I must admit that I’m yet to be convinced by CVT transmissions. The Honda Civic IMA and Toyota Prius are the most recent examples I’ve driven and neither quite satisfied me in the way they should have. Yes, I know that, technically, these gearboxes are the way ahead – in theory, they will always deliver the correct amount of power and torque as requested by the driver’s right foot.
Indeed, so good are they, that back in 1993 when the F1 technology wars were at their height, the FIA banned these systems – just as Williams Grand Prix Engineering was perfecting the system for Formula 1 use…
However, as a keen (and, some might say, luddite) driver, there’s a pecular satisfaction in listening to an engine note rising and falling – a sure indicator of how hard (or gently) the power unit is working. The snick-snick of upchanging, the satisfaction of a gearchange well done… well, there are few things that beat it but, with CVT, you lose all that.
This week, though, I’ve found myself being won over. I’m not not convinced entirely, perhaps, but am certainly rather less sceptical. The car in question was an MG ZR Steptronic – a loaner from my Subaru dealer while the Forester was in for a service – and, although with a mere 60K on the clock, it felt rather baggy and unloved (as is wont for a car that’s performing such mundane duties), I have to say that I really liked it.
In terms of overall performance – it’s not all that great shakes but step-off is fantastic, giving you bags of confidence when emerging from side-roads. Leaving the stylised gear selector in ‘D’, it wafts along agreeably, often feeling faster than it really is. Unlike manual five-speeders, it cruises along at the legal limit at 2500rpm (as opposed to over 3000).
I was surprised to find that, for the first time, the CVT’s penchant for delivering a constant, whining and annoying engine note under acceleration failed to annoy me as it had in earlier cars I’ve driven. Maybe, just maybe, that’s down to the ZR’s lack of overall refinement – it’s a noisy car and wind and tyre noise tend to overwhelm the jewel like K-Series, depriving the driver of that strange ‘slipping clutch’ feel that makes CVTs feel so unsatisfying.
However, the feature I really like is the manual override. Perhaps its been formulated for luddites like me – but the simulated six-speed transmission proves quite nice to use. Floor the throttle, and it’ll rev north of 6000rpm, push the selector down for an upchange (more logical than it sounds), and there’s a crisp change of ‘ratio’, and the revs are climbing again towards the red line. All very nice indeed – and, for the first time, it feels like it actually works well. Oh and, yes, I know it’s all down to the computer software, but I really don’t mind that at all.
Back in 2003, when this car was built, it’s unlikely that many people will have wanted this transmission in their ZRs. The sales figures (and subsequent residual values) back up this opinion but perhaps that’s because potential buyers weren’t given the opportunity to try it out for themselves before ruling out the idea. The luddite in me would have bypassed without even trying it, and now I know that I would have been doing the clever Steptronic transmission a huge disservice in the process.