We cannot say that continuously variable automatic transmissions, or CVTs, are more reliable than conventional automatic transmissions with a fixed number of forward gears. We can say that CVTs apparently haven’t had widespread problems, at least in the last couple of years.
Based on what we hear from readers — or don’t hear — recent CVTs have been as reliable as conventional automatics.
Having said that, we can expect incoming salvos from disgruntled CVT owners, particularly Nissan owners. Nissan was among the first to install CVTs in several high-volume vehicles, including the Altima, Murano, Sentra and Versa. It also was among the first to experience the wrath of owners who experienced performance issues or breakdowns with CVTs.
That wrath prompted Nissan in 2009 to extend its warranty on CVTs to 10 years or 120,000 miles from the usual limits of five years or 60,000 miles on powertrain components. Although Nissan said at the time only “a small percentage of owners of early models equipped with CVTs” had problems, a drastic warranty adjustment of that scope indicates otherwise.
Lately, however, we have not heard many complaints. Does that mean CVTs never fail? Hardly, but some conventional automatics fail as well. Consumer Reports annually surveys more than 1.3 million subscribers about their cars, and in the past three years there have been no indications of widespread problems with Nissan’s CVTs. The same goes for the CVTs on hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and others. If there were a high number of problems, it would show up in surveys like that.
On the other hand, Nissan scored below the industry average in the J.D. Power and Associates’ 2011 Initial Quality Study. Could CVTs be part of the reason? Perhaps, but not just because they broke. CVTs operate differently from regular transmissions, and the resulting performance, responsiveness and noise levels are not to everyone’s liking. In the Initial Quality Study, not liking how something works counts the same as something that breaks.
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