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What is a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)?


If you have been researching which car to buy, you may have come across the term CVT. CVT stands for continuously variable transmission. It’s a type of automatic transmission that doesn’t have gears like a traditional planetary transmission. The CVT is becoming popular because it typically delivers good fuel economy and has fewer moving parts than a standard transmission.

A wide range of modern vehicles use CVT transmissions. From sedans like the Hyundai Elantra to SUVs like the Nissan Murano and minivans like the Toyota Sienna, the continuously variable transmission is becoming more common because of the benefits we are about to explain.

How a CVT Works

A CVT uses a simple pulley system rather than the planetary gears that can be found in a traditional automatic transmission. The CVT has an input pulley, an output pulley, and a belt connecting the two pulleys. These are conical pulleys with variable diameters. The engine powers the input pulley while the output pulley sends power to the wheels through either a driveshaft or CV shafts.

At low speeds, the input pulley uses a large diameter and the output pulley uses a small diameter, creating the same effect as a low gear in a planetary transmission. At highway speeds, a typical CVT will use a large diameter for the input pulley and a small diameter for the output pulley, creating the CVT version of overdrive. In between the maximum and minimum diameters, infinite gear ratios ensure the car is always in the optimal gearing.

Advantages of a CVT

The most significant advantage of a continuously variable transmission is fuel efficiency. An engine linked to a CVT typically gets better fuel economy than a standard automatic transmission. That’s because the engine speed doesn’t need to rev very high to make the car accelerate.

If you don’t like the shock of a transmission shifting, then you’ll appreciate the smoothness of a continuously variable transmission. It never needs to hunt for the right gear, and it responds well to changing speeds and throttle inputs. For example, driving a Mazda CX-5, which has a planetary automatic transmission, will be a little jerkier than a Nissan Rogue, which uses a continuously variable transmission.

Another thing we like about the CVT is relatively simple engineering. You may get different opinions from different engineers on this, but by and large, the simple engineering of a CVT with only a few moving parts translates to much simpler maintenance. A gear going out just isn’t an issue with a continuously variable transmission because it doesn’t have gears.

Disadvantages of a CVT

If you’ve never driven a car with a continuously variable transmission before, it takes a little time to get used to. There’s a droning effect that’s more pronounced in some CVTs than others. When you hit the accelerator hard, a CVT doesn’t step through gears like a regular automatic transmission would, so the CVT has a bit of a learning curve.

Although continuously variable transmissions require pretty low maintenance, there’s a possibility for more wear and tear. With a manual or a planetary automatic transmission, only one gear is in use at any given time. However, with a CVT, the belt and the two pulleys that make it work are used whenever you are driving the car.

Another disadvantage of a CVT is that it generally can’t handle as much torque as a planetary automatic transmission. You typically don’t find many performance cars with CVT transmissions because the single belt isn’t suitable for such an application. For example, the Kia Forte uses a continuously variable transmission with its base engine, but the high-performance GT model uses a DCT automatic or manual transmission.

Is a CVT Better Than an Automatic Transmission?

Well, this depends on what the driver of the car prefers. When comparing the two transmissions, the continuously variable transmission does have the advantage when it comes to the feel of the ride. Since the CVT isn’t shifting gears, the ride is smoother, which many may prefer to the somewhat jerky feeling of an automatic transmission.

However, the CVT doesn’t perform better than its counterpart in every scenario. When it comes to torque and power, the automatic transmission will win that race. Since the CVT offers better fuel economy than the automatic, look at this as a trade-off. Do you want to go fast, or do you want to drive longer?

If you prioritize good fuel economy and a smooth drive, then a continuously variable transmission is probably right for you. CVT-equipped cars and SUVs are efficient and easy to drive as long as you can get past the learning curve of driving a vehicle without gears.

However, if you’ve never driven a car with a CVT, you should give one a test drive to find out whether you like how it drives. If you do, then you’ll reap the benefits of an efficient design with fewer moving parts than the average transmission.

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published.

FAQ

Are CVTs Reliable?

Yes. A CVT is reliable and actually requires less maintenance than a traditional transmission since it has fewer moving parts.

Is a CVT an Automatic?

Yes, a CVT is a type of automatic transmission.

What Does CVT Mean?

CVT is short for a continuously variable transmission.

Eric Brandt
Eric Brandt is an author specializing in Oversteer content, new car reviews, and finding the best car, truck, and SUV deals each month. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eric can often be found exploring the north woods on his 1983 Honda Gold Wing when the weather allows it. Father of four, husband of one, and unapologetic minivan enthusiast. Eric mastered driving stick by having a 3-cylinder Chevy... Read More about Eric Brandt

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37 COMMENTS

  1. I bought a Honda Amaze CVT in 2016, a freshly launched model then. Enjoying driving since then as a senior citizen, with pretty good milage. True that the transmission fluid is spacial (HCF2-13 CVF) and costly too. But boon for aged.

  2. I have heard from Mr Transmission from Canada that Nissan has had many problems with their CVT and they are very costly to repair or replace that certain transmission.

  3. I have Ford 2006 with CVT I must stick with CVT transmission oil buy it from the dealership they are not cheap.Love my Ford Freestyle 3.0l

  4. Hi Guys, I have a 2013 mazda 3 axela (hybrid)-BYEFP – chassis numbe and it says CVT however I wanted to know what type of Transmission fluid is used in that car?

    Thanks

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