you’d like.
Bad habits like “riding the clutch” can cause damage to clutch and transmission components that can increase repair costs, too.
Automatic transmissions and CVTs do need occasional transmission fluid changes.
Complete failure of an automatic transmission is relatively rare, but can be ruinously expensive when it does happen. On an older, high mileage car, the cost of replacing an automatic transmission can exceed the value of the car.
Likewise, the mechanical complexity of automated manual transmissions means they can be very expensive to repair when something goes wrong.
Continuously variable transmissions vary in their maintenance needs.
Be sure to follow your car manufacturer’s recommendations exactly for fluid changes and maintenance, as these types of belt-driven transmissions may have different fluid-change needs than a traditional automatic transmission.
The fluid changes on a CVT may be more expensive than those of a traditional automatic.
How Can I Find out What Kind of Transmission My Car Has?
Trying to find out what kind of transmission your car has, but having a difficult time doing so? We’ve got you covered – and it really is way more simple than it might seem at the time, so don’t worry!
Number of Pedals
The biggest and most obvious difference between all these options relates to how many pedals are on the floor of the car.
If there are three pedals, you’ve got a traditional manual transmission car. If there are only two, you’ve got an automatic, a dual-clutch transmission, or a CVT.
Take a Look at the Shifter
If you’ve got two pedals, now look at the shifter itself.
A shifter that gives you P, N, R, and D as driving options means you’ve got an automatic, dual-clutch transmission, or a CVT.
If that shifter can be put in a mode that allows you to shift gears, you’ve got a shiftable automatic or a dual-clutch transmission.
Note that some CVTs will allow you to “shift” them, although this is a computer-manufactured “shift,” as a CVT doesn’t have gears in the traditional sense at all.
A car with a dual-clutch transmission may have an automatic mode in which the computers will shift everything for you, but you’ll still feel the car act as if someone was shifting it.
It will happen quickly, but you can definitely feel the mechanical action of the clutch disengaging, the gear changing, and the clutch re-engaging. The process may even be a bit harsh due to the speed at which the transmission can complete the shift!
Drive the Car and Listen Carefully
To determine whether you’ve got an old-school automatic or a CVT, you’ll need to drive the car and listen carefully.
With some careful attention, you’ll be able to feel an automatic shifting up the gears for you as you accelerate. However, a CVT will “rev up” and hold steady without any sensation of shifting happening.
Do Some Looking Up
If you’re still unsure which of the two-pedal options you have, you’ll need to do some research.
First, check your car’s owner’s manual, if you have one.
If you don’t have an owner’s manual, you’ll need to fire up Google or your search engine of choice to find out what transmission options your vehicle was sold with.
You’ll want to search by the car’s year, make, and model combined with search terms such as “transmission specs.”
All Set To Enjoy The Drive!
No matter what transmission your car has, it’s important to know that it’s a critical part of making your car move. Without a transmission, your engine would just spin uselessly.
So, you really need to learn more about the type of transmission your car has so that you can keep it in tip-top shape – which you’re obviously doing, or else you wouldn’t have come across this article!
With some proper care, a transmission can last the lifetime of your vehicle and give you many miles of effortless and reliable driving fun.
If you’ve only driven automatics or CVTs, we really encourage you to seek out a friend who drives a stick shift car and ask for a tour of what that third pedal is all about.
There’s a lot of fun to be had when you’re the decision maker between the engine and the wheels – but in all cases, enjoy your car every day and always drive safely!