IAIN ROBERTSON 

As a fan of Mitsubishi’s latest compact crossover, Iain Robertson is aware that its Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT) might be a stumbling-block to potential buyers otherwise drawn to the first-class specification and 4×4 practicality.

Despite the fact that automatic transmissions are not new, it has taken some time for technological advancement to catch-up on the CVT front. It seems that some buyers of the Eclipse Cross, desiring the convenience of an auto-box, steer away from the car, when they discover it uses CVT technology. However, there is nothing to fear and much to admire about the way that Mitsubishi engineers it.

Convenience is a word with exceptionally modern connotations. Over the past few years, probably since the dawn of the electric lightbulb, as our lives have become increasingly automated and as we have placed a greater reliance on machines and mechanisation to carry out tasks for us, it might be suggested that we have become lazier physically. Of course, the arrival of computers and technology that can carry out thinking for us may well be having a similar effect on our brains. When you apply convenience food to the mix, it is little wonder that fitness centres and gym subscriptions are on the increase.

When I was younger, the very prospect of driving a car equipped with an automatic transmission was anathema. It was not that I believed the devices to be the premise of the elderly but, rather, that the automatic transmissions of forty years ago seldom featured more than three forward ratios and they affected vehicle performance negatively. In America, where auto-gearboxes proliferated and were ideal for endless miles of open roads, where gearchanges were largely unnecessary, only two speeds were deemed essential for some carmakers.

Mind you, electric window-winders were the remit of the rich back then and, if you show a manual winder handle to a seven-year-old of today, if you can distract him long enough away from his iPad, the odds are that the encounter will end in tears. To be honest, with the modern motorcar embodying so much electrification, computerisation and mechanisation in its construction, it is of great surprise to me that we can even recall how to carry out the most elementary of motoring tasks, without falling about.

Mitsubishi is a car company with convenient four-wheel-drive in its soul. While its earliest Shogun models featured not just a conventional manual gear-lever but also a ‘high-low’ transfer box selector, just like an early Land Rover Defender, as with most Japanese carmakers, the advancements in technology were soon applied and ‘crawler’ gears were removed…when it was realised that 99% of buyers seldom ventured off the beaten track. While the mechanics of 4×4 are still incorporated in the latest Eclipse Cross model from the firm, their activation is electronically managed and, as a matter of convenience, there is no requirement for the driver to manually lock the hubs externally, as used to be the case. Instead, the simple depression of a centre console button does the duty and locks-in all-wheel-drive.

On the 1st of January 1900, a child called Hub Van Doorne was born in America. It was not the America across the Atlantic but a town in the Dutch province of Limburg. He would become an automotive engineer and one of his 1950s’ developments was the Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT), or Variomatic system, that used a belt drive between two, adjustable, coned pulleys. Renowned for its efficiency, lightness and lack of gears, the system used on his DAF motorcars was licensed to various carmakers, among which was Mitsubishi Motors.

Epitomised by the engine revving, while awaiting for the road-speed to ‘catch-up’, an activity exacerbated by applications of full-throttle, when desiring a speedier take-off, it was those Japanese manufacturers adopting CVT that sought to refine the technology, to make it more acceptable and convenient. As fitted to the 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine in the Eclipse Cross, where it has to manage 160bhp and 184lbs ft of torque, the driver has two options: to leave the transmission selector in ‘Drive’ and play the revs game, by fluctuating the accelerator pedal, or to operate the steering wheel-mounted paddles to access eight, electronically managed ‘ratios’, or, more factually, speed ranges.

Regardless of action, the transmission is real gem. Naturally, there are safeguards, to ensure that both transmission and engine are protected from abuse, whether intentional, or accidental. The shifts from one speed range to the next are virtually imperceptible, which is the ultimate aim of an auto-transmission anyway, but they are especially smooth with a CVT, mainly because of the lack of mechanical gears. As to the 4×4 aspect, as it is engine torque dependent, while its normal mode is front-wheel-drive, should traction, or grip, be required at any individual wheel, ingeniously (and electronically) it will send appropriate drive to balance the car’s attitude and ensure safe progress, without experiencing wheel slip.

Part of the fun of driving is the level of driver involvement and, using the shift paddles, maintaining a fluid, safe and engaging experience is immensely satisfying. Yet, left to its own devices (in ‘D’), a sensitive driver, aided by the clever transmission, will find that the Eclipse Cross enables a good level of brisk acceleration and even in-built deceleration to support both mood and demands. Living with a Mitsubishi CVT can be both involving and convenient.

As to the rest of the car, it is spacious, accommodating, well-equipped (especially in the Launch Edition of the test example) and flexible enough for modern living. Its distinctive good looks help it to stand out from its key rivals in the compact SUV segment and its tactile, 3D interior is not just good to touch but is also fascinating to look at. With prices starting in Cross 2 form at £21,290, rising to £26,840 in First Edition, it represents exceptional value for money in the class and packs in features, such as the touch-pad, high levels of connectivity, an array of driver aid programs and even a Head-Up display panel, that are simply not available elsewhere.

If enjoying the convenience of an automatic transmission is on your choice list, there is absolutely no need to steer away from the CVT, as fitted to a Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross. It works efficiently, allowing spirited performance (0-60mph in 9.5s, top speed of 124mph, 159g/km CO2 and 40.4mpg) and as much variance in its driver engagement levels, as its transmission allows. Of course, a manual gearbox is also available for both troglodytes and philistines (like me!).

Conclusion:    Far from being a ‘lazy option’, the automatic CVT version of the Eclipse Cross factors in a useful blend of practicality with an abundance of convenience aspects. Handsome and surprisingly sporty, it is also tough, dependable and resilient, features with which the Mitsubishi brand has become synonymous and renowned over the years.