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‘Fake’ Gears Cancreate Confusion

November 10, 2018

Q: The automatic transmission in my 2018 Honda Civic hatchback doesn’t slow me down if I shift down to second gear. I want to use it for going down hills, but it doesn’t seem to hold the speed down like my old ’05 Civic did. Is the new transmission not made to do that? — KEVIN A: Your new Civic has a totally different type of transmission, Kevin. The 2018 Civic comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that has no actual gears. It’s designed with a steel mesh belt that slides up and down two metal cones to find the best possible gear ratio at any given moment (you can find some good videos of how this thing works on YouTube). That maximizes fuel economy. You’ve probably noticed that sometimes, when you accelerate, the engine speed goes up at first, then slowly comes down, even as the car goes faster. That’s the CVT adjusting as you need less power. But because people have been driving “fixed gear” automatic transmissions since the Truman administration, lots of manufacturers use the transmission computer in the CVT to create “fake” gears. Some Civics with CVTs even come with paddle shifters that — when you toggle them — take the CVT to six or seven preset ratios to mimic the feel of an older car. Based on this thinking, Kevin, you can expect your future electric car to play a recording of your 1978 Cutlass from a phony tailpipe. Anyway, when you move the shift lever to “L” (into what you think is “second gear”), you’re just moving the CVT to a preset ratio that Honda selected. And it’s probably a different ratio from the actual second gear in your 2005 Honda. If you have paddle shifters on your new Civic, you can obviously drop down to the next-lowest preset ratio, which will provide more engine braking. But if your only choices are “drive” and “low,” you’ll have to accept the gear ratio that Honda has deemed you worthy of, and supplement with your brakes.

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