Perfect Tens: Camaro, Raptor are transmission pioneers

Henry Payne

Los Angeles — Rocketing onto Willow Springs Raceway’s front straight at 100 mph in fourth gear, the 2017 Chevy Camaro ZL1 rifles off barely perceptible automatic upshifts — five-six-seven — at 300-millisecond intervals to reach 150 mph. Two hundred miles southeast in the Anza-Borrego desert, a Ford F-150 Raptor sport pickup goes airborne over a sand dune at 60 mph, its transmission holding the highest possible gear so its 35-inch tires maintain momentum when they hit the desert floor again.

The Camaro and Raptor may seem an odd couple. But they are the cutting edge of automotive technology: They represent the first application of automatic, 10-speed transmission technology in the industry.

Developed jointly by General Motors and Ford Motor Company, the 10-speed combines an unprecedented range of performance and fuel efficiency in one gearbox. They allow the ZL1 and Raptor to be on-course warriors one minute — and domesticated, on-road commuters the next. With government mandating increased fuel efficiency at the same time consumers expect increased performance, the 10-speed satisfies both goals.

“The 10-speed has a greater ratio spread, which enables fuel economy in the upper gears while providing more torque multiplication in the lower gears,” says Ford drivetrain engineer Seth Goslowski, who did extensive, extreme development on the Raptor in the formidable Borrego sands east of San Diego.

Ford was the lead engineering team on the rear-wheel-drive 10-speed, while GM leads development on a joint, 9-speed, front-wheel drive tranny.

The effect of an automotive 10-speed is not dissimilar in theory from an 18- or 27-speed bicycle, says Goslowski. Like a bike, multiple gears allow for better torque at low speeds, better cruising in high gear. For Raptor that translates to steep rock crawling where the big truck uses gears one-two. For the Camaro the closer low-end gear ratios enable it to better manage the pony car’s awesome 650 pound-feet of torque in order to go 0-60 in just 3.5 seconds.

But don’t expect 27-speed drivetrains from cars anytime soon.

“The 10-speed came about because its manufacturing complexity and weight makes sense,” says Goslowski. “A 12-speed does not have enough performance and fuel efficiency benefit to justify the added weight and complexity of adding more gears.”

Crucial to the joint program, dubbed 10-Speed Rear Drive (or 10R for short), was that the gearbox’s packaging would fit the same space as the base Camaro’s eight-speed transmission and the Ford F-150’s six-speed automatic.

“We spent a lot of time crafting a 10-speed that has minimum content— low losses, light weight, (economic) package — but also give us performance and efficiency improvements over our existing products,” says Chevy transmission engineer Jim Borgensen.

Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenhimer says the 10-speed was the perfect fit for the low-volume, high-performance ZL1. Tested on some off the world’s most challenging race tracks, the Camaro shares GM’s most capable V-8 — the 650-horsepower, 650-pound-feet LT4 — with the Corvette Z06.

“I wouldn’t say we did this match-up with the Camaro for (federal fuel-efficiency mandates),” says Oppenheiser. “We did it to match the powerband of the engine and track requirements because of the close-ratio of gear sets. It works perfectly with a 650-horsepower engine.”

The ZL1’s 300-millisecond upshifts put it in supercar territory; dual-clutch, $200,000 Porsche Turbo gearboxes shift in 500 milliseconds. Combined with turbo technology, the 10-speed allows the 5,518-pound Raptor to gain 16 percent fuel efficiency over the previous-generation six-speed gearbox.

Ford’s first application goes in its highest-volume vehicle: In addition to the Raptor, Ford has announced that all F-150’s with the Ecoboost V-6 engines will get the 10-speed. As a result, the automaker optimized the transmission for both power and gas mileage.

Although the F-150 and Camaro may appear to be an odd couple, Ford’s Goslowski says the performance benefits of the 10-speed to a nearly three-ton pickup and 3,944-pound sports coupe are similar.

“They both need to be sporty and aggressive in their shifting,” he says. “But towing at low speed in a truck and getting grip-torque off the line with a 6.2-liter V-8 also put similar demands on a transmission.”

Ford has not announced other applications beyond the F-150, but GM has said that it will put its so-called Hydra-matic 10R90 transmission in eight other GM products.

Ford and GM vehicles won’t be alone with 10-speed offerings in the market for long. Lexus is introducing a 10-speed in its LC 500 supercar due in May. Meanwhile, Honda has taken out a patent for an 11-speed box. Anyone for 12? Not yet in cars, but Volvo and Mercedes semi-trucks have been running 12-speed automatics for a few years now.

Whatever the speed, Goslowski thinks automatic transmissions will continue to be the technology of choice over performance-challenged single-speed CVT transmissions.

Jeff Trush was the lead calibrator on the ZL1’s transmission. He and his team of engineers programmed the box with “performance-shifting strategies” so that shifts adapt to lateral g-loads and pedal inputs by the driver.

Team Penske IndyCar racer Josef Newgarden took several hot laps in the Camaro at Willow Springs. He left it in automatic instead of using paddle shifters: “It was sensing what gear I wanted and at what moment.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.