‘Fake’ gears create confusion for Civic hatchback driver

Dear Car Talk:

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

RAY: 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.

No shortage of steering problems with car

Dear Car Talk:

I have a steering problem with my 2015 Ford Fusion. I’ve had the alignment checked. I got new tires. I had a Ford dealership look it over, and they said the front end is nice and tight (all they did was tell me to get the new tires). My problem: The car darts to the left or right on its own.

I continuously have to correct for these changes in direction. It happens on any kind of pavement, but more so on uneven pavement. If I start to steer into a curve, the car wants to steer tighter into the curve by itself. I ease up, re-engage the curve, and the car does it again. Very weird. Any thoughts? – Rick

RAY: Well, there's been no shortage of steering complaints about this car. There was a problem where the steering wheel fastener would come loose and cause the steering wheel to come loose and even come off in your hands. How's that for a little wake-me-up?

So I would certainly ask your dealer to check for that specific problem. If the steering wheel in your hands is not bolted tightly to the wheels, that could produce the abrupt changes in direction you describe. Although you’d experience it continuously. All the time.

There also was a recall to fix the steering gear motor’s mounting bolts, which tended to corrode, leading to a loss of power steering. If you came into our shop and complained about this problem, after I verified that your tires weren’t severely overinflated, the next thing I’d suspect would be an alignment issue.

If you hit a big pothole or curbstone, and bent a tie-rod end, or a strut (or if your 16-year-old nephew did when you lent him the car), you could knock your caster off, which definitely would cause squirrely handling. But you say you’ve had the alignment checked. And a caster problem, if you have one, should have turned up. So the next step is to convince the dealer to take your complaint more seriously.

If you can find a road in the general vicinity of the dealership where the car will reliably misbehave, take the service manager for a ride. Have him drive and experience the problem. Once he experiences the problem himself, and sees his own life and pleasure boat flash before his eyes, I think he’ll be more open to looking harder for the cause. If he’s at a loss, suggest that the steering rack is the next thing to investigate. Good luck, Rick.

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