By on March 18, 2015

stairs. Image: Shutterstock user pxl.store

TTAC commentator Raincoaster writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I currently drive a 2011 Honda Fit(Manual) and I’m mildly interested in a CVT for my next car purchase. I have never driven one, and one thing that gives me pause is all the “fake gears” that they set them up with. I understand that this is to make them drive in a manner familiar to traditional automatic transmissions, but this seems unnecessary and possibly inefficient to me. Are there any cars/companies that don’t fake it and just let the engine/trans cook up the best ratio at any given time? I’d like to test drive something like that to see how it feels.

A second and 2 part question. I work a 40 day on, 40 off shift and while working, my car (2011 Fit) sits. Is this bad and is there anything I should do for preparation or upon first start up? This also got me wondering about cars on dealer lots, do they periodically start sitting inventory?

-Raincoaster

Sajeev answers:

A 40-day stagnation period has been discussed, here’s the first example. Your only concern is having an older battery: newer cars in many geographic locations are rough on 3-5 year old batteries, so be ready for a dead battery that won’t come back from a jump start. Hopefully there’s an open parts store or a Wal-Mart nearby when that happens.

I also like the traditional, non-stepped CVT as witnessed by my 2014 Mirage road test.  The Mirage lacks flappy paddles and fake gears, but has a manual “low” for steep hills or maybe autocrossing in a serious sleeper. Add that with the fuel economy benefits, these CVTs are worth considering over auto-erratic slushboxes.

As I mentioned in the review, compared to the slow upshifts and the borderline-unsafe delays on WOT downshifts of modern 6-8 speed automatics (considering decades of performance-oriented designs, both from the factory and the aftermarket) a stepless CVT is okay.  But public adoption sans fake gears is unlikely, Nissan’s D-step redesign is proof of that. Hopefully you, me, and threads like this mean that CVT step gears become a fad like motorized seatbelts.

Speaking of steps, I’m side-steppin’ your query.  Aside from the Mitsubishi, I don’t know which new CVTs run without steps. I assume Toyota hybrids stay stepless, as people are okay with a Hybrid being different.  This is why Piston Slap only succeeds with the Best and Brightest in play. So off to you!

[Image: Shutterstock user pxl.store]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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40 Comments on “Piston Slap: Avoiding Brutal CVT Step Gears?...”


  • avatar
    redav

    Ah, the motorized seat belt–what a wretched piece of compliance crap thrust upon the undeserving masses.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Believe it or not, I’ve talked to people who actually liked them. I just can’t see it.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        I had a motorized seatbelt in both an ’86 Buick ‘T-type’ and an ’85 Olds Toronado. Admittedly it took a little getting used to when stepping in, but I quickly learned to like it as I never had to twist my back to find the tongue. Never failed in either car, though I’m sure they would have eventually–had the cars survived. One totaled in crash, other had timing gear strip, requiring major engine work that I couldn’t afford at the time.

    • 0 avatar
      Secret Hi5

      I got used to the motorized belt in my Altima. Stupid thing is I had to manually buckle the lap belt to ensure safety, and more importantly – Shut off the seat belt warning.

      • 0 avatar
        Moparmann

        And THAT was the biggest problem, If you didn’t buckle the seat belt, safety was compromised, as you would “submarine” under the shoulder belt in a crash!! Also, you get into car, buckle both belts, arrive at your destination..the “motorized mouse” retracts, you forget the waist belt and look stupid while trying to exit w/ it still fastened! LOL! :-)

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    Though I drive manuals regularly, I purchased a vehicle with a CVT for my significant other after driving a couple rentals with this transmission. The action (non-action?) of the gearbox reminds me of the vehicles of my youth – the old Buick Dynaflows but with a heck of a lot more get-up-and-go. Smooth; no drama, no wait for the downshift or upshift. I get pretty decent performance on take off by punching it up to about 4000 to 4200 rpm (max torque band) and hold it there till it gets to the velocity I want. I liken the action to a turboprop airplane where engine speed remains constant with propeller “bite” increasing / decreasing to raise and lower output power. And I don’t miss the shifting of the conventional auto at all.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      Whenever the subject of CVTs comes up, my father extols the smoothness of Dynaflow-equipped Buicks. I would characterize his reaction to stepped CVTs as cackling at the folly of man.

    • 0 avatar
      mechaman

      Yeah, I don’t get those folks at all. I do notice when my car shifts, but I really don’t care if I ‘feel’ it unless it shifts hard, or doesn’t shift. As long as it moves when I step on the pedal .. anytime I’ve really ‘felt’ a shift, there was a problem.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatist

      Let me ask an honest question, because I’ve not driven one of these things. I recently saw a test where two otherwise identical cars were quarter-miled and the manual was significantly faster.

