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CVT vs Automatic Transmission - What's the Difference?

By Michael O'Connor | August 4, 2022

A CVT (which stands for Continuously Variable Transmission) is essentially an automatic transmission that has infinite gear ratios (or gears/speeds) rather than an automatic transmission's set number of gears/speeds, which range from six to 10 on today's modern automatics.

Both the CVT and the automatic type of gearbox will look and feel nearly identical in the

The experience of using and driving a CVT will be nearly identical to that of an automatic, especially as newer CVTs get better at mimicing the behavior of an automatic.

One of the decisions to make is whether to buy a car with a CVT or a regular automatic transmission. Both these types of transmissions have their pros and cons, and it's important to understand what they are and how they can affect a car's drivability. Knowing the difference between them will help you make the right choice at the dealership.

Advantages of a CVT

Better Fuel Economy

One of the most relevant and desirable advantages of continuously variable transmissions is that they get better gas mileage than a manual or automatic.

Since CVTs aren't limited to a fixed gear ratio, they continually operate at peak efficiency for the vehicle's speed and road conditions. The car's engine will seldom be running at higher RPMs than it should. There are no wasted motions of the engine's inner workings, and it will always be at the correct ratio.

These factors help CVTs achieve peak fuel economy and waste less energy than conventionally geared transmissions. That's why they're often found in economy cars or vehicles marketed for fuel economy, such as hybrids.

Lighter

One of the other ways that a CVT transmission can contribute to your vehicle getting better MPG is that they are comparatively light. They don't weigh nearly as much because they don't have as many moving parts or hydraulic fluid as conventional transmissions. That can save some money on gas due to the better fuel efficiency, but it can also make your car much quicker and give it better drivability, especially on a compact vehicle.

Smoother Operation

Continuously variable transmissions are also incredibly smooth and offer a light, comfortable ride. In addition, because there aren't any hard gear changes during driving, a CVT vehicle will not experience any of the jerking motions that result from gear shifts when accelerating. For some, it enhances the comfort of a car under hard acceleration. It's primarily why cars such as the Subaru Outback, Honda Accord, and compact SUVs like the Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V — none known for their speed — are typically fitted with CVTs.

Disadvantages of a CVT

Less Engaging Driving Experience

While a continuously variable transmission offers a very smooth ride, many people find the driving experience is not as exciting. Some drivers prefer to feel the engine power and how it changes as the car shifts gears. Traditional transmissions have a very distinct feel and offer a driving experience that is much more classic than what a CVT can offer. If you prefer to feel the workings of the car as you drive, an automatic may be the right choice.

Loud

CVTs can also be incredibly loud compared to standard transmissions. As you are bringing the engine speed up, the sound of the belts moving is much more noticeable than the sound of gears shifting in an automatic transmission. Some people find this off-putting and don't like that they can hear the transmission working but can't feel it like they can with an automatic. However, a traditionally geared automatic transmission is the better bet if you're looking for a quieter overall ambiance inside without hearing an engine stay at higher RPMs (revolutions per minute).

Expensive to Repair

CVTs may be less complicated mechanically than a conventional automatic transmission, but that doesn't mean they are easier to work on. They need to be calibrated very precisely, and if you need transmission service, it could be more difficult to find service technicians who want to work on them. You will most likely need to find CVT professionals to do your continuously variable transmission repair work. That could cost you more money than you would spend if you had to find a tech for your traditional automatic.

Advantages of an Automatic Transmission

Better Engagement

Automatic transmissions usually have a much more engaging feel than a CVT. It means that they have a better connection between the engine and driver, which many people prefer. In addition, because they offer fixed gear changes and a solid, appealing feel, most people feel that they provide a good relationship with how they are driving and how the car behaves. Of course, having this kind of engaging driving experience is more satisfying, but it can also make you a better, safer driver since you will be paying more attention to the task at hand and the road itself.

Lower Repair Costs

Automatic transmissions have meager repair costs compared to CVTs. Because they don't need the same kind of intense and precise calibration, they are easier to work on, and almost any service department will have the tools and experience to do it. If you run into issues with your automatic transmission, it will be much less expensive to repair. In addition, it will be easier to maintain than a CVT, which can seriously cut back on your bills throughout the time you have the car.

Ability to Upshift and Downshift

Many cars with automatic transmissions give you the ability to upshift or downshift if you are in a situation where you have to do either. For example, when driving up or down hills, you may want to adjust your gear ratio to ensure the RPM doesn't get too high or low. You generally can't do this with a CVT unless equipped with a specific overdrive function. With an automatic, you can adjust your gears appropriately for the terrain you are driving on.

Disadvantages of an Automatic Transmission

Less Fuel Efficient

Because an automatic transmission is dependent on gears, it will often be at a less-than-optimal gear ratio. You're pretty much stuck with whatever ratios are built into the transmission, and if your speed or the terrain warrants a ratio in-between gears, you will have the run the engine's revolutions at a speed that might not be the best for fuel-efficiency. This is where continuously variable transmissions shine and where they will be your best option as far as fuel efficiency goes.

More Emissions

Because an automatic transmission may not always be running at the ideal RPM, it will also produce more emissions. If you are looking for a vehicle that runs clean but you aren't quite ready to make the switch to an electric car, a CVT is going to be your best bet. Automatics may offer a more exciting driving experience, but they don't run as cleanly as some other available options.

Which Transmission is Better Overall?

While automatic transmissions are still the most common type in new and used cars, CVTs are becoming more popular as the years go by. This is because they offer overall better performance and fuel efficiency, which is more and more important. Some people still prefer the feel of an automatic, but CVTs are better for the environment and offer a smoother, quicker ride, which is a good trade-off and is much more important in the long run.

With so many options available to you at the car dealership, it can be very difficult to pin down what is going to be the best choice for you. Knowing the differences between major components like automatic or continuously variable transmissions is essential if you are going to make the right decision for your driving habits and what you want out of a car. By taking the time to find out everything you can, you will be able to get a vehicle that will drive like you want it to and give you many years of service.

How Does a Continuously Variable Transmission Work?

CVTs have a special design that bucks the traditions of transmissions that have been in use since the early 1900s. Most automatic transmissions use a set of gears that change depending on the vehicle's speed and the road conditions to get the optimal gear ratio. That keeps the engine from revving at too high of an RPM and gives you the best possible amount of power when you need it.

A continuously variable transmission doesn't have any fixed gears and instead uses two pulleys. One of these pulleys is attached to the engine, and the other is attached to the wheels. The two pulleys are connected with a belt, and the space between them changes, which allows for an infinite number of ratios. There are also other types of CVTs, including a Toroidal CVT, which uses discs, and a hydrostatic CVT, which uses fluid and pumps to get the same effect.

How Does an Automatic Transmission Work?

A conventional automatic transmission does essentially the same thing as a CVT but with a very different method. Traditional automatic transmissions use a set of gears that work in conjunction with a torque converter and a hydraulic system to determine the correct gear ratio for the speed you are going and the road conditions. The hydraulic system pushes the different gears in place and changes the gear ratio without needing any input from the driver.

Standard automatic transmissions are the most common type in modern vehicles. While some cars are still made with manual transmissions, automatics have become the default with new car manufacturers. However, more and more automakers are starting to use CVTs, so it is important to know the advantages and downsides of each so you can make the right choice for yourself and your driving style.