Recently, my Rover 2000 went into a garage for some work and I ended up borrowing a Rover 100 CVT as a courtesy car. I’d not had the pleasure of the ‘gearless’ Metro before and I must admit that I was looking forward to it.
Sure, the build quality was shocking – the remote central locking didn’t work on the driver’s door, but still had to be operated to turn the immobiliser off and the interior plastics (especially those door handles) are horrendously cheap. The wood stuck to the dashboard was just laughable – but that was all secondary. What is a CVT like to drive?
Most peculiar is the answer. Having driven DAF Variomatics before, I sort of knew what to expect, but the quiet work of the engine as you ease away, with the noise a continuous monotone save for a hint of transmission whine, leaves you feeling that something just isn’t right. It truly baffles the mind.
At 30mph, the engine is still humming at a very low speed but, with the K-series engine warmed up after a little pootling, I can give it some beans. This is even more peculiar. The revs shoot up – to one of two preset positions depending on how heavily you stamp on the pedal – and speed increases in a most uncanny manner. Sure, it doesn’t feel as quick as banging through the gears, but it is just a seamless progression.
After a fair bit of driving, it becomes second nature. Sure, it’s a bit ragged in stop/go conditions, with the engine trying to drive through the braking effort you’re providing, but the lack of a clutch pedal is a real joy when things get snarled up, which they inevitably do. You learn to moderate your throttle pressure to keep the revs down, allowing the engine to return surprisingly good economy for a small automatic. Cruising at 60mph on fast roads is no issue at all, with the engine still humming away. It’s all rather relaxing and not at all how you expect a small automatic to feel.
It did leave me wondering why CVT transmission didn’t catch on. At one stage, Audi was even fitting it to their larger saloons and just imagine how much better a Smart would be with a gearbox that didn’t have too many ratios and a clumsy automated gear change? Were people just too unwilling to accept a world where there are no gear changes, no change in engine tone and no sensation at all of a change of ratio? Some manufacturers are persevering with CVT – Dodge and Mitsubishi amongst them – but, generally, these systems just aren’t popular.