CVT vs Automatic Transmission - What's the Difference?
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CVT vs Automatic Transmission - What's the Difference?

By Melissa Spicer | August 6, 2021

The most significant difference between the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and an automatic transmission is that while the automatic has multiple gears (or speeds) and uses hydraulic power to shift gears and cause the engine to operate at various speeds and outputs, the CVT has essentially a single gear/speed and uses a pulley system.

Proponents of the traditional automatic transmission like it for the distinct shifts you feel when the car is changing gears, plus the easier maintanence and longer lifespan, and the ability to handle more engine power.

Those who prefer CVTs say that the CVT makes acceleration smoother while boosting fuel economy and avoiding undue engine wear.

How a Continously-Variable Transmission (CVT) Works:

Unlike conventional automatic transmissions, continuously variable transmissions do not have any gears. Instead, a CVT uses two cone-shaped pulleys. One pulley is connected to the engine, while the other connects to the rest of the transmission. It delivers power to the wheels. A steel or composite belt connects the two pulleys.

The pulleys change widths depending on how much engine power the wheels need. As one pulley gets larger, the other gets smaller. The large and small widths are the CVT's version of having different gear ratios. Lower or higher RPMs affect where the pulley sits on the cone. This design enables a CVT-powered car to accelerate with strength, smoothness, and efficiency.

Vehicles Using CVTs

Japanese automakers tend to use CVT transmissions more than European and domestic carmakers. However, they continue to become more popular globally as cars become more fuel-efficient. CVTs are common in Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Nissan cars and SUVs. Toyota and Honda now have wider availability of CVTs in their models. The Honda Accord and Civic are just some of the company's models that implement the technology.

To determine which type of transmission is in a particular car, check the automaker's website or a printed vehicle brochure. If it is a new vehicle, look at the window sticker. Used cars may require more product review and research.

Variations on CVTs

CVTs are not all the same. One variation is a different, less common CVT style using rollers and discs. The 2021 Subaru Ascent, for example, offers an interpretation that gives drivers a similar feel to a conventional automatic. The Ascent features eight preset shift points on the pulley system, making it seem as if the car is shifting gears. It can operate automatically, or drivers can "shift gears" using paddle shifters or the gear lever.

The 2021 Toyota Corolla has a different system that includes a first gear similar to a manual transmission. Called a 'launch gear,' it controls the car's initial acceleration. The transmission switches to the continuously variable transmission mode once it reaches 25 mph. Toyota says its launch gear enables the vehicle to achieve stronger and smoother acceleration from the outset.

Pros of CVT vs Automatic Transmission

When comparing CVT versus automatic transmission technology, the CVT's benefit is its ability to change its gear ratio as the engine speed changes continuously. It means the engine always performs at peak efficiency. There are a seemingly infinite number of gear ratios.

This seamlessness and flexibility help a CVT pull the maximum amount of horsepower from a small engine, giving drivers quicker acceleration than standard automatic transmissions. Automakers like Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai equip their four-cylinder motors with CVTs to take advantage of this power boost.

A continuously variable transmission produces smooth acceleration without gear shift interruptions. CVTs deliver extra power and vehicle speed for passing slower vehicles or climbing steep hills. Drivers do not need to worry about jerky or bouncy downshifting or "hunting" for the correct gear as with conventional automatic transmissions.

Because of their ability to control the engine speed range, CVTs operate more efficiently. In addition, they're lighter than traditional automatic transmissions. And they're typically able to get better fuel economy in the city and cruising on the highway, which is why hybrid vehicles often implement them.
As an example, the 2021 Toyota Prius gets an astounding 54/50/52 mpg city/highway/combined. Those figures far surpass the average car. If the Japanese brand were to use an automatic in the Prius, gas efficiency would doubtless be impacted.

As for the driving experience, some drivers comment that the car ride in CVT-equipped vehicles is exceptionally smooth compared to regular automatic transmissions.

Cons of CVT vs. Automatic

Some drivers miss the transmission shifts and acceleration of an automatic. There are no sounds or sensations of the vehicle changing through gears as with conventional automatic transmissions. Although the engine attains the same speeds using a CVT, you hear only a subtle humming or droning sound. As a result, it can lack that same sporty feeling.

Transmission service is different from servicing an automatic transmission. CVT cars need special oil, transmission fluid, and parts. It may require taking the vehicle to a service technician familiar with the technology, too, if you go to an independent store. CVT-equipped vehicle owners find transmission repair is more expensive for their cars versus automatic transmission repair or replacement. And some of the added expense stems from the fact that CVT professionals are required for the repairs.

Other common problems have included owners reporting a sudden loss of acceleration and transmission overheating. Drivers complain of jerking, slipping, and shuddering as the belts can suffer excessive stretching and wear or complete failure. Some lawsuits against carmakers have claimed the equipment performs unreliably and transmission repair work performed at the service department didn't solve the problem.

Popularity of CVTs

It is becoming increasingly harder to find a car with an automatic transmission, as many manufacturers are now going with CVTs instead.However, some manufacturers are replacing CVTs with traditional automatic transmissions instead of the CVT, such as in the 2022 Infiniti QX60 and 2022 Nissan Pathfinder.

Choosing between a CVT versus an automatic is mostly a matter of personal taste. You may prefer the distinctive sounds and road feel of a conventional automatic transmission. If better gas economy matters, you might like the CVT.

Do your research and take a test drive at the dealership to decide what is right for you.

What Does a Transmission Do?

A transmission is fundamentally a way for a vehicle's engine to channel its power to the axles and wheels. Although there are a few types of transmissions, they all have one thing in common: gears. And every transmission gear has its own ratio.

Transmissions are automatically or manually shifted into different gears, which engages the various ratios. It allows the vehicle to increase or lower its speed without the engine overworking itself.

Continuously variable transmissions debuted in the 1960s. However, they did not become popular globally until the early 2000s, thanks to hybrid cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. This transmission type presents additional considerations for drivers, bringing its benefits and downsides.

How Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions Work

When you drive a car with a manual transmission, like a sports car, you use the gear shift lever, sometimes called a stick shift, on the car's console to maneuver between transmission gears. Gears are numbered from one to six but may have up to 10.

As the engine revolutions per minute (RPM) increase or decrease, you move the gear shifter into the next higher gear or lower gear. This movement causes the car to accelerate or decelerate. You must depress a third pedal, called the clutch, to change gears. The clutch keeps the gears stationary temporarily so you can engage them.

Cars with conventional automatic transmissions have gained popularity over manual transmissions in recent years. Automatic transmissions make learning to drive a lot easier. They require less attention when driving and create less engine wear and tear. Some driving enthusiasts swear by manuals, though.