Despite all those advertisements celebrating the metrosexual male, India remains a land of machismo, where it is hard to loosen that muscular grip, even in the way we drive cars. This is probably why it has taken so long for automatic transmission (AT) to become popular among Indian commuters. The technology has been around for quite long, but the Indian motorist has always found it hard to let go of the manual gear lever. For some, it’s even the equivalent of the fidget spinner on the road. And AT has long remained an enigma of sorts. There are economic reasons, of course, behind holding on to manually driven cars. But automatic cars mean less work and ease of driving in the challenging thickets of India’s ever-growing urban jungles. For the longest time, AT car models, which are more expensive than the manual models, were also considered to be bad in terms of mileage—that one word which literally drives India’s automobile market. But the new AT models are changing this perception by offering fuel efficiency as well. AT can be gradually seen populating the urban hubs of India, where the automatic gearbox is providing much relief from relentlessly nudging the gear stalk and working the left calf muscle in crazy morning traffic.
By next year, almost one-tenth of the Indian automotive market will consist of AT cars. About 20 to 50 per cent of many popular models currently sold by market majors like Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Suzuki already have an automated gearbox. According to Magneti Marelli, manufacturer of high-tech automobile components, 20 per cent of passenger vehicles on Indian roads will have Automatic Manual Transmission (AMT) by 2020. No surprises there.
Other than the conventional Automatic, there are mainly two choices being offered under the AT tag in the market—the Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) and the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The DSG is the slightly smarter automatic transmission, which can pre-select the next gear intuitively thus facilitating quick gear changes. It is particularly suited for sporty cars as it facilitates good seamless acceleration. However, it isn’t ideal for those frequently stuck in long traffic jams.
The CVT has its exclusive patrons too among automotive manufacturers. After sitting in the second car launch in a week featuring a CVT transmission, I concluded there is no technology more misunderstood. The highlight of the transmission in the newly launched models is that they are programmed to mimic a shifting pattern more familiar to Indian drivers. Although technically a CVT, the transmission on both the cars was characterised by step-down shifting rather than seamless shifting that the CVT allows for.
Apparently, even manufacturers adapting and championing the cause of CVT in India are doing so apologetically, thanks to a general idea that the CVT in most cars here is a compromise for the sake of fuel efficiency. Although this was true in the past, technology has evolved and there are bright spots of obvious advantages with regard to CVT than there were half a decade ago.
So, what exactly is the CVT? The continuously Variable Transmission is a combination of two clutches or pulleys of variable diameters connected by a belt. One is attached to the engine, and the other to the transmission and the belt serves to transfer the output. The CVT depends on the engine speed to set the gear ratio rather than a physically selected gear. While a 6-speed automatic transmission has six gears, often the perfect gear could be between two of these slots. As the CVT has endless gear ratios, it is theoretically possible to choose three and a half instead of moving from three to four. With a CVT, there is no gear hunting and you are always in the right one. Other advantages of a CVT include being lightweight and relatively compact besides being fuel-efficient.
In theory, CVT is ideal to create conditions that let the car accelerate fastest, by placing it in the sweet spot generating maximum power by adapting gear ratios seamlessly. There is no step down time loss between gears. So, the CVT is actually quite cool and quick, something the marketing departments of automobile manufacturers should be highlighting.
In India, the fuel efficient CVT is something Nissan, Honda and the rest would want to wield. Even a Nissan Maxima, with a 3.5 L engine, returns high fuel efficiency figures while the 2.4 L Honda CR-V is no less. Weight reduction can be a reason in the former, but the reality is that it’s the CVT that has been refining the vehicle’s raison d’etre.
The greatest challenge that CVT faces in new markets is the comfort level people have with step-shifting—be it manual or automatic—where moving from one gear to the next gear is clearly differentiated. So, the proponents of CVT technology have been finding ways—and fancy names—to induce this feeling of the step-shift. In reality, a step-shifting CVT is an oxymoron. It beats the purpose of avoiding the drop in rpm when choosing the next gear. This is the reason I sympathise with those car companies that have chosen to walk the straight line, but are forced to add twists and turns when introducing their brand new CVT model, just because habits die hard!
People wish to stay within familiar territory when it comes to cars, but habits are bound to change with time. In terms of ease of maintenance, shift-time saved and fuel efficiency, CVT tops the list and can stand up for itself, without compromises.