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What Is CVT Transmission? Here’s The Breakdown

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Automatic and manual transmissions are the most common types of transmissions. However, there is also a third type that a lot of people who aren’t mechanically inclined know about. In recent years, the CVT or Continuously Variable Transmission has reemerged on the automotive market. Originally developed in the late eighties, this transmission is becoming increasingly popular because of its ability to decrease fuel consumption more than any other type of transmission system. 

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If you’ve been shopping for a new car or SUV you’ve probably seen the terms “CVT” or “Continuously Variable Transmission” quite a few times. As the name implies, a Continuously Variable Transmission continuously changes gears while driving. Understanding the full operation of a CVT and its operation can help consumers understand what it’s like driving a vehicle like this and the benefits of opting for a car with this type of transmission. 


How Does A Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Work? 

First off, it’s important to note that a CVT can be considered a type of automatic transmission since the driver doesn’t need to use a clutch pedal or need to manually shift through the forward gears. Yet what makes a CVT different from any other type of transmission is that it seamlessly changes through unending gear ratios while the vehicle is being operated. Sounds cool huh?


A Continuously Variable Transmission doesn’t have fixed preset gears. Instead, the transmission gear ratios are instantly changing and adjusting to the driving conditions and styles. With CVT drivers don’t experience hard shift points which is why over the years, this transmission is often referred to as shiftless or single-speed.


CVT Transmission Design

A traditional Continuously Variable Transmission employs the use of two pulleys that are connected to a chain or a V belt. The pulleys are made up of two cone-shaped halves that both move together and apart. The cross-section of the belt rides higher on one side of the pulley and rides lower on the opposite pulley. One side is connected to the transmission and the other to the engine. 


Therefore, the gear ratios are able to seamlessly change by moving one part of the pulley closer together and the other further apart. The diameter of the two pulleys can be adjusted to achieve an infinite number of torque ratios to match the output shaft. This allows for smooth acceleration and fuel efficiency. Simply put, a Continuously Variable Transmission consists of a belt, a driving pulley system, and a torque pulley. 

Over the years, CVTs have evolved and auto manufacturers have improved the design of this type of transmission. For instance, Toyota's Corolla S lineup utilizes a CVT with preset modes like; sport’s mode, paddle shifters, and even seven additional artificial gears that help regulate engine rev and other inconvenient gripes with CVTs. Nissan recently released the first hybrid SUV with a Continuously Variable Transmission. 


Several of Toyota’s CVT-based vehicles use Launch Gear. The automaker modified the traditional CVT so that it feels like a conventional automatic transmission. The Launch Gear is like setting the car in first gear in an automatic transmission. As the driver accelerates and speeds up the vehicle will automatically change out of this gear and begin working as a regular CVT. According to experts, advancements in the design of the CVT are going to make this type of transmission mainstream. 


History Of CVT Transmissions

Leonardo DaVinci wasn’t just known for his artwork but he was an engineer and he created the first Continuously Variable Transmission in 1490. In 1879, Milton Reeves, a pioneer in the automotive industry designed a CVT which was called a variable speed transmission. It was used for sawmilling. He then started using this transmission in his automobiles and other manufacturers started to use the Reeves CVT. However, the CVT design was officially patented by Daimler and Benz in 1886. 


The first CVT was used in motorcycles by Zenit. These motorcycles became popular because of their efficiency and were even used in competitions. They were later banned from hill-climbing competitions. Subaru was the first automotive manufacturer to utilize a CVT in their vehicles in the late eighties, which officially introduced this transmission into the mainstream automotive world. Today, nearly every auto manufacturer has at least one vehicle in its lineup with a continuously variable transmission. 

Is An Automatic Transmission Better Than A CVT?

Because some drivers don’t know what to expect from a vehicle with a CVT, they stick to what they know, which is a vehicle with an automatic transmission. Although driving a car with an automatic transmission is similar to operating a vehicle with a CVT there are a few obvious differences.

 A traditional automatic transmission is designed with a set of configurations that are based on typical perceived driving patterns. Some vehicles are equipped with transmission systems that prioritize the engine’s performance while compromising on horsepower and fuel consumption. Unlike a conventional transmission, a CVT is capable of putting all of these functions at the forefront. Yes, continuously variable transmissions can offer great fuel economy and peak engine performance. 


You’ll find that driving a car with a CVT has a smoother riding experience than a vehicle with an automatic transmission largely because it never shifts. Drivers of vehicles with CVTs don’t have to deal with abrupt downshifting when the engine requires an extra kick of power and the gear hunting sensation that you can feel sometimes with a traditional automatic transmission is eliminated. 


In addition, a CVT is so much lighter than a traditional automatic transmission. Its lightweight design is one of the reasons why vehicles that are equipped with this transmission are great on gas. Since CVTs don't utilize specific gears it's easier for these vehicles to maintain a torque ratio that perfectly accommodates the driving operation. Therefore, it’s easier to take off at red light and drivers are better able to navigate difficult terrain since the transmission is always running in the right gear. When it comes to functionality and convenience, a CVT offers several more benefits than an automatic transmission.


