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The Pluses and Minuses of A Continuously Variable Transmission

By Trevor Dorchies | July 30, 2012
Subaru first introduced the continuously variable transmission (CVT) to the U.S. market with its subcompact Justy in 1987. Ever since then, CVTs have hung around on the fringes of automotive technology, with a history of more valleys than peaks. GM attempted to use a CVT in the Saturn Vue and Ion coupe from 2002 to 2005, but the gearbox failed so constantly that the Detroit-based automaker was sued. Ford once used a CVT in the 2005 Freestyle, Five Hundred, and the Mercury Montego but later squashed the project in 2007. Originally, Ford expected to produced a million CVTs a year when in reality, only a couple hundred thousand were assembled over four years. By 2005, despite being around for decades, the CVT accounted for only around one percent of transmissions in the North American market. But it may be that the CVT's time has finally come. Thanks to the efforts of Subaru, Audi and especially Nissan, industry experts now foresee the CVT infiltrating 16 percent of all vehicles sold in North America by 2015. The sharp incline in CVT usage could be attributed to Nissan's use of it in the all-new 2013 Altima along with rumors of Toyota employing one in the next-generation Corolla and Honda using it in the up-coming Accord. All three of the aforementioned vehicles account for a major piece of the respective automaker's sales pie, so CVTs could see lots of action in the coming years. Both Honda and Nissan believe that unlike other creature comfort features, most customers don't notice any difference when driving a vehicle that uses a CVT. So why the slow adoption? Blame hardcore auto enthusiasts, for whom CVTs are the bane of their existence. A continuously variable transmission doesn't have any gears, but instead relies on a set of pulleys to increase and decrease the engine's shaft to driveshaft speed ratio. As speed increases, the CVT adjusts, allowing the vehicle to travel smoothly and without any lurching back and forth as you'd get in a traditional automatic. This is both a good and bad thing: the smooth acceleration allows better fuel economy, but many enthusiasts miss the kick-back from a traditional transmission's gear changes. And this is why enthusiasts and other opinion leaders don't like them much. While it gets good fuel economy, the CVT gives a vehicle a numb feeling, and enthusiast drivers don't like that. The vast majority, however, doesn't mind a CVT and enjoy the boosted fuel economy figures. Nissan has continued to operate off the knowing that the majority of its customers won't notice the CVT, let alone care about it. CVTs have slowly been implemented across Nissan's stable, with vehicles like the 2013 Pathfinder and Altima both employing them. Infiniti, Nissan's luxury arm, has even begun using CVTs with the addition of the 2013 JX crossover. Like the JX, many vehicles equipped with CVTs have a setting that essentially holds the engine at a higher revolution longer to give the driver the feeling of shifting gears. Both Honda and Nissan say that this has minimal affect on fuel economy and makes the driver think the vehicle is physically shifting gears when this just isn't the case. What do you think? Would you drive a vehicle equipped with a continuously variable transmission? Tell us what you think in the comment section below. Source: Automotive News (subscription required)
  • 2013 Nissan Altima Front End
  • 2013 Nissan Pathfinder Drivers Side Three Quarters1
  • 2013 Nissan Altima Cockpit
 
2 comments
Verne Middleton
Verne Middleton

I am on my second CVT, the first was a Calibre, and the second a Nissan Cube. I wouldn't go back to a gearbox by choice. There is no question about the efficiency, but there is an additional advantage if you live in hilly country like Alabama. In running downhill on steep grades, set your cruise on the desired speed, and guess what, No braking required except on very step grades. And to address smoothness, "It don't get much better. Another factor in around town mileage is the fact that my both of the CVTS allow the torque converter to lock up at 15 mph instead of 30 with most transmissions

Everest
Everest

I love CVT just from technology point of view. Never driven one but looking forward to it. In my opinion, car makers do not need to simulate gear shift when indeed there is none. Present the CVT behaviour just the way it is. CVT has the advantage of fuel economy and for me that's enough for it's acceptance. Car makers should work on improving its reliability and reduce its noise.

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