In the past, automatic saloons constituted a miniscule percentage of total car sales, and understandably so. Old-school automatics were nowhere near as good as the current crop. They weren’t very appealing to drive as they sucked huge globs of power, and they were thirsty and pretty expensive too. The penalties clearly outweighed the advantages and you only bought an automatic if you didn’t know how to use a clutch.
Today, advances in technology and an increase in traffic density mean automatics are clearly more appealing. New-generation transmissions allow modern autos to deliver a much nicer drive. What’s made an even greater difference is that now CVT and twin-clutch-equipped automatics are extremely efficient too; and that’s becoming a tipping point.
Honda, for example, says its brand new City automatic is more efficient than even the manual – amazing! Equipped with an all-new CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), the new automatic City gets an ARAI-certified fuel-efficiency rating of 18.0kpl as against 17.8 for the manual.
Volkswagen’s new twin-clutch automatic Vento also whacks the nail on the head. Powered by its new, downsized 1.2 TSI direct-injection, turbo-petrol motor, this car promises plenty of performance, auto gearbox convenience and good efficiency due to the smaller engine. It’s a close fight, this one. But which car is better?
Let’s dive straight in with the new City first. Now CVTs of old – pure belt and pulley jobs – weren’t exactly our favourite gearboxes. They felt like they stretched and strained too much when you put your foot down and there was plenty of lag or rubberband effect. But the City just takes off from rest on the smallest of throttle openings. It feels very responsive, even when you just dab the accelerator pedal, and the crisp and instant power delivery from the engine just makes it that much nicer to drive. This new Honda gearbox box uses a slender torque-converter to help initial step-off responses and it works like a treat. The City even handles demand for a bit more pace with the same amount of exuberance.
It’s only when you want to up performance to the next level quickly that the City automatic disappoints. Push the throttle down hard in an effort to sprint down the road and the dreaded rubberband effect comes into play. The revs rise without a corresponding increase in speed and you are clearly aware of the slippage in the transmission. Engaging Sport and using the paddles to select preset ‘gears’ gives you greater sense of control and the CVT behaves like a manual with distinct upshifts and downshifts. However, the pre-selected ratios are rather tall, so you end up winding the engine quite hard in each gear.
Also, when you rev it hard, the powertrain is quite noisy, with whine and belt noise from the gearbox. However, the City feels suitably quick, with the engine spinning in it strong top end. 100kph comes up in 11.8 seconds with 140kph taking no more than 23.5 seconds, which isn’t too shabby at all. What helps tremendously of course is the fact that the City makes an impressive 117bhp.
In terms of performance, the City and the Vento TSI are pretty evenly matched. Despite having the smaller, less powerful 103bhp engine, the Vento is approximately a half a second quicker to both 100 and 120. Various factors contribute to this slightly stronger performance. For one, direct injection and turbocharging both help make additional torque, and with 17.4kgm of pull from just 1,500rpm, the Vento has plenty of it. But it’s the wide spread of ratios of the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox that squeezes the best out of the engine. Run the engine to the redline and the Vento pulls strongly and seamlessly. The tacho needle flicks back and forth in a flash with every upshift and there’s no hint of any slip like there is on the Honda, just clean, positive engagement and drive – it’s what twin-clutch gearboxes are famous for. While the Vento TSI has no paddles behind the steering for manual intervention, knocking the gearlever to the left allows you to use the very responsive tip-tronic function. The engine also feels smoother than the Honda’s when pulled hard, making it feel much more refined at speed.
The Vento, however, isn’t as peppy or responsive from low speeds as the Honda. It feels quite flat footed at first – it has no torque converter or torque multiplier, so there’s a bit of a delay when you floor the throttle. On part throttle, the TSI motor works well, but it’s not as perky as the City in slower traffic. Also, at low speeds, the twin-clutch gearbox doesn’t work as seamlessly as the City’s CVT.
The Vento has the more pliant ride of the two at low speeds. It’s reasonably absorbent, even over rough sections, but the relatively softly sprung VW has a tendency to pitch a bit over rough patches and there’s a fair bit of vertical movement on an uneven road. The City, on the other hand, is not as pliant as the Vento and feels a bit jiggly and stiff at low speeds, but up the pace and that slightly unsettled attitude disappears, and the ride improves dramatically as you go past around 40kph. At speed, the City’s ride is settled and flat, with almost no vertical movement. Big bumps are ridden over silently as well, but compared to the Vento the City has more tyre and road noise.
The City also has the nicer steering. Though it’s a bit numb, it weighs up well at speed and is quite free of slack. What’s truly impressive is the City’s straight-line stability, which gives you good confidence at speed. The City corners quite impressively too and the narrow 175/65 tyres are surprisingly tenacious and hold on pretty well.
The Vento, in contrast, has a light and lifeless steering that doesn’t engage as you much as the City’s. No doubt the Vento’s straight-line stability is rock solid and it feels very surefooted even as the speeds build, but it doesn’t tempt you to drive it quickly like the City does.
The difference in philosophies between Volkswagen and Honda is most evident when you pull the door handles of both cars. The Vento certainly seems the more solidly built of the two; the doors shut with a solid thud and the fit and finish is just top class, with everything (except the flimsy air-con vents) exuding a built-to-last feel. To understand the lengths VW goes to ensure a certain level of quality, pop open the boot and have a look at the neat carpeting and plastic cladding on the inner lid. In contrast, the City’s carpeting isn’t as well finished and a lack of inner cladding leaves wires, cables and connectors looking messy and exposed. But the savings Honda has achieved as a result have been passed on to the cabin.
The Vento’s cabin is austere in comparison to the City’s. While VW has only recently offered basics like Bluetooth connectivity in the Vento, the City’s feature list runs circles around it with kit like a reversing camera, a five-inch colour screen, a touch interface for the climate control, an eight-speaker audio system, four power outlets and a sunroof. City customers are further pampered with a far more spacious cabin and seats that are comfier too. The Vento’s dashboard design, though classy and functional, doesn’t have the same drama as the City’s, which is full of character, if a touch kitsch. The blue backlit dials stand out, the piano black central console adds an element of richness and the plastics are generally pretty good. But after spending a day in both cabins, it’s clear the City’s isn’t built to the same quality standards as the Vento and may be lacking a bit of finesse, but the general feeling of well being you get in the Honda is much higher.
Look at this pair closely and the contrasting car-making philosophies and overall objectives come shining through. The very German Vento TSI (Rs 9.99 lakhs) is a deeply impressive all-round package and comes with as much technology as any of Volkwagen’s larger cars. However, at Rs 10.98 lakh, the new City VX CVT comes across as better value. It's really well equipped, the gearbox and engine work really well at low speeds, it is fantastic at tackling poor roads, is really comfortable to be chauffeured around in and fun to drive as well. What clinches it finally for the very Japanese Honda is that the City feels clearly more grown up and delivers a motoring experience derived from a class above. It’s a lot more car than the Vento.