Automatic for the People

Bulmer ponders his good fortune at having dodged the CVT bullet

GED BULMER

HOLDEN EQUINOX LTZ-V

Date acquired: March 2018

Price as tested: $46,290

This month: 1012km @ 11.4L/100km

Overall: 2086km @ 12.0L/100km

Plus and minus

The small plus and minus symbol atop the Equinox’ automatic transmission lever isn’ there to encourage push-pull manual gear selection. Rather, it’ feature called electronic range select’ and is intended as a towing aid. When range select is enabled by selecting L’ the P-R-N-D-L, the plus-minus toggle allows you to set a limit for the highest gear you want to use. For instance, if you select 6th gear in range select, the transmission will shift normally but only between gears 1-6.

SOMETIMES progress isn’t always, well, progress. Take the example of the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). It’s been with us in one form or another for more than 120 years, but only really took off with Aussies in the late ’80s and early ’90s, thanks to enthusiastic adoption by certain Japanese brands.

Most Japanese car makers today still sell CVT-equipped vehicles, typically as their chosen alternative to the ‘conventional’ torque-converter automatic. The slush-box or ‘slusher’ is far more familiar to Australian motorists, as it’s been the preferred twopedal option for much of our modern motoring history.

This is due in no small part to GM having had such a prominent presence in our market via Holden and, by extension, to the fact it was GM’s Cadillac and Oldsmobile divisions that first introduced the automatic transmission to mass-produced cars in 1940.

Fast forward to 2018 and despite being a relative newcomer to this market, the CVT is perceived in some quarters as the cleaner, greener and more technically sophisticated option. Meanwhile, the ‘humble’ auto is seen as a bit old-school.

TOP GEAR

How many cogs does an auto need? Six used to be the norm but we’re up to 10, while eight is now common

However, having just spent a few days with a CVT-equipped Japanese-brand SUV, I’m grateful GM opted to fit our Equinox with a particularly good automatic instead. In my view, the experience of driving CVT-equipped vehicles remains almost universally disappointing; whereas the Equinox’s excellent nine-speed automatic is anything but.

Dubbed the 9T50 in GM’s internal code, this is an automatic that responds quickly and decisively to throttle inputs, shifting effortlessly up and down its well-spaced gear ratios. Crucially, it does so without the mid-range favouritism and droning engine note that characterises some of its CVT-equipped rivals.

Of course, having six, seven, eight or nine forward ratios is academic if the engine doesn’t have the grunt to effectively pull those gears, but that’s not an issue with the Equinox’s punchy 188kW/353Nm 2.0-litre four pot.

Within the 9T50’s casing, gears eight and nine are overdriven, while seventh is direct drive. In some ’boxes such overdriven gears are rarely used, unless driving at high speed in open-road conditions, but the Equinox makes extensive use of its ninth cog.

GM engineers are on record as saying the ’box was designed to ensure the tallest gear delivered go and not just show, and that it can shift from any gear to any other gear (third to fifth for instance), depending on driver inputs.

The wider spread of ratios also means smaller steps between the lower gears, reducing shift shock and offering smoother operation. 9T50 has been optimised for stopstart as well, with an accumulator that stores pressure so the first clutch gets pressure as soon as the engine fires up, ensuring a consistently smooth step-off.

I’ll take that every time over a CVT’s dullard drone.

GED BULMER