      Since it was a standing start, both started off in low ratios, and the CVT essentially delayed it’s ratio changes. But do they do something like a kickdown? If they do, how fast does it kick in? Lack of a fast, deepk kickdown would be a disadvantage (moreso that a standing start) if you’re travelling 35 or so and suddenly hit the gas to pass.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I drive one of the Ford PHEVs, no steps in my transmission. I assume the regular hybrid behaves the same way.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually that’s right, I forgot about the Fusion Hybrid I drove with a normal CVT.

      • 0 avatar
        A strolling player

        Most full hybrids (those using Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, the equivalent Lexus Hybrid Drive, or the precedessor Toyota Hybrid System—including Escape, Fusion, Altima) don’t actually have CVTs as such, they’re just called CVTs because they act in much the same way as a CVT does. But there isn’t actually any “variability” in the transmission at all; the engine and electric motors are connected to the wheels via a fixed planetary gearset, and the engine output speed is computer controlled and converted into a given output speed by spinning the two electric motors at particular speeds and in particular directions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_Synergy_Drive – see the “Transmission” section. This explains it particularly well: http://eahart.com/prius/psd/

        The system does indeed remain “stepless” in operation because it’s there to maximize efficiency, and obviously that’s the whole point of the hybrid system. Also it’s kind of silly to even bother in a car that can accelerate without turning the gas engine on at all. Some Toyota hybrids do offer a “manual shifting” mode, though, which simulates gears—at least, the RX 450h definitely does.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Probably best for another discussion but what about the repair costs of CVTs?
    I understand that they are now more durable than in the past but still hear horror stories about repair costs. For example a relatively new, middle mileage Smart at the local garage with a book value less than the cost of repairing its transmission.

  • avatar
    sproc

    I have a car that often sits like that due to work schedule, and not somewhere I can leave it on a trickle charger. I bought a small jumpstart pack and it works beautifully. You shouldn’t need a very big one for a Fit. Just make sure it’s got the kind of smart charging circuitry that lets you leave it plugged in until you need it. I also always do a walk-around first, and leave a pressure gauge and a small 12V powered air compressor in the trunk just in case. Also, depending on what conditions it’s sitting in, you may notice the rubber bits (wipers, sunroof gasket, etc.) go a lot quicker.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Board formed concrete always looks incomplete without a healthy coating of vines and creepers.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Come to think of it I rented a Corolla that had a CVT. although it did have paddles, when in automatic mode it did not seem to have any steps.

  • avatar
    is_lander

    During a recent car repair, we were given a Nissan Maxima by the rental company. This was my first experience in a CVT car and I was looking forward to it. It was awful! In my perception, it took away the power from what a Maxima should feel. Mechanically, it did what it was designed to do with the “steps” but it just did not execute in the real world. It whined a lot and the gas pedal did not feel connected to the engine. We returned it after a couple days of unhappy commuting and my wife requested a Prius, our second experience in a CVT-like system (it is a planetary gear system, power split device, that acts like a CVT). That felt like what a CVT is suppose to do according to what engineering tells us. Smooth transitions and more constant power. And the pedal actually felt connected to the car. Even though it was a Prius, we were happier than in the sportier Maxima. This seems to be the consensus with the Nissan “step” CVT. The lesson here, test drive all possible CVT. They are not the same. I still love the idea of CVT, but execution and cost drive the market, despite new ideas (mechanical seatbelts from earlier). I am pretty sure the Porsche hybrid will have a better CVT.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I love Brutalist architecture. Has to be one of the most unappreciated styles in modern history.

    I mean, come on!
    http://www.orms.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Concrete-Brutalism_BBC4_730px1.jpg

    Also highly recommend the BBC documentary on this topic, “I Love Carbuncles.”

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      My favorite so far is Dallas City Hall, AKA OCP Headquarters in RoboCop.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      With several iconic Brutalist complexes slated for demolition/replacement both in the US and UK, I find it especially ironic their most enduring memorials may well be a series of paper craft model kits.

      http://www.zupagrafika.com/zupamarket_en.html

      And having visited more than a few well run municipal operations housed within that oh-so-recognizable board-formed concrete motif, Brutalist structures may well be the Pontiac Aztek of the architecture world; they look a hell of a lot better on the inside.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        The insides of them is more conventional. All they need is some thick carpet, paint, wood lathe and plaster, Semtex for blasting out openings for windows…

  • avatar
    catachanninja

    The CVT in my ’10 Altima (with the 3.5) is non stepped and performs admirably, even on some of the long steep hills I have in my area. I know “new” was specified but if you’re looking for a stepless cvt its definitely another option.

