Antonov answers Chinese desire for automatics

  • 16-Jan-2009 11:47 EST
Phase I TX6 development unit.jpg

The TX6 "Phase I" development unit features a bulky machined aluminum casing. The production version will feature a more compact cast casing and a target weight of 86 kg (190 lb).  (Mark Wilkinson)

The market for automatic transmissions is strong in China—to the point where medium-sized cars that do not offer an automatic option suffer against their automatic competitors. Indeed, city congestion and the Chinese people’s desire for ease of use are making the country’s lack of home-developed automatic transmissions a potentially explosive opportunity for those that can get it right. China currently does not have its own automatic transmission capability to fill this rapidly growing market.

To take advantage of this opportunity, Antonov, a publicly listed company in England, has developed the six-speed TX6 specifically for manufacture in China. In September 2007, Antonov tied up with Loncin, based in Chongqing Municipality, to support manufacturing and has been busy conducting a series of trials with potential customers in China. The demonstration car is a standard Volkswagen Golf 1.6FSi.

Driving impressions

So how does the Antonov TX6 transmission perform? I tried it on a chilly November morning around Loncin’s headquarters in central Chongqing. Inside, the car appears to be no different from a standard production Golf—the chrome-plated transmission selector sits in exactly the same position and the car has no additional instrumentation or displays. The car pulls away in just the same manner as a conventional automatic car and gathers speed smoothly with the gears changing seamlessly. Fifth gear is engaged at about 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h). The gear change, which, as in a dual-clutch manual transmission, engages the next gear as it simultaneously disengages the current gear, is almost imperceptible around town.

At 35 mph (56 km/h) cruise, there is a bit more gear whine than in a conventional automatic, but this is only the second prototype transmission that the company has ever made (this was transmission No. 2 out of a total of three prototypes; the other two identical units are currently being used for customer demonstrations in England and mainland Europe). The transmission has only been in the car for a short time, and there has been no time for NVH work. I continue my drive around Chongqing and am impressed. In normal driving, the unit is practically impossible to tell apart from a normal automatic.

The Antonov transmission uses a wet clutch as a starting device, completely obviating the need for a conventional torque converter and therefore generating benefits in terms of weight, packaging, and fuel efficiency. Only when I approach unfamiliar Chinese road junctions and hesitate over my accelerator position does the unit occasionally “clunk” up or down a gear, but as it is an early calibration I was warned that it was still possible to catch the controller off guard, sometimes confusing it about the driver’s true intentions.

Back at Loncin’s headquarters, I get to have a look under the bonnet. There is a slim aluminum spar running across the top of the engine with multiple mountings for calibration and sensing equipment. Deep down in the engine bay, one can see the large aluminum casing of the transmission—a bulky, shiny construction—bolted onto the engine. Apart from these two unusual details, the under-bonnet view is that of a standard Golf.

Customer reaction

Inside the Loncin building, Antonov Chief Engineer Simon Roberts, from the company’s head office in England, gives some feedback from the current round of customer demonstrations: “The Chinese customers are telling us that we are being very modest. They are surprised at how well it works, considering that we have only had six weeks to do basic transmission calibration work.”

This "Phase I" TX6 development unit is apparently slightly longer than the Aisin six-speed transaxle fitted as standard to the Golf because it is, of course, a development unit—it has an outsized casing and is overengineered for the application. The unit can handle about 260 N·m (192 lb·ft) of torque—far more than the 150 N·m (111 lb·ft) that the 1.6FSi China-specification Golf is capable of. The TX6 will suit engine capacities up to about 2.3 L in final production form.

The car has also been test-driven by Loncin and Chongqing Municipality leaders, and the transmission has been well-received. Indeed, Mr. Gao, Chairman of Chongqing Loncin Industrial Group, backed up the general consensus: “The shifting quality is great. I don't believe it is just a demonstrator.”

The production program is now moving onto the next phase, which will involve a redesigned and cast transmission casing to make the unit more compact. At the same time, an enhanced hydraulic control system will further improve operation. Antonov is also working to reduce the hydraulic solenoid count to produce further improvements in cost and packaging. Eaton, supplier of the hydraulic control system, is showing a keen interest in the project and had an executive over from the U.S. during the test drive in Chongqing.

The current round of demonstrations in Chongqing and the surrounding area has now come to an end and the vehicle has been transported to Shanghai. There, based at Shanghai’s respected Jiao Tong University, the car will be shown to further potential customers, including Chery, Geely, and BYD. Chinese government agencies and partners also will evaluate the transmission. Antonov did actually forge a partnership with Geely in 2007, but the agreement lapsed after around six months of development work on the TX6. Geely is now showing renewed interest in the transmission as a result of successful customer trials.

While Lifan Motors is the only Chinese automaker to have announced formal interest in the TX6 publicly, Antonov and Loncin’s demonstration programs have generated considerable interest around China, not only with those who have already tried the transmission but also with those who are scheduled to experience it in the Shanghai round of test drives.

Lifan will not be the only automaker assessing the TX6 for possible production in 2010. “We currently have three customer programs signed up and expect more in the new year,” said Antonov CEO John Moore. “These are programs to prepare prototype TX6-equipped vehicles for customers so that they can start their own work to learn about the calibration and do the preparatory work for their vehicle production programs. These are not production contracts; it is too early for that. But they are demonstrations of serious intent. We are confident of meeting the cost and performance targets and of securing the production contracts in due course.”

Steep learning curve for some

According to Moore, the variation in level of familiarity and experience with ATs across Chinese automakers is wide; some already install ATs in their cars, but those units are already calibrated when they are purchased, so they themselves have very limited calibration experience. Others are completely new to the AT. The TX6 demonstration program is giving potential customers hands-on experience of the different challenges that must be faced when equipping a vehicle with an AT. Different automakers will clearly require different levels of support.

The next steps

Meanwhile, as the demonstration drive program continues, Antonov and Loncin are busy with the design work on the newer, more refined, and more compact “Phase I A” TX6 that includes the new cast transmission casing. The partners are currently working to manufacture five or six units for installation in customer cars.

“The 'Phase I A' development units will enable our Chinese customers to match their new cars to the TX6 transmission—working on driveline stiffness, calibrating the transmission shift points, and also calibrating their engines to work with the transmission, among other things,” said Moore by telephone from the U.K. “We will continue to develop and refine the transmission until design freeze, but the operating principles and basic functionality of the final 'Phase II' preproduction unit will essentially be the same as that already seen in the 'Phase 1 A' development unit.” The "Phase II" transmission is expected to be ready by the third quarter of 2009, in time for production in Chinese customers’ cars by late 2010.

Regarding TX6 pricing, Moore said, “While we cannot discuss actual pricing, we can say that the TX6 is pretty much cost-competitive with the four-speed automatics currently being manufactured in China.”

One key factor in the low cost is that almost all TX6 components will be locally produced. “We have been working on building the supplier chain for three years, so we have already nominated many of the suppliers,” said Moore. “These are a combination of the Chinese divisions of established Western automotive suppliers and domestic Chinese suppliers. The only major parts to be imported will be the hydraulic control valves from Eaton in the U.S.”

There was a real feeling of momentum for the TX6 project—the energy and enthusiasm around the meeting table at which I sat with Loncin, Antonov, and Eaton officials in Chongqing in mid-November was palpable. Antonov and Loncin’s new announcement about their first confirmed customer, Lifan Motors, is proof of the companies’ drive and determination, as well as a reflection of the Chinese auto market’s demand for its own affordable and modern automatic gearboxes.

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