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What is a CVT Transmission?

By Autolist Staff | February 19, 2019

CVT stands for Continuously Variable Transmission. It's a type of automatic transmission that's become increasingly popular on a wide range of vehicles, particularly small to midsize crossovers and small to midsize cars. Known for their improvements to fuel economy, CVTs don't have gears like a traditional automatic transmission. Instead, they use a pair of pulleys connected by a belt that continuously adjust, depending on engine speed.

What Is a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)?

Even though continuously variable transmissions have been in use since 1989, it's only recently that they've become common in passenger cars and crossover SUVs. If you're car shopping for the first time in a while, the CVT may be a new term to you vs. the previous standard automatic and manual transmission options.

A CVT is a type of transmission that does not use a fixed set of gears like a traditional automatic. Instead, it uses a pair of pulleys that are connected to each other by a belt. One of the pulleys is connected to the engine while the other pulley connects to the wheels, where it sends power to move the vehicle.

The pulley width changes depending on how much power is needed. One pulley grows bigger and the other gets smaller. This allows a CVT to offer powerful and seamless acceleration without the sometimes abrupt feeling of changing gears.

There is another type of CVT that operates on a series of discs and rollers, but this is much less common than the pulley type.

Despite the lack of gears on a CVT, some systems do allow for manual shifting, or rather an approximation thereof. In this case, the pulley and belt system "shifts" to preset points to simulate the feeling of changing gears.

An even more modern take on the system is found on some Toyota and Lexus vehicles, which use a conventional gear to start the car moving up to 25 MPH before switching to the gearless CVT setup for the rest of the driving process.

How are CVTs different?

Automakers are using CVTs in their cars a lot more these days for a few reasons.

The most common reason is that they offer better fuel economy. CVTs are lighter than a normal transmission and they can more closely match the engine's speed to the vehicle's speed, resulting in less wasted fuel.

This is also why most hybrid vehicles are equipped with CVTs.

CVTs are also able to produce maximum power out of small engines, which gives crossovers and small passenger cars quick and responsive acceleration. This is also why CVTs are most often found in vehicles with four-cylinder engines.

CVTs also deliver uninterrupted acceleration without the typical pause for shifting. This also means there's no sudden downshifting when the vehicle needs more power to climb a hill. It also means the elimination of the gear searching feeling when the transmission is trying to find the right gear for a particular situation.

Are CVTs Less Reliable?

CVTs do have some inclination for mechanical issues and any repairs can be expensive, but this is also true for a standard automatic transmission. Some of the common problems associated with CVTs include overheating, jerking, slipping and an abrupt loss of acceleration. There are also cases where the CVT has failed entirely. The belt that runs the CVT may be prone to stretching and becoming overly worn. Some automakers have even faced lawsuits from car owners over unreliable and faulty CVTs.

Which Vehicles Have CVTs?

Simply looking at the interior of a vehicle won't be enough to tell you if the vehicle is equipped with a CVT. The shifting mechanism available to the driver looks identical to that on a regular automatic transmission.

Currently, CVTs are most common on small to midsize cars and crossovers, particularly from Japanese brands like Nissan, Subaru or Mitsubishi. Toyota and Honda are also starting to put them in more vehicles in their lineup.

You're far more likely to find them when looking at Japanese automakers versus American or European.

Many hybrid vehicles also use CVTs.

Typically some quick research on the model you're eyeing will tell you if the vehicle has a CVT. In many cases, this is the standard transmission with no option for an automatic or manual.

Pros of a CVT

There are plenty of pros for CVT transmissions. Vehicles that use a CVT are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market. This is because they can continuously adjust the engine speed to match the vehicle's speed perfectly, without wasting gas holding too high or too low of a gear, like an automatic gearbox might.

You will often see non-hybrid midsize family sedans offering up to 38 mpg, partially thanks to their use of this transmission type.

Some hybrid vehicles also use CVTs for the same reason.

The seamless shifting and instant power is another benefit of a CVT. Drivers will often notice this when driving up an incline. Instead of feeling a distinctive downshift from an automatic, the CVT will quickly find the ideal ratio to give the vehicle enough power to make it up the incline. This also allows CVT vehicles to provide very smooth rides as there's no shifting feeling.

Cons of a CVT

Some consumers -- who are used to the feeling of specific gear changes from their automatic transmissions -- don't like the feel of a CVT. A common complaint is that they give the vehicle a "rubber band" effect of constant acceleration or deceleration, depending on how the driver is pushing on the gas pedal.

Automakers have recently started to counter this feeling by programming into the CVT false "shift points" that mimic the shifting behavior of a traditional automatic.

During hard acceleration -- like an onramp or a steep hill -- CVTs can also push the engine to rev higher and louder than many consumers are used to. This can be offputting if you've never experienced it before.

In terms of reliability, some CVTs don't last as long as the average automatic transmissions, and they can come with a large repair tag when they do fail.

Some CVTs might not even make it to 100,000 miles. Furthermore, when they fail, they typically can't be rebuilt but must be completely replaced. The main reason for this is that the parts typically fail with too much damage for a repair to be feasible.

Finally, a CVT cannot stand up to the demands of a high horsepower vehicle, so they're not used on performance vehicles and are usually not used on bigger-displacement engines (like V8s) at all.

Should I choose a CVT?

In most cases, consumers don't even have a choice about whether to opt for a CVT on the vehicle they're interested in: automakers offer either a CVT or a conventional automatic transmission, but not a choice.

The best idea is to choose your ideal vehicle based on other priorities. If it has a CVT, make sure you pay attention to the transmission's performance during your test drive to ensure it's something you can live with on a daily basis.

If you're on the fence, remember that CVT-equipped vehicles often have better fuel economy, so do the math to figure out how much such a vehicle could save you in fuel costs over your ownership of the vehicle. Just make sure you're willing and able to follow the recommended maintenance schedules of the CVT -- and in fact the entire car.

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