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Good or Bad? We Break Down the CVT

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There’s a certain negative connotation that has followed around the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) for as long as they’ve been in existence; but why?  Gearheads seem to cringe before you can even finish the acronym CV… but whatever started this perception?  We take a look at how the CVT works, what its benefits are, and why people judge it so harshly.

CVT cones and beltFirst of all CVT is a type of transmission that doesn’t actually have gears in the sense that we would think of gears.  A CVT’s “gears” are “Continuously Variable” meaning that they don’t have teeth like traditional gears – they are always changing.  In laymen’s terms there are two cones that are held together with a rubber or woven metal belt.  Those belts will start out at the tips of both cones while the car is at or near zero RPMs, and as the RPMs increase, the belts will simultaneously move outward to the thickest parts of the cones.  Think of it as a 21-speed bicycle with a gear boxes on the front and back, but now replace the gears with fat-ish cones and you suddenly would be able to hit “gears” such as twelve-and-a-half or ten-and-three-quarters.  This creates for seamless shifting (in most vehicles) and less wear and tear on mechanical parts that you would have in a regular manual or automatic transmission.

CVT taken apart

Can you spot where the CVT “cones” are located in this expanded picture?

There are several benefits to a CVT and we’ve even named some, but the main thing that seems to draw consumers in is the fuel savings that accompanies these debated transmissions.  It’s one thing that everyone can pretty much agree upon.  The way it does this is keep the revolutions per minute down while under light acceleration and thus maximize fuel economy by constantly shifting “gears” rather than raising RPMs.  It’s a benefit that can actually be seen at the pump.  Another benefit would be the ease of maintenance because instead of multiple gears to potentially replace, essentially all you have to worry about is the belt (mostly woven metal chain now-a-days) and the two cones.  Benefits to a CVT also include the ability to maximize acceleration by holding an engine at peak output.CVT inside view

Now, there are doubters out there (and plenty of them), but with recent advancements CVTs are becoming more mainstream.  Even still, people still have a negative perception of these transmissions.  For instance, because of the way a CVT holds constant engine speed, often-times drivers complain that a poorly calibrated CVT can feel like applying the throttle on a motorboat.  It’s been described as “droning” or “lagging,” but more and more people are coming around and these innovations are being put into more cars every year.

nissan altima CVTFord Fusion Hybrid CVT

It’s difficult to give you an idea just how many cars have CVTs in them without just listing them, but it should get the point across that this is the way the world is turning.  For example, just about every Nissan has a CVT and most have had them since the mid-2000s (although they’ve seen much improvement since then).  A handful of Ford vehicles are on the list as well including the Fusion and Escape Hybrids.  There are plenty other manufacturers utilizing the power of the CVT such as Audi, Lexus, Subaru, Honda and Toyota.  While there are more, this should give you plenty of an idea about how popular they are becoming sooner rather than later.

Like them or not, it seems as if CVTs are here to stay.  So, the question becomes, when will all the “haters” come around and change their attitudes on these fuel saving transmissions?  There will always be the regular manual and automatic transmissions for those hardcore gearheads and people who actually need them, but the CVTs are here for those who want a seamless transmission that saves them money at the pump!

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Good or Bad? We Break Down the CVT