When people talk about car transmission, they typically only mention manual or automatic transmission. Manual transmission had been the standard for many years, and then automatic came in as a simpler way to transition between gears that many drivers seem to prefer. Driving a manual transmission is fairly rare these days, and many drivers don't even know how to do it.
There is a third kind of transmission available, the CVT transmission, that most drivers aren't even aware of and certainly don't know how to distinguish it from an automatic transmission.
In the simplest terms a CVT transmission is what is known as a continuously variable transmission. It is in fact a kind of automatic transmission, meaning you don't actually have to manually shift between gears and the car handles that job itself. However, unlike a standard automatic transmission, the CVT is able to transition through the range of gear ratios seamlessly. There is no moment where your transmission switches from a lower gear to a higher gear or vice versa. The CVT is based on gear ratio so there is no first gear, second gear, third gear as you might understand them.
Let's take a look at exactly how a CVT transmission works, some of the pros and cons, and also what you want to do if you had one and there was a problem with it.
Is CVT Better Than Automatic Transmission?
It's hard to answer a question like this since better is certainly a subjective term at the best of times. But if you're comparing a CVT transmission to an automatic transmission there are definitely some notable differences that may make you prefer one to the other.
CVT transmission is designed to be a much more smooth and fuel-efficient kind of transmission than a standard automatic transmission. When they're working properly your car is able to transition between gears in a much more easy fashion that is less stressful to the transmission overall which in turn leads to that better fuel economy. So, in theory at least, using a CVT transmission could be less stressful to your car and save you money in the long run.
In reality, this depends entirely on the make and model of your vehicle and how you drive it. Just like any car, if you push too hard or don't take proper care of your vehicle then you can have problems with your CVT transmission just the same as you would with a manual or an automatic transmission.
Whether or not you consider it a better transmission simply because it's more fuel efficient and the transition between gears is done more smoothly is really a matter of taste. For instance some people very much prefer the feeling of a manual transmission and they want to have that control that comes with switching between gears. So, for people like that, manual transmission would be the best transmission. It really is a matter of taste. That said, a CVT transmission can definitely perform extremely well and be more cost-effective for you and if those are concerns, then you could definitely consider a CVT transmission better than standard automatic transmissions.
Pros and Cons of CVT Transmission
There are some clear benefits as we've seen to using the CVT transmission, but there may be some downsides as well. Let's compare the ups and downs of using a CVT.
Optimal Performance: One of the big upsides to using a CVT transmission is that it is able to best make use of the power that your engine produces when compared to other forms of transmission. Because it seamlessly transitions through gear ratios it makes optimal use of engine power without having those quick lurches or lags that occur in manual or automatic transmissions when you shift from one gear to another. That is part of the reason the fuel efficiency is so much better with the CVT as well, because you're never dropping performance when you try to shift for one gear to another, because you never actually have to shift from one gear to another.
Smoothness: If you ever tried to drive a manual transmission you probably had at least one experience when switching gears went pretty badly for you. You may have ended up grinding some gears and producing a terrible sound from your transmission. And even automatic transmissions, when they go bad, can slip gears and cause problems for you. A CVT transmission, because it doesn't actually have gears that it switches through, is always smooth and you'll never have that grinding problem.
Lightweight: CVT transmissions are smaller than standard automatic or manual transmissions. That means they're lighter, and able to fit into a more compact space in your engine compartment. This also contributes to your overall fuel economy and, because there are fewer parts involved, it makes it easier to maintain.
Efficiency: Many cars that are marketed as high fuel efficiency, and this includes hybrid vehicles, use a CVT transmission rather than a standard automatic transmission. That is again because of the efficiency that we mentioned. Word it is that your fuel economy can improve by about 5% by using one of these transmissions versus the old school automatic transmission that we're all used to.
The Adjustment Factor: When CVT transmissions were first introduced many drivers called their dealerships to complain that it wasn't working right. Since you aren't shifting from one gear to another, you're not getting that RPM boost that you're used to when you hit a new gear in a standard automatic or a manual transmission vehicle. Because of this, drivers were constantly under the impression that the gearbox had slipped in their CVT and it simply wasn't working right. That wasn't the case, but it was the impression. If you're not used to a CVT transmission, there's a good chance you'll think it's working incorrectly even though it's working fine. The fact is, even when working fine, a CVT transmission will often sound like your engine is struggling. That can be hard to get used to.