  • avatar
    Tinn-Can

    The stepping is just a programming thing correct? Perhaps there should be a button to turn it off and increase efficiency a-la eco and sport mode… The only reason people seem to hate it is because it is different from what they expect an automatic transmission to feel like… You have to ween them off of it I guess.

  • avatar
    Nico

    Are there really CVTs that do fake gears in auto mode? I have a 2010 Honda with a CVT. It most certainly does *not* do step ratios on auto mode. There are paddle shifters available, but I think of it more as “seven preselected ratios available to hold” than a manual mode.

  • avatar
    tsoden

    Toyota CVT’s don’t seem to have a step mode… at least the Toyota Prius doesn’t.

  • avatar
    lagmonger

    I’ve driven and/or researched most CVTs on the market, and paid attention to this kind of thing. I will try to recall all that I’ve driven off the top of my head:
    Nissan (Altima, Sentra, Juke)–Older ones don’t have fake shifts. Newer ones are starting to incorporate it.
    Honda (Accord, Civic)–No fake shifts.
    Subaru (Impreza)–No fake shifts in auto, but has paddles.
    Toyota (Corolla)–No fake shifts at low throttle. Fake shifts for higher throttle. Sport model has paddles.
    Hybrids w/eCVT–No fake shifts, to maximize efficiency.

    • 0 avatar
      Saxphile

      I would like to add that activating Eco Mode on the 2014 Nissan Qashqai (UK-spec) made the CVT behave naturally. Not sure if that’s available on USDM Nissan.

  • avatar
    George B

    I drive a 20 mile each way rush hour commute in the Dallas suburbs in a Honda Accord with a CVT. The CVT is very well suited to driving on congested highways in that it can achieve good fuel economy and smooth operation in real world crappy driving conditions. The main downside is that the muted engine noise isn’t in sync with acceleration and accelerator pedal position. There may be an issue with engine braking on ice and snow, but I didn’t have much trouble during our few days of winter.

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    I believe our 2013 Altima 4 cylinder is stepless. Reminds me off riding a snowmobile or an old 6 cylinder with a powerglide. It does get fantastic gas mileage. But at low speeds it has vibration/droning that I don’t care for. Of course the dealer can’t find anything wrong with it. At low speeds, it would be similar to shifting from 2nd to 4th in a manual, lugging the engine. I don’t like it but the wife doesn’t pay any attention to it.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I think most of the complaints about CVTs are more about noise, vibration, and harshness than about the CVT itself. Because a relatively minor press on the accelerator can send the engine up the rev range quickly, the carmaker needs to be extra careful with NVH, since the combination of relatively high engine speed and low throttle opening is not typical of cars with conventional automatics.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    On that battery issue, Jegs, among others, makes battery disconnect switches that connect directly to the battery terminal, no wire cutting required.

  • avatar
    XYGTHO Phase3

    My old man has a Camry Hybrid (sigh) – stepless CVT in that. Admittedly it is very quiet, so engine noise is immediately apparent, but it still feels like a slipping clutch.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      The Toyota and Ford hybrid systems use eCVTs in an entirely different way than conventional CVTs. They are planetary gearsets with electric motors. No pulleys or belts (At least with the Ford HF53 transmission).

  • avatar

    I got a civic loaner with cvt. I HATED it. give me a manual OR standard autobox…

    thrash + no acceleration….why ?

  • avatar
    Spartan

    Nissan tends to make the best CVTs IMO. My brother and his wife have a 2013 Altima 2.5L. It’s incredibly smooth in operation and doesn’t make much fuss. It’s an appliance, but like a waffle iron, you put waffle mix in it, wait 2.5 minutes and you get a waffle.

    I honestly don’t see why people hate CVTs so much. In commuter cars, they’re perfect for what most non-enthusiast people need.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatist

      My biggest concern is what I see as trouble waiting to happen. In a convetional automatic, the friction surfaces only wear during the fraction of a second of the shift. And gears last pretty much the life of the car. The rest of thetimethey are static. With CVTs (this does NOT apply to the hybrid systems which are entirely different) the chain is constantly gripping (tight enough to transmit power) then ungripping. When ratios are changing it’s even worse.

      I cannot see this as a good idea. More of a tradeoff between service life and government mandated fuel economy. Guess who loses.

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