What is a CVT transmission?

How is a CVT transmission different from a regular automatic? What cars come with it?

From the archives

A regular automatic transmission has a fixed number of gears. The number of gears, or speeds, is what gives a transmission the designation of four-speed automatic, five-speed automatic, etc. In contrast, a continuously variable automatic transmission has an infinite number of gears, made possible by a system of variable pulleys and belts. If it sounds complicated, that’s probably because it is. After viewing a video of how one of these things works, we can best describe its operation as “magic.”

So, what do the variable pulleys and belts mean to you? In a car equipped with a CVT there are no noticeable gear shifts like you would feel with a regular transmission. Anyone who has driven a regular automatic transmission knows that engine speed drops during the shift from first to second, third to fourth, etc. That drop in rpm during shifts can put the engine below the rpm range where it makes power; an engine makes its peak power at a certain rpm — 5,000 rpm, for example. In a CVT-equipped car, the drop in rpm never happens.

When you punch the accelerator on a CVT-equipped car, the rpm will rise to where the engine makes the most power, let’s say 5,000 rpm, and it stays there while the vehicle accelerates. Some people are put off by CVTs because it almost feels as if there’s something wrong with the car — like the transmission is slipping, even though everything is fine. After a couple of runs around the block, that initial feeling disappears.

CVTs can be found in most hybrids, like the Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Ford Escape hybrids, as well as cars like the Nissan Maxima, Altima and Sentra. The CVT started off in small cars only, but advancements in technology have made it strong enough to handle the demands of heavier, more powerful cars. 

Below are driving impressions from Cars.com’s reviewers about CVTs.

Kelsey Mays, review of 2007 Nissan Maxima with CVT:

“On the highway, passing response is more or less immediate, with virtually none of the delay it sometimes takes for conventional automatics to find a lower gear. The tachometer needle simply jumps to 3,500 rpm or higher, and off you go.”

Dave Thomas, review of 2007 Jeep Compass with CVT:

“The three-lettered transmission option might be a mystery to car buyers, but it shouldn't be. Just think of it as an advanced automatic transmission that transitions between gears very smoothly — so smoothly that most people wind up missing the jolts a standard automatic delivers when shifting from one gear to the next.”

Joe Wiesenfelder, review of 2007 Nissan Sentra with CVT:

“The CVT, also used in Nissan's Versa subcompact, seems to let the engine rev higher and make more noise, even under comparably gradual acceleration. There's a little rubber-band effect between the pedal and the speed increase, but it responds reasonably to demands for more power.”

Cars.com staff, summary of 2007 Audi A4 with CVT:

“Audi's ultra-smooth multitronic CVT works masterfully and subtly. After slight hesitation during takeoff, the car moves ahead with some haste. Passing attempts at low speeds, however, sometimes yield a shortfall of response. You hear a little engine noise while accelerating with the CVT, but not much.”

Answered by Joe Bruzek on April 17, 2007 in What Does This Mean? | Permalink

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