Top Pros and Cons Of A CVT

Continuously variable transmissions are on the rise because they provide a wide range of benefits to the average driver. Some of the top advantages of owning a vehicle with a CVT is:


  • As previously mentioned, a CVT significantly improves fuel economy. Nearly all of the popular hybrid cars from automakers are equipped with a CVT. Standard gas engine midsize sedans with a CVT get about 38mpg. Also, a CVT can switch the gear ratio forever 
  • In general, most CVTs are designed to weigh less and take up less room in a car compared to a conventional transmission. 
  • Conventional automatic transmissions consist of hundreds of moving parts. Believe it or not, a CVT is easier and simpler to design than a traditional automatic transmission. As a result, they require fewer resources to build and repair. Generally, cars with a CVT are more affordable to own. 
  • Driving uphill in a vehicle equipped with a CVT is easy. Whereas a traditional automatic transmission has to work hard to find the appropriate gear ratio, a CVT instantly shifts into the right gear ratio. The engine is able to seamlessly provide the right amount of power to minus the hard shifting. 


No mechanical system is perfect. While continuously variable transmissions have a lot to offer, there are drawbacks to driving a car with CVT compared to a conventional automatic transmission:


  • The lack of downshifting and upshifting is considered to be a pro but some drivers prefer to feel the sensations of the cars shifting into gears. Without fixed gears, the ride is less engaging. 
  • Advanced continuously variable transmissions that are commonly being used today can be very expensive to repair and replace. Also, they don’t have longevity like their conventional counterparts. While a traditional automatic transmission can last the life of a car, a CVT can fail at around 100,000 miles. This is because CVTs rely on pulley belts which when worked too hard can suffer from excessive stretching leading to excessive wear. Since CVTs are relatively new to today’s automotive industry there aren’t a lot of certified CVT technicians available. This can lead to a lot of independent shops setting ridiculously high prices. 
  • A CVT requires more maintenance. For instance, transmission fluid changes need to take place every 60,000 miles while in a traditional automatic transmission you only need to change the transmission fluid every 72,000 miles. 


  • A CVT isn’t capable of handling high amounts of horsepower which is why they aren’t used in high-performance cars or in sports coupes. 
  • It can take some time to get used to driving a vehicle with a CVT. Compared to other types of transmissions, the throttle action may seem a bit delayed. CVT typically remains in the higher RPM while in standard transmission getting back to the lower RPM is desired. 


Buying A Used Car With A CVT

If you are considering purchasing a used car that utilizes a CVT, it’s important to do your due diligence to make such an investment. Because continuously variable transmissions can be very expensive to repair and replace you’ll want to have the vehicle thoroughly inspected and take it for a test drive. 


While testing a used CVT car you should watch out for:


Slow Shifting – Although you don’t have to shift from first to second gear in a continuously variable transmission system, you do have to shift between, park reverse, and drive. Shifting should be instant, so if it takes longer than a second to shift gears there is likely a problem with the CVT. Jerky shifting where you experience jolts is also an indication of a faulty CVT that’s on its last leg. 


Slippage – When accelerating the gear ratio changes should be seamless. If the CVT slips or temporarily loses power the CVT is in bad condition. Fluctuations in RPM while driving can also be a sign of a major problem. 


Soiled Transmission Fluid – Dirty transmission fluid indicates poor maintenance. The transmission fluid on a vehicle with a CVT needs to be changed more frequently or lead to the CVT wearing out faster. If the owner isn’t keeping up with the fluid changes chances are the CVT isn’t in the best condition. 


Bottom Line: Are CVT Transmissions Worth It?

A CVT can provide an enhanced driving experience. It boosts fuel efficiency, and effortlessly navigates steep inclines which are ideal for driving in mountainous regions. Keep in mind these more efficient transmission systems are accompanied by a hefty price tag and a higher maintenance routine. Since it’s designed with fewer components than traditional CVTS is more adaptable allowing for seamless accelerations in changing driving conditions. Whether you purchase a vehicle with a CVT used or new, it’s important to make sure that the vehicle is covered by a dealer or factory warranty. 


Common Questions Regarding Continuously Variable Transmissions

Q: What does CVT mean in a car?

CVT stands for Continuously Variable Transmission. A car with this type of transmission doesn’t make use of traditional gears like a conventional basic transmission. Instead, the vehicle shifts into gears as the car is in operation.


Q: Is a CVT better than an automatic transmission?

A CVT does provide a better riding experience than a traditional automatic transmission. For one, CVTs are more fuel-efficient than regular automatic. The lack of downshifting and upshifting allows the driver to focus on riding and enjoying the vehicle.


Q: How much does it cost to fix a CVT transmission?

The cost of repairing a CVT varies. The average cost of repairing a CVT is between $3,500-$8000. A failed CVT can also be rebuilt. The cost of rebuilding a bad CVT is lower than purchasing a rebuilt or new CVT.


Q: What are the most common problems with a CVT?

When it comes to continuously variable transmissions, owners reported experiencing problems like overheating, slippage, and even sudden loss of acceleration. Another common problem is shuddering. The CVT pulley belt can sometimes wear out faster than normal which can cause the transmission to completely fail. 

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