Man Driving

What Is A Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)?

David Collins7-minute read
January 21, 2022

Share:

In recent years car shoppers may have noticed that more and more new vehicles are equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT is seen by carmakers as an advancement on the standard automatic transmissions developed decades ago, mostly because they promote better fuel efficiency. A CVT also provides more seamless transitions between gears, which results in a smoother ride.

The genius in CVT technology actually traces back to the Renaissance inventor Leonardo da Vinci, and it’s been applied to various industrial tasks for years. An early version of the CVT was patented for a car by Daimler-Benz in 1886, but the common manual shift was the dominant transmission in early cars. As demand for more fuel-efficient cars rose in the late 20th century, engineers renewed focus on CVT technology. Japanese automaker Subaru propelled the idea forward significantly when it introduced a CVT on its Justy model in 1989.

How A CVT Works

First it might help to explain how traditional transmissions work. In a manual transmission, the driver decides which gear is optimal and mechanically shifts into that gear. On an automatic transmission, the vehicle has technology that senses which gear is optimal and shifts without driver input. Modern manual and automatic transmissions usually have between four and six gears. Generally the lower the speed of the car, the lower the gear; the more speed required, the higher the gear.

So how do gears work? We’ll put it in language that doesn’t require a master’s in mechanical engineering to understand. Say you are trying to pry loose a really tight bolt. A low gear would be like a really long wrench. It provides more mechanical advantage and is best when trying to get the bolt loose (like a lower gear at low speeds). This could also be referred to as higher torque. When the bolt is looser, you could switch to a shorter wrench which turns the bolt faster (like a higher gear at high speeds).

A continuously variable transmission does not employ mechanical gears, but it accomplishes the same task as a traditional transmission, just in a different way. While a traditional transmission uses the motion of larger and smaller gears to turn the axel depending on driving conditions, a CVT uses a belt and pulleys to turn the wheels. A CVT employs two cone-shaped pulleys connected by a belt, with one pulley connected to the engine’s power and one that delivers that power to the wheels. The belt “slides” up and down between the wide and narrow ends of the pulley depending on how much engine power the wheels need. The difference between the width of the engine-based pulley and the wheel-directed pulley is the CVT’s version of having different gear ratios. The continuous slide of the pulley is less jerky than shifting gears and allows the car to accelerate smoothly and more efficiently.

Continuously Variable Vs. Automatic Transmissions

A CVT is similar to an automatic transmission in that it does not require input from the driver. But that’s where comparison ends. Instead of using gears, a CVT has two pulleys connected by a belt. The input pulley takes power from the engine and, by way of the connecting belt, turns the output pulley, which turns the axel and thereby the wheels. Unlike gears, which shift in increments, the belt and the width of the pulleys are constantly changing depending on the power the vehicle needs. To put it another way, a traditional transmission jumps between a fixed number of gears, whereas a CVT glides between an infinite number of gears. There is really no shift, which is why the ride feels smoother.

While CVTs are very popular on the Japanese market, they are becoming more common in the United States on such models as the Honda Civic, Subaru Forester and Toyota C-HR, to name just a few. While searching the Rocket AutoSM Inventory, be sure to ask the seller if any individual vehicle you’re looking at has a CVT.

Car buying, reimagined.

Rocket AutoSM allows you to compare thousands of vehicles from multiple dealers.

Pros And Cons Of Continuously Variable Transmissions

A car with a CVT is great for some people, but might not suit others. An excellent way for you to understand better would be to test drive a new or used CVT automobile at a local dealership, but for a quick primer here are some pros and cons to keep in mind.

The Pros

Smoother ride: Cars with a CVT glide effortlessly through gear ratios while accelerating or slowing down, eliminating the jerking feeling that results from shifting gears in traditional transmissions.

Fuel efficiency: The U.S. Department Of Energy estimates that vehicles with CVTs perform at 3% – 4% more fuel efficiency, saving about $700 – $900 over the life of an average vehicle.

Simplicity of design: Because of its relatively simple design, a CVT is easier to assemble and less costly than a traditional automatic transmission, which is made up of hundreds of complex parts. Its lighter weight contributes to the overall fuel efficiency gains enjoyed by CVT cars.  

The Cons

It feels different: People who are used to driving standard transmission cars can be unsettled by a slight delay after applying the throttle to a CVT car. The engine revs up for a beat before the transmission catches up. This so-called “rubber band” effect is being engineered out of newer CVT systems.

