A continuously variable transmission (CVT) comes as the standard option for a wide variety of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs from numerous automakers. Even though this technology has been available for some passenger vehicles since 1989, it could be a new feature if you are used to driving an older vehicle or your preferred brand just recently updated what you prefer to drive.
When you use a standard non-CVT transmission, then a complex series of gears work to send the power from the engine to the wheels of the vehicle. With the continuously variable transmission, there are no gears at all. This design uses a part of pulleys that have a variable width, which are connected by a belt. One of the pulleys connects to the engine, while the other connects to your wheels.
The width of the pulleys changes based on the amount of power that is necessary at any given movement. One will become larger while the other shrinks, allowing for robust acceleration without hesitation. Some CVT options do use a series of rollers and discs to achieve a similar result.
These are the pros and cons of a CVT transmission that you will want to review before driving a vehicle equipped with this technology for the first time.
List of the Pros of a CVT Transmission
1. CVT transmissions improve the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.
The most significant advantage that the continuously variable transmission offers to drivers is an increase in fuel efficiency while on the road. The makes and models that come with the CVT option tend to receive ratings that make the vehicle at or near the top of its class for the MPG you receive. It is not unusual for mid-sized vehicles to achieve almost 40 miles per gallon on the highway, with hybrids coming close to 50 MPG. Even trucks and SUVs are routinely above 20 MPG when using this technology.
2. CVT transmissions provide a responsive reaction to incline driving.
When you must traverse an incline regularly (such as driving up a mountain pass during a regular commute), then the continuously variable transmission will give you a responsive reaction when you press the accelerator to the floor. This technology works to find the best possible ratio for the acceleration that you require to offer a maximum level of power at all times. That means you don’t need to worry about shifting into a different gear or letting up on the gas pedal to help the transmission reset, especially when managing a heavy load.
The reason for this advantage is the fact that the CVT transmission provides an infinite number of gear ratios to use. This option makes it possible to handle a wide variety of driving conditions, allowing you to achieve a cruising speed without difficulty. It will keep the engine in its optimal range for power at all times.
3. CVT transmissions provide a smoother ride over long distances.
When you are driving with a continuously variable transmission, then you will not experience the lurching and hesitation that the traditional technologies could sometimes provide. This option does not need to find the correct gear ratio to be in because it automatically adjusts to the needs of the vehicle at any given time automatically. There are plenty of stories about the bouncing and grinding of a transmission that created damage or a personal injury because the product didn’t work as intended.
When you have a vehicle with a CVT transmission, then your ride is smoother because each necessary shift is seamless thanks to the pulley or rotor/disc system in use. Although you will experience more changes throughout your trip since the device is continuously changing, the subtlety of the process is not usually noticed in the cabin.
4. CVT transmissions have fewer parts that could break down over time.
Because the continuously variable transmission simplifies the shifting mechanism for the vehicle, there are fewer parts that can break down while the car is operational. That means you have a lower overall risk of experiencing a failure when out on the road. This simpler construction can save you money in the long run, even when something might happen to the system.
Although some models do require a complete replacement of the system, the process of rebuilding is faster with a CVT when it can be done because you’re not forced to reassemble a complete set of gears to make the vehicle operational again.
5. CVT transmissions are lighter than their traditional counterparts.
Because a continuously variable transmission doesn’t require a load of gears to maintain the proper ratio while driving, the weight of the unit is considerably less compared to the traditional unit. The product requires less overall space underneath the vehicle as well, which further reduces the weight profile. That means your powertrain isn’t working as hard when you drive down the road, so it does not encounter the same levels of stress that can lead to premature wear-and-tear issues.
This advantage can also give your fuel economy a boost at times because you can stay in the correct gear ratio more often.
6. CVT transmissions offer a better torque ratio.
Because the continuously variable transmission does not require the same gearing as the traditional technology, it is much simpler for vehicles equipped with a CVT to find, and then maintain their ideal torque ratio in every circumstance. That means you will have power when taking off from a complete stop, instant acceleration when it is needed, and the option to stay in the ideal ratio for a longer time as you drive.
That’s why you can find yourself being passed by a small hatchback in a V8 when climbing a mountain pass. The smaller vehicle climbs better thanks to the ever-present ability to find the best gear ratio possible in every circumstance.
7. CVT transmissions can have a long life with proper maintenance.
During the early years of CVT technology, the pulleys that this transmission would use could sometimes break. That meant your operational costs were almost guaranteed to be higher. This issue has resolved itself over the past few decades, but you can still expect to pay for a complete replacement by the 100,000-mile mark on most vehicles. Some owners have discovered that their transmission can make it to 200,000 (and sometimes more) before it needs service with proper maintenance and consistent driving habits.
List of the Cons of a CVT Transmission
1. CVT transmissions can be very costly to replace.
Although the cost of a CVT transmission repair can be lower than a traditional unit, you will discover that many automakers do not offer this option. Most drivers find that they are on the hook for a brand new continuously variable transmission when their unit goes out. Because this option tends to fail faster than what is on older vehicles, you can expect to replace it somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 miles.
Some automakers like Subaru field several complaints each year of a CVT transmission wearing out before reaching 50,000 miles. Make sure to review your warranty with the vehicle to ensure you can take advantage of all of your rights. Expect to pay at least $3,000, and sometimes more than $5,000, for a complete replacement. If you own a Subaru, then you might find the cost closer to $8,000 on some models.
