It’s safe to say that the Proton X70 has been nothing short of a massive success for the national carmaker. Since its launch in late 2018, it has been one of the company’s bestsellers, with more than 26,000 units finding homes last year alone. More importantly, it has sown the seed of change within Proton, altering long-running customer perceptions and informing a new range of vastly improved models.

And it only takes one drive in the SUV for you to see why. Proton may have drummed up hype with its attention-grabbing “Hi Proton” voice control system, but look past the trinketry and you’ll realise there is a solid car underneath. Interior quality, long a bugbear in Chinese vehicles, is exemplary; it’s also supremely comfortable and quiet enough at a cruise to shame vehicles two, maybe even three classes above.

But it’s not perfect, and the sole notable bugbear – and not a big one at that – is the gearbox. The six-speed automatic may be a world away from the wretched Punch CVTs, but it’s still not the sharpest of transmissions around, masking the X70’s true turn of speed. It also contributes to the car’s less-than-stellar fuel economy.

Happily, all that will change when the CKD locally-assembled 2020 model goes on sale very soon, as it will receive a new seven-speed wet dual-clutch transmission, developed in collaboration between Geely and Volvo. Is a high-tech gearbox a good fit for this large crossover? We tested it out in China to find out.

Full disclosure first. The car we drove in Ningbo, Zhejiang a few weeks ago was the Geely Boyue Pro, an upgraded version of the model the X70 is based on. Before you get any ideas, no, the Pro isn’t coming to Malaysia anytime soon – we got our hands on it simply because it was the only Boyue variant to come with the 1.8 litre TGDi engine and DCT combination (which has since been extended to the normal version).

So the main focus here is the transmission which, as mentioned, is a wet clutch DCT. This gearbox is fitted to a variety of Geely and Lynk & Co models, usually accompanied by the latest 1.5 litre turbocharged three-cylinder mill. There is also an electrified version that is found on the group’s plug-in hybrid models, including the Volvo XC40 T5 Twin Engine (the regular petrol variant gets an Aisin eight-speed auto).

In the X70, the non-electrified unit will be paired to the existing 1.8 litre turbo four-pot, replacing the six-speed torque converter auto built by the Geely-owned Drivetrain Systems International (DSI). In fact, Geely no longer uses gearboxes from DSI, as the six-speed slushbox it now utilises – confusingly mated to the 1.5 litre mill in the Boyue Pro – is sourced from Aisin.

Back to the DCT, which is said to be of roughly the same size as the outgoing auto and weighs less, tipping the scales at just 75 kg. The gearbox comes with a BMW-style shift-by-wire electronic gearlever and paddle shifters, and can shift gears in as little as 0.3 seconds. It also has a maximum torque rating of 330 Nm, which allowed engineers to free up an extra 15 Nm from the 1.8 litre mill, bringing the total up to 300 Nm, available from 1,750 to 4,000 rpm. Power remains identical at 181 hp at 5,500 rpm.

The increased torque comes as part of a revision of the engine, internally referred to as Generation 3 (the one in the CBU, imported X70 is known as the Generation 2). There aren’t any mechanical changes, save for updated emissions equipment that can be tuned to meet new Euro 6d regulations, if so required.

Geely claims the DCT provides class-leading efficiency, and it says it actually benchmarked Volkswagen’s dry clutch DSGs (which provide lower driveline losses than Wolfsburg’s wet clutch units) here, with an overall efficiency figure of 94.6% and a maximum figure of 97%. The latter number is close to a good old-fashioned manual gearbox, and is also much higher than Aisin’s eight- (88%) and six-speed (89%) autos.

But while the company says that’s enough for a 1.0 litre per 100 km improvement in fuel consumption over the previous Boyue, the Pro’s quoted figure of 7.5 litres per 100 km is only 0.3 lower than before. Time will tell if the CKD X70 can achieve the same sort of improvement in the real world.

It’s important at this point to address the elephant in the room – reliability. Dry clutch DCTs may be efficiency champions, but both VW and Ford have been scarred by various issues related to these gearboxes, such as premature wear and poor refinement over time. The subject of a mountain of complaints, recalls, buybacks and class action lawsuits, the dry clutch DCT has sullied the reputation of the once-adulated technology.

Simply by switching to an inherently more robust wet clutch design, Geely is confident it is able to avoid these issues. Speaking to us during the event, senior chief engineer Tejinder Singh said that bathing the clutches in cooled oil gets rid of the temperature-related issues that beset dry clutch DCTs, and it also eradicates most of the low-speed hesitation and juddering encountered by consumers in the past.