It’s too smooth: Many drivers really enjoy the feel of a good stiff standard transmission. Driving a “stick,” or manual transmission car, puts the decision-making entirely on the driver and gives a feeling of being in control, at one with the car and the road. The action of working the clutch pedal and shifting gears can be exhilarating, especially in a car with a peppy engine. Even automatic transmissions for some cars are designed to give a sportier, more responsive feel to operating the vehicle. In a CVT car, there can be a lag, particularly in a hard acceleration of the engine, before the transmission “catches up.” This can be unsettling at first for someone who has not experienced a CVT.

A CVT can cost more to repair: CVTs can be harder to work on – and thus more expensive – when they need to be repaired. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to find a mechanic who is trained to fix a CVT. The most vital maintenance check you can schedule is a regular check of the transmission fluid. Most manufacturers recommend checking every 25,000 or 30,000 miles. With luck, a modern, well-maintained CVT can last well over 100,000 miles before requiring replacement. Major overhauls or replacement, however, can run into the thousands of dollars.

The Future Of CVT

In the ultra-competitive global automotive market, improvements to all components are never-ending and the same is true of continuously variable transmissions. Thus far, a belt and pulley transmission has not been made powerful enough to handle a high-horsepower or high-torque engine, though we may see improvements in the near future. In addition, many hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars are now getting some of their driveshaft power from so-called electronic CVTs, which can vary speed using electric motors rather than a belt and pulleys.

More vehicles each year employ a CVT as either standard or as an option on at least one of its option packages, including several familiar American-made cars. 2021 vehicles with a CVT option include Chevrolet Malibu, Buick Encore GX, Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, Kia Soul and Nissan Altima.

CVT FAQs

Is A CVT Automatic?

A CVT is sometimes referred to as a continuously variable automatic transmission to emphasize to consumers that it requires no input from the driver other than placing the car in drive. Mechanically, however, the CVT is very dissimilar to a standard automatic transmission.

Can CVT Be Manual?

Some cars equipped with a CVT allow you to use the shift lever or a paddle shifter on the steering wheel to mimic a fixed gear setting, usually for a lower “gear” on hilly or difficult terrain. Shifting is automatic and does not require a clutch.

Does A CVT Cost More To Repair?

There are mixed results from auto repair specialists on how long the CVT lasts before breaking down. Consensus is that a CVT, when properly maintained (flushing and replacing transmission fluid every 25,000 miles) can last 100,000 miles or more if no major problems develop. But on average a CVT will not last as long as a standard transmission and repairs can be expensive.

All manufacturers build a different version of the CVT, and each will have its strengths. Minor repairs will likely cost in the $200 – $700 range, but major rebuilds or total replacement can cost $3,000 – $5,000, according to AAMCO Total Car Care. Some repair professionals report replacement costs at up $8,000 for larger luxury SUV imports like the Audi Q9 or Porsche Cayenne. For more assurance on the durability of the CVT in a car you are considering, call the service desk at a dealership that sells the car. Ask them about the service record of the CVT in the specific model year of the vehicle you are considering. Even better, call an independent mechanic. They will be more likely to give you an honest assessment and may have more experience in working on CVTs from multiple manufacturers. A Toyota dealership service department, for example, likely works on more Toyota transmissions than those of other manufacturers.

If you buy a used CVT vehicle with low mileage, there’s a good chance the car will have a significant amount of life left on its extended warranty, which will likely cover replacements and repairs for the CVT.

The Bottom Line: A CVT Could Be Best For Those Seeking A Smooth Ride

A car with a continuously variable transmission is best for a person who needs an economical daily driver. There are many small and medium cars and even compact SUVs that now have an optional CVT engine package. These cars get better fuel efficiency than their standard transmission peers, and no-shift gearing results in a very smooth ride. As fuel efficiency standards continue to expand, there will likely be more and more car models with at least an optional CVT. The ride experience is different, however, so it’s best to test drive a CVT car before you buy. Be aware that CVTs with more than 60,000 miles can begin to break down and repairs can be expensive.

Car buyers who enjoy tight responsiveness and road-feel from their vehicle should consider a car with a sportier standard transmission or even a manual. As of 2022, there are no CVTs that can handle the high horsepower and high torque created by performance cars, large SUVs, or purpose-built off-road vehicles.

Car buying, reimagined.

Rocket AutoSM allows you to compare thousands of vehicles from multiple dealers.

Car buying, reimagined.

Rocket AutoSM allows you to compare thousands of vehicles from multiple dealers.

Start Browsing

David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto with experience in publishing as well as communications, public relations, and web content creation for automotive manufacturing. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan.