Useful Car Tips

What is a CVT?

October 30, 2019
You’ve probably driven cars with automatic transmissions all your life, perhaps even with a couple manuals sprinkled here and there. Automatics are straightforward: you simply put the car in the gear you require (most often in drive or reverse) and go. They’re simpler to operate than manuals, inexpensive to produce, and generally have good reliability. They also come standard on many cars. However, “automatic” simply refers to a transmission that can shift gears automatically, and there are several different types. So what about a CVT, or continuously variable transmission? If you’ve shopped for a modern car, you’ve probably seen many mentions of this term. But what exactly is a CVT? How does it work? Are there any advantages compared to other automatics? These are just some of the questions you may be asking yourself when presented with the prospect of buying a car with a CVT. It’s important to know and have these answers so that you can ultimately decide if a CVT-equipped vehicle is right for you.


At its core, a continuously variable transmission is a type of automatic transmission, since a CVT automatically shifts gears. Where a CVT differs from a traditional automatic is in terms of mechanical operation, and this is where the pros and cons begin to make themselves known. A traditional automatic transmission employs fixed gear ratios—usually anywhere from six up to a total of nine—to match engine speed to road speed. The transmission automatically selects the most appropriate gear to shift to across the range of gears. CVTs work much differently. In contrast, CVTs use a belt and pulley system. Here, the engine turns one pulley (input shaft) while the other is connected to the rest of the transmission and powers the drive wheels (output shaft). This affords CVTs the ability to run at the most efficient RPM—or revolutions per minute—for a wide range of vehicle speeds. Consequently, CVTs are often installed by manufacturers in order to maximize fuel efficiency.


Fuel efficiency isn’t the only positive CVTs have, though. Due to the nature of their design, engines with a CVT are always operating at peak efficiency: whenever you hit the gas pedal, your engine will respond. CVTs also weigh less than traditional automatic transmissions, and some drivers may find that the ride is very smooth when compared to other automatics. This is also partly due to the engine always operating at peak efficiency with a CVT. As with anything, however, there are drawbacks to this technology. For one, drivers transitioning from a traditional automatic to their first CVT may notice several jarring changes. These include a lack of sound or sense of running through the gears, as instead there is merely a constant humming or droning sound. This jarring change in engine shifting behavior can apply to acceleration too, as hard acceleration with a CVT can lead to a loud droning which—while completely normal—can be disconcerting for drivers unfamiliar with how CVTs operate. Another factor to consider is that the procedure for servicing a CVT is different and sometimes more expensive than an automatic, due to requiring special oil, transmission fluid, and parts. Some are also concerned about the long-term reliability of CVTs, but Nissan is one automotive giant with over one million CVT-equipped vehicles over the world. Nissan states that long-term reliability of a CVT should be comparable to a traditional automatic.


CVTs are used in many modern light duty vehicles, from crossovers to sedans. In the US, the Nissan Rogue and Toyota Corolla are just two of the most popular vehicles on roads today, and both feature CVTs standard, among many other vehicles on sale. Although their true long-term reliability remains to be seen, the advantages that CVTs bring to the table may outweigh prospective issues which may (or may not) arise in the future. Compared to conventional automatics, they’re lighter, more fuel efficient, and can provide a smoother ride. Some may consider certain characteristics to be tradeoffs, mainly factors like a lack of sound and sense associated with transmission shifts and disconcerting droning. However, these can be remedied by a little time behind the wheel and some familiarity. All in all, CVT-equipped vehicles may not necessarily be holistically better than those equipped with conventional automatic transmissions, but they certainly provide enough benefits to be worthy of consideration, and perhaps even a space in your garage.
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