A 'Pass' on Honda's New Transmission That Can't Pass

Continuously variable transmission, with no gears, has promise but makes Civic slow

It's supposed to be the greatest thing on wheels since Henry Ford expanded his color palette.

But really, the all-new transmission in this Honda Civic just makes the normally sprightly car feel as slow as a Model T.

It's called continuously variable transmission (CVT), and it's supposed to run the engine at an ideal speed for power and efficiency - without gears.

Some day the technology may live up to that promise. But not yet.

CVT's have had minimal impact in the United States, because until now the technology was restricted to tiny economy cars.

Subaru planted one in its three-cylinder Justy in the early 1990s, but the car lacked popular appeal because of its size.

The transmissions couldn't handle heavier cars or more powerful engines.

Honda takes the system a tremendous step forward in its Civic HX coupe, a popular car with a reasonably potent 116-horsepower engine.

The principle behind the CVT is this: Instead of using gears to transmit power from the engine to the road, as conventional manual and automatic transmissions do, CVT's use a belt and pulleys. Older versions could drive only light, slow cars because the belts would slip and wear out if they were pulled any harder.

So Honda engineers reversed the process. Instead of pulling, their special belt pushes. Metal plates embedded in the belt stack up against one another and push the belt around the pulleys.

Both pulleys are infinitely adjustable, so the gearing is, too.

It works like a 21-speed bicycle: The bigger the sprocket in front and the smaller in the rear, the faster you can go with a minimum of pedaling, and vice versa. The CVT has no sprockets, just an unlimited range of pulley sizes on both ends.

All this is controlled by a computer that measures the car's speed, the engine's current speed, and the amount of gas the driver is demanding.

In principle, this sounds fine.

In practice, the computer leaves the car struggling for power most of the time. To get enough power for any more than glacial acceleration, the driver has to move the gear selector to the "sport" position, then change back to "drive" afterward to quiet the racket.

This is probably more shifting than drivers expect. After all, if they wanted to shift, they could have bought a five-speed.

The CVT tries to marry an automatic transmission's ease with much of the fuel efficiency of a manual. It also has a manual's ability to let the engine brake the car down a hill, just by backing off the gas pedal.

Like an automatic, it can be driven without touching the gear "shift" - if you never intend to pass anybody on the freeway.

The CVT adds $1,000 to the $13,400 sticker price of the HX coupe, a mid-level car between the base DX and the upscale EX. The HX comes with power windows, locks, and mirrors.

The transmission sacrifices some gas mileage: 34 miles per gallon city/38 highway, as opposed to 37/44 for the industry-leading five-speed HX. No regular automatic is available in the HX.

But this transmission will satisfy neither automatic nor stick-shift drivers.

With this car, Honda has proved the feasibility of continuously variable transmissions. In sport mode, the car has plenty of power. And the Civic coupe is a comfortably sized platform.

If only the transmission computer were programmed differently, to allow more sport without shifting, buyers could have the best of both worlds.

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