What You Should Know About Cars With CVT

The Subaru Lineartronic transmission in Tokyo Motor Show 2009. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A new breakthrough in the car industry? Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT, was traditionally used in motor scooters, snowmobiles, and small tractors as a type of speed transmission, so it's not really a new breakthrough.

The attempts to transfer this type of transmission to cars was not met with success in the past, but as the technology advanced, Continuously Variable Transmission was improved immensely, and cars using this system deserve to get a second chance.

Cars that use CVT offer a smoother ride and improved fuel economy, along with other benefits. But, what is CVT exactly? And, why would you want it in your car?

The Difference between Manual, Automatic and CVT

A manual transmission is the classic kind of transmission that uses a clutch and a gear stick to shift between a limited number of gear ratios in order to accelerate or slow down when driving.

Automatic transmission functions on the same principle, with a little difference. It uses gears to shift between speeds as well, but instead of being bothered with a clutch and a gear stick, your car computer decides when it's time to shift to a higher or a lower gear. Cars with automatic transmission are much easier to drive, but they are also less fuel-efficient and can be pricier than cars with manual transmission.

The Subaru Lineartronic CVT

CVT uses a different system than manual and automatic transmissions do, and combines the best of both worlds. With CVT, there is no fixed number of gears, but the car still accelerates or slows down automatically, meaning you don't have to use a clutch and a gear stick.

In order to decide whether or not a car with CVT is for you, you have to know how CVT works and what benefits it offers.

CVT Advantages

As mentioned, a Continuously Variable Transmission doesn't use gears. How does it shift between speeds then?

It uses two pulleys connected by a metal belt or chain. The pulleys are each shaped as two opposing cones. As the cones of one pulley come closer, the cones of the other pulley spread apart, changing the diameter of the pulleys in opposite directions. They do this simultaneously and reciprocally, so the tension on the belt that connects the cones doesn't change, even though the distance between the pulleys and the length of the belt remain the same.

The Subaru CVT mechanism

In conventional transmission systems, the gear ratios change in stages by shifting gears when the RPM (Revolutions Per Minute, or the engine speed) reach a level high or low enough to allow the shift to a higher or lower speed. Because of the pulley system CVT uses, gear ratios are changed continuously in small increments, so you never feel the sudden shift from the lower speed to a higher one, or vice versa.

This means a smoother ride, a great benefit when you are dealing with driving in the city and are constantly in stop-and-go situations. Not only would you not have to be bothered with shifting gears manually, but you wouldn't even feel the shifts like you do with automatic transmission.

Some drivers feel like cars with CVT are slower than cars with conventional transmission systems because they don't feel the shifts between the gears, but that is just a matter of impression. In reality, cars with CVT accelerate more efficiently than cars with conventional transmissions, even uphill. Because of the way it functions, CVT does not have to lose RPMs when shifting from a lower to a higher gear, meaning it can accelerate faster.

The second benefit found in CVT is that the pulley system allows your car to use the most appropriate engine speed (RPMs), which equals to the maximum power and superior fuel efficiency when compared to manual and automatic transmission.

The Subaru Lineatronic CVT from the New York International Auto Show 2009

Actually, many of the hybrid cars now use CVT systems to further improve fuel efficiency.

The way CVT enables using the most appropriate RPMs also causes one of its few "flaws".

CVT "Disadvantages"

Continuously Variable Transmission varies higher and lower RPMs as needed. It uses higher RPMs for acceleration and lower RPMs to reach better fuel economy while cruising.

When your car is accelerating, CVT will use the most efficient RPMs - the highest ones, and stay there while the pulleys change their diameters as your car is speeding up. Because of this, the car will accelerate seamlessly, but working with the highest RPMs constantly also causes the engine to be louder than what you would be used to with traditional transmissions. This sound can be described as the sound of your car slipping the clutch in conventional transmission systems.

The second complaint people had about cars with CVTs was that they are slower than cars with manual or automatic transmission. As previously mentioned, while this may have been true in the past, the technology has advanced, and CVT systems have become more developed, and can now go much faster. For example, Nissan Murano CVT uses a 3.5-liter, 245 horsepower V6 engine. Other carmakers, like Audi, Honda, Hyundai, Subaru and Toyota, all make their own CVT systems which offers further proof that the future lies with CVT.

The third complaint encountered when dealing with cars with CVT comes from a minority of drivers who enjoy the control they have over the car when using manual transmission.

How transmission looks like on the inside

If you are not concerned with the joys of shifting the gears yourself, but rather appreciate the superior fuel economy and the comfort while driving, cars with CVT are perfect for you. It is quite easy to get used to the sound they make, and, according to some drivers, the benefits they offer far surpass the disadvantages.

However, if you love having more control over your car, being able to choose when to shift from one speed to another, and you want to push your car far over the speed limit, a conventional transmission system might work better for you.

It all comes down to the personal preference, but cars with CVT offer a smoother ride, better fuel efficiency, and more comfortable driving, which is what we, as regular drivers, care about in the end.

Do you have experience with Continuously Variable Transmission? If yes, share it with us on our Facebook page. If not, tell us, would you be interested in these cars?

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