Trouble is, CVTs simply aren't very likable to those who enjoy driving. They do a couple of tricks quite well—keeping the engine in its ideal range during acceleration, and keeping revs as low as possible during cruising and coasting. But the rest of the time they tend to demonstrate a rubber-band-like delay in responsiveness, or they leave the engine droning in a rev range that results neither in rapid acceleration nor quiet cruising.
Honda understands that; it offered a CVT-equipped Civic HX in the U.S. for a few years in the late 1990s, and has installed CVTs into some overseas-market cars, including the Fit. So the automaker has done tried to do things differently with this CVT, which it describes as “direct and smooth.”
So far, Subaru has actually come closest to providing a more linear acceleration feel—with its appropriately named Lineartronic—but now Honda has done an even better job with it in the new 2013 Accord. With a so-called 'G-Design Shift' philosophy, engineers programmed the unit so as to build acceleration G-forces rapidly from a start, then maintain them.
How this manifests from inside the vehicle is interesting, especially while keeping watch on the tachometer. Tipping into the accelerator and accelerating at a moderate pace, the revs rise rapidly—more rapidly than in most other CVTs, then at a particular point revs hold briefly, and begin to rise again as if now in lock step with a taller ratio.
Altogether it's an odd pattern compared to most other conventional CVTs, what results is much more in line with what you'll feel in a conventional automatic transmission—with more oomph just after you take off and an easing of forces as you reach your cruising speed. As we observed in our First Drive of the 2013 Accord, it feels more 'natural.'
While that itself impressed us, what's the most noteworthy in the Accord's CVT is how quickly it can respond and bring revs up when needed. For instance, a number of CVTs (including the one in the 2013 Nissan Altima, surprisingly) will feel completely flat-footed and off their game if you roll around a corner at 15 mph with your foot off the gas and then accelerate at full throttle. The time to tap into full thrust is delayed for a surprising time. But in the Accord, it very quickly raises revs all the way up to the Accord's 6,600-rpm redline. Pull off the same test, dipping into half throttle out of the corner, and it very quickly finds the right ratio for the throttle opening—feeling a lot like downshifting and with no slow, muddled ramp-up.
How did Honda achieve this far better (we think) CVT calibration when rivals like Nissan have been working at it for so long? According to the project leader, Honda's CVT isn't much different in the mechanical design, but Honda put a lot of time into oil pressure control and electrical systems, along with the control software.
This CVT will be used globally in the new Accord, but thus far it's only been sold in the StepWGN, a relatively low-volume Japanese-market vehicle.
In the U.S., the four-cylinder and CVT combination will be the most common, and we see a lot of buyers being perfectly happy with it. Those of us who really love to drive are never going to prefer it to the great manual gearbox that's also offered in the Accord, but we don't dislike it either. And that's saying a lot.