Geely’s DCT also conforms to Volvo’s stricter durability requirements, designed for a service life of more than 350,000 km – significantly higher than the industry standard of 240,000 km. The company has also conducted numerous hot and cold weather and high-altitude tests in China, South Africa and Europe, racking up over nine million kilometres before putting the gearbox into production.

One important fact often overlooked by consumers is that DCTs require different fluids with unique properties compared to traditional automatic transmission fluids. Geely’s unit uses a proprietary low-viscosity formulation, which Tejinder said further improves reliability and smoothness.

It is, of course, way too early to properly assess maintenance costs vis-à-vis the previous automatic gearbox, but while Proton has yet to announce specific figures, it said that service intervals will be comparable, and in fact the fluid will be cheaper than the ATF used in the CBU X70.

We tested the Boyue Pro at the Chunxiao powertrain plant in Ningbo, which builds the DCT for every application, even the Volvo ones. The state-of-the-art facility, opened in 2017, currently churns out 50,000 of these gearboxes every month, but Geely expects to ramp up that figure to a whopping 200,000 units monthly. A second plant is being built in Changing, also in Zhejiang, to increase production still further.

At this juncture, I would like to point out that the “test drive” in question consisted of just a couple of runs up and down the arrow-straight and runway-flat piece of road behind the factory, so it could hardly be considered a challenging route – a more thorough test on local roads will be conducted very soon. This, then, is merely a brief taster of what’s to come, but hopefully an informative one all the same.

Something that consumers will need to understand before getting into the car is that because a dual-clutch transmission works in a fundamentally different way compared to a regular automatic, it also behaves differently. Engineers work very hard to replicate the behaviour of a torque converter, from its smoothness in operation to its quick response upon stepping off.

One of the biggest hurdles these engineers face is implementing a “creep” function – the ability of the car to simply roll forwards (or backwards, in reverse) without touching the accelerator. It’s something that comes naturally to a torque converter, but in a DCT this requires the slipping of one of the clutches, which of course causes wear. Balancing the requirements of customer satisfaction and reliability is therefore key.

Indeed, the first thing I noticed driving the car was that the “creep” was not quite as pronounced as it would have been with a conventional auto. This wasn’t exactly a bad thing, just something I had to get used to (as will owners). At least the gearbox responded quickly as soon as the brake pedal was released, and did not adversely affect our progress from a standstill (I’m looking at you, Mercedes-Benz A-Class).

And once we got rolling, the Boyue Pro picked up speed noticeably quicker than the CBU X70 ever could. Whereas the outgoing model felt a little lazy off the line, the new one accelerated with considerable vigour. This could have been down to the extra twist on hand, but I’d wager a guess and say that the DCT was actually more efficient in transmitting power to the ground.

Gearshifts were also seamless and instantaneous in automatic mode, and downshifts came swiftly whenever I floored the throttle. One minor niggle was that the paddle shifters weren’t quite as responsive as I’d have liked, often taking close to a second after clicking one of them for the shift to follow through. It really wasn’t that big of an issue, however, especially on a family-oriented SUV.

More worrying was the fact that some members of the media reported a slight but noticeable thump as the gearbox downshifted while coming to a stop, though it wasn’t something that I personally experienced. While it might alarm those stepping out from a smooth-shifting automatic, it could simply be a quirk of this particular DCT, and it certainly wouldn’t have been as pronounced as in, say, a tired VW dry clutch DSG.

We were also given the opportunity to try out the previous Mercedes GLA back-to-back with the Boyue Pro. This being fitted with a first-generation Daimler DCT, it inevitably felt outclassed, being slow to respond to throttle inputs and shifting sluggishly between gears. It was a perfect demonstration of how far dual-clutch technology has come, even though both feature wet clutch designs.

Despite the brevity of this encounter, one thing is clear – Geely’s venture into dual-clutch transmissions is a very competent one. This is a high-tech gearbox that belies the relative inexperience of the company, performing better than gearboxes from supposedly more established brands. It exhibits very few flaws but provides some excellent benefits, not least being the car’s newfound verve under acceleration.

Some questions remain, of course. We still don’t know how well the gearbox will fare in our weather, on our roads and amongst our cutthroat traffic, though we’ll find that out soon enough. And while Geely makes big claims about the DCT’s reliability, those of you who have been stung by past issues will understandably still be concerned. Like I said, only time will tell.

Until then, the introduction of this new DCT looks to bring some welcome improvements to an already compelling package. More than that, it proves that Geely isn’t going to restrict Proton from receiving its latest technologies, and for us customers, that can only be a good thing. With the smaller X50 SUV also due to arrive this year, it’s set to be a great 2020 for the once-beleaguered national brand.

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