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01 November 2014 Last updated
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The death of the automatic gearbox

By Dejan Jovanovic
Added 11:14 | October 13, 2013
  • Won't somebody please think of the automatics?

    Source:Supplied picture

So you’re upset that the manual transmission is dying? Just you wait until the reaper comes for the automatic ’box, writes Dejan Jovanovic

The Dutch are famously lax on certain recreational laws. But, it seems they are as lax on racing rules as well. The Netherlands seems to be the only country on Earth that hosted a reverse racing championship – we’re not talking about reverse grids so common in motorsport series around the world. We mean literally, racing in reverse.

The championship seemed perfectly suitable to the Dutch car and truck manufacturer DAF, especially its compact models such as the 33, 44, 46 and 66 (which later became the badge-engineered Volvo 66), mostly because of their unique and stepless variomatic transmission technology patented by DAF in its first passenger car, the 1959 600.

The DAF 600 was the first volume model to use such a ‘gearbox’, what we now call a CVT or continuously variable transmission. Because of the DAF road cars’ CVT driving the rear wheels by a rubber belt there was no shifting of gears because there were no gears. You just go, and optimum torque is always there. Curiously, selecting reverse mode simply reversed the belt’s drive and that meant you could go just as fast backwards as forwards. Naturally no other car could keep up with DAFs in those annual Dutch reverse driving championships so they put them in a class of their own. Thus two-cylinder DAFs were basically the monster Group B cars of the backwards racing world…

It was all well and jolly when CVTs were novel and interesting, but today these transmissions are the curse of many otherwise fine, modern automobiles. Nissan and Renault are the chief protagonists of this technology and several of their cars received poor marks in wheels tests mostly due to the incessant engine-droning that comes with a CVT, and that utterly emotionless, depressing driving feel it delivers. Audi also ruined an entry-level four-cylinder A6 with a CVT; Mitsubishi’s ASX flew right over our heads because of its soul-sapping CVT; Subaru’s new XV crossover came last in a four-way wheels shootout mainly due to the CVT (and the price); and the Renault Koleos impressed us with almost all of its aspects bar one. You guessed it; CVT.

Yeah, thanks a lot, DAF…

This divisive technology, sadly, is here to stay. When Leonardo da Vinci conceptualised a stepless form of continuously variable transmission in 1490, we bet he couldn’t predict that Bosch would help carry on the invention into the 21st century.

This leading supplier of CVT components to global carmakers predicts that a quarter of all automatics will soon be CVTs. Considering that the manual transmission is dying and almost isn’t even part of this equation that basically means a quarter of all cars sold will feature CVTs. And for what? For an “up to seven per cent fuel saving”?

Bosch says currently its CVT tech can drive cars developing up to 450Nm of torque and 300 horsepower, but it won’t be long before the growing market necessitates technological advancements – Bosch has already manufactured its 25 millionth CVT belt, yay - and before you know it a CVT will be able to handle double the current power cap. 2023 Nissan GT-R with a CVT? Lovely…

There are benefits, besides the marginal economy improvement. CVTs are compact and simple, lighter and cheaper to manufacture. They lower costs for you, and potentially increase passenger compartment room. Infinite gearing potential also means that Bosch can help manufacture one design of CVT to be used in a myriad different vehicles made by separate manufacturers.

Regardless, in our experience – the experience of a bunch of car enthusiasts – the negative aspects of these uninvolving contraptions far outweigh the positives in pretty much every single CVT-fitted car we’ve tested. (Hybrids being the exception. We totally don’t mind them in hybrids.)

What’s perhaps even more worrying is that Nissan is the driving name behind a push for development of CVTs suitable for high-powered rear-wheel drive cars. So far the CVT has been limited to front-wheel drive and (transversely-engined) all-wheel drive vehicles, but Nissan’s Extroid CVT ditches the conventional belts and pulleys in favour of discs and rollers to send drive to the back. It’s not in production yet, although it’s just a matter of time. Not much time.

We see only one end to all this. Currently car enthusiasts are all mourning the death of the manual gearbox. If the fast-growing CVT trend continues however, it won’t be long until we’re mourning the death of the torque-converter automatic. Who would’ve thought…