The arrival of nine-speed automatic transmissions—with some hiccups in tuning—in several mass-market models this past year has led some to wonder whether more speeds is necessarily a step forward.

While the better mileage and stronger acceleration that more speeds can allow, drivability, it seems, has been lacking in some—yet not all—applications of the ‘9HP’ nine-speed automatic, from the German supplier ZF, that was introduced in 2013 and then more widely installed beginning this past year. Complaints about the Cherokee—either before or after an early reflash of the transmission control software—have ranged from harsh shifts to odd shift points for this transmission as it’s installed in the Jeep Cherokee, which was one of the first models to launch with it.

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The ZF nine-speed is currently installed in the Cherokee, as well as the Jeep Renegade, Chrysler 200, Ram ProMaster City, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Land Rover Discovery, Acura TLX, and Acura MDX—and it’s on the way for several more vehicles within the next model year.

This past week, as part of a ZF tech day, we got a chance to drive several different vehicles back-to-back, and confirmed our earlier driving impressions: that it isn't entirely the fault of the transmission. The same unit's somewhat softer, more conservative calibration works to the benefit of drivability and smoothness in the Discovery Sport, versus those Jeep models, for instance.

Not properly fleshed out to American driving styles?

ZF officials are acutely aware of the drivability concerns. “First of all, we learned that Americans drive differently,” said CEO Stefan Sommer, as part of a Q&A session. “We need to focus more on the regional-specific perception of how such a complex machine like an automatic transmission is working in the car, and as a consequence we have made a decision to bring more application engineering into the U.S....to be closer to the U.S. customer, to even frontload, in this tuning application work.”

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Sommer called the new design of the 9HP “an encouraging new approach” that makes nine-speed technology available in a vehicle segment where it otherwise wouldn’t have been available; yet he noted the unusual arrangement, where ZF did the engineering and automakers oversaw the build (and shift strategy).

The 9HP transmission is indeed a breakthrough product in many ways. One of the most important, perhaps, is that it’s extremely compact; it can fit in essentially the same packaging space as ZF’s six-speed automatic transmission that preceded it, thanks to a number of fresh engineering approaches, such as the incorporation of two special dog clutches.

That new design may have played a part in making the transmission more challenging to tune. So is a design that aims not for gears that are very closely spaced but for a very wide ratio spread—enabling an incredible 9.8 ratio spread for this transmission; that’s about triple that of old three- or four-speed automatics and about 50 percent more than most six-speed automatics or continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs). That means not only quicker takeoffs from a lower first gear, but better mileage on the highway, potentially, from a taller top gear.

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Frieder Mohr, an application engineer who’s worked with software and the internal controls for the nine-speed, said that the transmission goes through two levels of ‘adaptation’ to fine-tune its shift quality. One of those is as the transmission properly adjusts its shifts to internal tolerances, both when it’s new and as it wears. The second is adaptation to driving style, which takes just a few minutes and a few shifts through each gear.

Tips that the dealership probably won’t tell you

Mohr gave the following useful tips on how the nine-speed’s software works:

That said, ZF isn’t willing to concede that all that we observe as odd drivability traits are related to their choices. When I asked about rough downshifts during a common American maneuver—a gentle rolling ‘stop’ followed by a right turn and moderate acceleration (one that’s a non-event in the Discovery Sport), Mohr deflected to FCA’s choices. “It sounds like what you’re describing there is related not to adaptation but to shift strategy, which is determined by our customer,” he said.

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Another engineer said that the supplier has found that Europeans expect partial-throttle downshifts on the highway in some cases—the nine-speed's apparent restlessness between eighth and ninth gear, in the four-cylinder Cherokee, for example—where Americans might judge it to be a flaw.

And that’s really the third component to this—the shift strategy itself. It’s the one aspect that’s not entirely under the ZF’s control, yet the supplier has likely learned a lesson that it should be more proactive.

You can be sure that other automakers are taking note. It might be time for automakers to wrap driving style into the keyfob profiles that are kept for a number of vehicles; that could be an easy remedy for this complexity. With more gears comes an even heavier burden on software and controls, and real-world tweaks.

Yet that hasn’t stopped several automakers—Ford and GM, for example—from working on ten-speeds. The more, the merrier.

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