There are many technological reasons why modern vehicles are more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. But the technological move that yielded the most mileage for the buck was the adoption of automatic transmissions with more than four gears. Basically, it’s a case of allowing higher vehicle speeds with lower engine speeds, which also aids engine longevity.

This revolution started in earnest about five years ago.

So if you’re currently considering a used vehicle in that age range, it would behoove you to make sure the vehicle in question is one of the enlightened ones — those fitted with an automatic transmission with five, six, seven or eight gears. (Or maybe even a CVT (continuously variable transmission), but that’s another story, for another day).

What about nine or ten speeds?

You won’t find many of those in the used market now (2013), but will in the future.

One of the world’s premier maker of automatic transmissions, ZF Friedrichshafen of Germany, announced plans last month to boost production of eight and nine-speed automatic transmissions by 50 percent to 1.2 million units by 2016.

And GM and Ford announced earlier this year a plan to work together on nine- and ten-speed automatic transmissions. Any new vehicle introduced in the next few years, particularly in the mid- to high-price segments, will surely be packing these eight-, nine-, and ten-speed transmissions.

Not likely. ZF has gone on record saying it believes nine is pretty much all you need, citing that the key is just achieving low-enough engine speeds, and adding more gear ratios after that would only bring complexity, weight, and cost.

But back to the used car market… You can easily find out how many speeds are in a prospective used vehicle’s automatic transmission by looking up its specifications for its particular model year, easily accomplished by consulting that thing called the world wide inter-web.

Another great resource is the Fuel Consumption Guide published online by Natural Resources Canada. If you’re looking for fuel consumption comparisons you’ll probably want to go there anyway, and NRCan’s ratings are always matched to the vehicle’s engine size and transmission type (manual or automatic, number of gears).

But just to hone down your hunt somewhat, let’s review when some of Canada’s top-selling midsize nameplates made the switch to a multi-speed automatic.

Back in 2002, GM and Ford collaborated to design and engineer a new 6-speed automatic transaxle for front-drive vehicles. GM called its version the 6T70, while Ford called its version the 6F50.

Generally speaking, front-wheel drive vehicles came later to the 6-speed party than rear-drive vehicles, because it’s harder to make a multi-speed front transaxle, due to space and weight restrictions.

The first GM vehicles to use the 6T70 were the 2007 Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6, and GMC Acadia (and Buick Enclave, and Chevrolet Traverse, and Saturn Outlook). For 2008, it went on select models of Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Equinox, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac Torrent, Chevrolet Traverse, Cadillac SRX, and Buick LaCrosse. Chevrolet Impala didn’t use it until 2012.

The first Ford vehicles to use the 6F50 were the 2007 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX. In 2008 it migrated to Taurus, and in 2009 to Ford Flex, Escape, and Mazda Tribute. In 2010 Lincoln MKZ and Ford Fusion joined the party.

For just a taste of the difference, consider the Ford Escape with the 3.0-litre V6: The 2008 fitted with the four-speed was rated at 11.7 L/100 km (City) and 8.2 (Highway); the 2009 Escape with the six-speed was rated at 11.5 (City) and 7.7 (Highway).

Chrysler’s first front-drive six-speed transaxle showed up on the 2007 Sebring and Pacifica. In 2008 it was fitted to the minivans, and Dodge Avenger, then in 2009 to Dodge Journey.

Unlike their Detroit-base brethren, many import-based automakers transitioned to five-speed automatics first, before making the leap to six- and seven-speed designs.

The Toyota Camry, for example, made the five-speed leap way back in 2005. By 2007, a six-speed transaxle was ready for Camry V6, and by 2010, all Camry models were fitted with six-speeds.

Honda starting making five-speed front-drive transaxles in 2000. Over the next decade, they found their way on virtually all Hondas. The first six-speed for Accord showed up in 2013.

The transmission is obviously not the vehicle’s whole fuel-efficiency story. The whole story can be easily ascertained by simply comparing overall fuel consumption ratings. But a multi-speed transmission is where the future it going, and when you’re shopping in the used marketplace, you might as well grab as much future as you can.

The first year each of the following nameplates flaunted an automatic transmission with six or more gears:

  • Chevrolet Equinox: 2008
  • Chevrolet Impala: 2012
  • Chrysler Town & Country: 2008
  • Dodge Journey: 2009
  • Ford Escape: 2008
  • Ford Fusion: 2010
  • Honda Accord: 2013
  • Hyundai Elantra: 2011
  • Hyundai Santa Fe: 2010
  • Toyota Camry: 2007