2. CVT transmissions will change your driving habits.
Let’s say that you are driving on a two-lane highway and there is a slow driver up ahead. If you are used to the traditional transmission, then you can gun it immediately to get around the vehicle without spending much time in the other lane. When your care comes equipped with a continuously variable transmission, then you must drive strategically. Although you can receive an improvement in acceleration and performance in some vehicles, you might also find a delayed response occurring when you require an immediate change in your driving conditions.
You will need to plan out the pass with an acceleration profile as you lead up to the vehicle you wish to pass. Then you need to peak your speed as you lose the draft to ensure you can complete the pass in time. If you wait to increase your speed until after you pull out to pass, you might be unable to complete it in time.
3. CVT transmissions do not have the same towing capacity.
Towing with a continuously variable transmission is the same as it would be with the traditional unit. Although the actual process is the same with this technology (which is an advantage), this option usually comes equipped with vehicles that are meant to keep their loads down. It is not unusual to have a maximum towing capacity of 1,000 pounds or less with a vehicle that comes with this option. If you have a stronger engine, you might receive up to 3,000 pounds – at a steeper MSRP – but that is unusual since most CVTs are designed to work with a 4-cylinder engine to maximize its power.
You can install your receiver or hitch in the same way that you would for any other transmission. If you are renting a trailer to pull, then the outlet might install it for you for a fee. Then keep the CVT transmission in the drive setting unless you are navigating icy, snow-packed, or loose gravel roads. You don’t need to have a specific gear ratio locked with this option. Make sure that you never exceed the maximum tow rating either.
4. CVT transmissions often require a complete replacement if they fail.
When you look at the Subaru continuously variable transmissions that require repair, about 90% of them cannot go through a rebuilding process because of the way that they fail. The damage tends to be extensive enough that the only way to make the vehicle operational again is to purchase and install a new unit. This disadvantage applies to Nissan, Honda, and other automakers who use this technology, although not always to the same extent.
Even when a rebuild is possible, you will discover that the cost of the repair can be 50% higher (if not more) than what it would be to repair the traditional transmission. That means the fuel savings that you earn with this technology does not end up paying for itself by the time a replacement is necessary.
5. CVT transmissions can sometimes hang up at high RPM levels.
The technology of a continuously variable transmission will help you to take advantage of an infinite number of gear ratios for improved performance. You will also discover that the CVT transmission can sometimes misread the input that it receives from the engine, thinking that you need to stay in a higher gear when you really do not need to do so. You will experience this disadvantage most often when driving up an incline.
Because the only way to reset the transmission is to let your foot off of the gas, you can immediately lose the speed that you have. That requires you to press down on the accelerator once again, creating higher RPM levels that can hang on your once again. If you are climbing a steep mountain pass, this issue can become quite irritating because it creates inconsistent speeds.
6. CVT transmissions are much noisier than their traditional counterparts.
You will immediately discover that the sounds a continuously variable transmission makes are very different than what you would experience with the traditional unit. Many drivers think that their vehicle is not operating correctly because it is such a different experience. There can be a lot of clunking, grinding, and even vibration from the unit as you drive, even when on flat surfaces. Adding your air conditioner to this process can make the issue even worse in some vehicles.
It is particularly bothersome to the driver because many of the sounds and vibrations occur underneath the seat. Some models can emit a droning sound that goes beyond what you would experience with white noise. Until you get used to this experience, this problem will always be a disadvantage.
7. CVT transmissions have higher standard maintenance costs.
Just as you will pay between 50% to 100% more when trying to repair or replace a continuously variable transmission that breaks down, you will also see the cost of your standard maintenance rise by the same levels. If you have the transmission fluid replaced at your dealership, the cost is typically between $250 to $350. It can be even higher if the pan and filter require an update as part of the service. Since you can’t put off your maintenance schedule due to the high replacement costs, you will need to budget for this expense based on what your manufacturer recommends.
If you don’t want to take your vehicle to the dealership, then it is possible to work with a mechanic or independent service technician to get this job done. Even then, the costs are still significantly higher in most circumstances.
8. CVT transmissions require proper driving habits to reduce the risk of damage.
When you are operating a vehicle that comes with a continuously variable transmission, then you must be careful with your shifting habits. The worst issue occurs when you are backing the car up, and then throwing it straight into drive from reverse before you have completely stopped your momentum. This habit can be exceptionally hard on the CVT, and it doesn’t serve a practical purpose. You will also want to use your parking brake after shifting to park when you come to a stop to reduce the stress on your vehicle’s structure too.
A Final Thought on the Pros and Cons of CVT Transmissions
The first sketch of a continuously variable transmission was made by Leonardo Da Vinci in the late 15th century. Daimler and Benz were the first to receive a patent using CVT technologies in 1886. Zenit built motorcycles using this transmission option in 1910, and it was such a successful design that competition organizers had to ban the technology because it could overpower the traditional models of its day.
Although it is only now that the continuously variable transmission is finding commercial success, there are over 30 years of proven reliability that back this technology. Some models work better than others, but the majority of automakers offer at least one choice that incorporates CVT technologies to improve your fuel efficiency.
The pros and cons of CVT transmissions all rely on cost. You will pay more at the end of the day when using this technology, but it can also give you a significant power boost during challenging driving conditions. If you can learn how to maximize the advantages which are possible, then most of the issues that one might encounter with this technology become minor irritations at best.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.