Noises: As we mentioned, it can sound like you're having trouble with your engine when you're using a CVT transmission. It's normal for a CVT transmission to produce what some drivers refer to as a wine or a moan while you're driving. Obviously no one wants a car that makes a lot of noise, and the sound has improved somewhat over the years, but you will still notice it when you're driving and that can be a problem for some drivers.
Boring: There's no real gentle way to say this, but CVT transmissions have a reputation for being boring. In a manual transmission vehicle, you have a moment where you can switch into a higher gear and put your foot down on the gas and really feel the car roar to life. Even in a standard automatic transmission vehicle when you put your foot down on the gas you get to experience that rev as your car gets up to speed and you really feel like you're going all out on the highway. The CVT transmission doesn't really give you that feeling. Many drivers describe it as feeling unresponsive and this is due to the fact that it doesn't have that staggered shifting through gears, it just goes slow and steady up to the speed you're trying to get to.
Price Point: While buying a car with a CVT transmission may not cost you more in terms of sticker price, it could end up costing you more in terms of repair bills. Even though there are fewer parts as we mentioned earlier, and the CVT is less likely to break down on average when compared with a standard automatic transmission, when it does break down on you it is going to cost you more to get repaired. But we'll get a little bit more into that in a moment.
How Long Does a CVT Transmission Last?
You can expect a CVT transmission to last you somewhere in the neighbourhood of five years. In terms of mileage, expect to get over 100,000 miles from a CVT transmission. Compared to a standard automatic transmission that may not be an impressive number, however. Your standard automatic transmission typically lasts around 7 years and should be good for 150,000 miles to 200,000 miles.
This is one of the major drawbacks to a CVT transmission because if you can only get half the life out of it that you would get compared to a standard automatic transmission, and then the cost of repairing it which we'll see is quite significant, it makes it harder to justify as an expense in the first place. Even with the improved fuel economy, it may not be worth it. But it really does depend again on the make and model of your vehicle and how you drive. As with anything, if you go out of your way to maintain your CVT transmission and keep it in good working order, it's going to last you longer.
Are CVT Transmissions Expensive to Repair?
When a CVT transmission fails on you, it's going to hit you in the pocketbook if you want to get it repaired. Replacing an entire CVT transmission can end up costing anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000. Some figures will take that number all the way up to $7,000. Of course, this really depends on the make and model of your vehicle, and the mechanic you take it to, but as you can see this is certainly a costly repair regardless.
Compare that to a standard automatic transmission which may cost you around $2,000 to get repaired. Still a steep repair bill by any means, but if it's a quarter of the cost it's a significant difference.
Signs of a Bad CVT Transmission
Just like when a standard transmission starts to go bad your CVT transmission is going to give you some warning signs you could be on the lookout for to let you know you're having a problem.
Vibrations: If you notice your car starting to shake when you get up to highway speeds there's potentially a problem with your CVT transmission that's causing this to happen. It could also be an issue with something else in your engine, so your best bet is to either check out some of the other symptoms of a bad CVT transmission or take it to a mechanic to find out for sure.
Leaks: Your transmission fluid is a pinkish red colour and if you are noticing that anywhere underneath your car after you've been parked overnight in small puddles then that's a good indication you have a leak somewhere in the transmission that will need to be checked out. There are a number of seals and gaskets throughout a CVT transmission that could potentially spring a leak on you.
Burning Smell: It’s possible if you have a transmission fluid leak somewhere on your CVT transmission that you're going to cause the transmission to overheat which will in turn produce a noticeable burning smell in the cabin of your vehicle. It's going to be caused by an overheating belt or the transmission fluid itself leaking onto your exhaust system.
Slipping Gears: Your CVT transmission is supposed to eliminate the problems associated with slipping gears that are common with manual transmission and even automatic transmission. This is because your CVT technically doesn't actually have any gears. However, if you're finding you're having a delayed reaction when you try to put it in drive or reverse, or it seems like when you are trying to press the engine to accelerate nothing's happening or you're still going particularly slowly, this could be another issue with your CVT not performing properly so you'll need to get it to a mechanic to have it checked out.
The Bottom Line
There are some definite advantages to using a vehicle with a CVT transmission, not the least of which is the money you'll save on gas as a result of the improved fuel efficiency. However, you do need to be aware that you aren't going to have a transmission that lasts as long as a standard automatic transmission either. You've definitely need to weigh the pros and the cons of a particular make and model that you're interested in to determine if a car with a CVT transmission is the right choice for you.