CVTs in Modern Cars: Unreliable Option or Decent Alternative?

The attitude of US motorists to CVTs is ambiguous. Some consider them a progressive option for an automatic transmission, while others try to avoid it when choosing a car. The expert mechanics from the Indianapolis dealership, Indy Auto Man, explain the main pros and cons of a continuously variable transmission. Read also a comprehensive guide on how to check a used car transmission on

Advantages of CVTs

The main advantage for most manufacturers is the simplicity of a continuously variable transmission compared to traditional hydromechanical automatics. Such a gearbox is cheaper, which makes it possible to make the car affordable. 

Another reason for the mass distribution of CVTs in cars is their high efficiency. The electronics and hydraulics of the variable transmission select a gear ratio that minimizes fuel consumption. Unlike mechanics and automatic, it can be changed smoothly, keeping the dynamic characteristics as close to ideal as possible. As a result, the car becomes more economical and environmentally safe.

The simplicity, low cost, efficiency, and environmental friendliness of CVTs led to the gradual abandonment of hydromechanical gearboxes.

But CVT not only brings profit to manufacturers. Those who buy a car with CVT also receive many benefits:

  • Smooth start without jerks, and shocks;
  • Low engine load due to operation in the optimal rpm range;
  • Lighter vehicle weight, improved acceleration and reduced fuel consumption;
  • More space in the cabin – the CVT takes up less space compared to the automatic;
  • Reduced noise and vibration levels;
  • Quick selection of the desired gear ratio, no gaps in the transmission of torque to the wheels.

Disadvantages of CVTs

The laws of physics are inexorable. Therefore, even the most advanced systems wear out, break and annoy with some problems. Knowing how a CVT differs from an automatic transmission, a driver can distinguish the following disadvantages:

  • Sensitivity to stress and temperature. The classic continuously variable transmission is afraid of a long drive at low and high speeds, so engineers came up with a lock-up torque converter and a tight clutch of the pulleys with a gear. This problem also exists in the latest transmissions, so drivers should avoid dynamic and pull driving.
  • It is impossible to tow the car with the variator. The exception is models with an emergency mode that disengages the engine and transmission. When you try to pull the vehicle to the place of repair, the driven shaft will rotate, and the drive shaft will remain blocked. This will lead to rapid wear of the belt and pulleys.
  • Rapid wear during slipping, sharp jerks, and shock loads. Because of this, it is undesirable to tow another car on the CVT, go off-road and pull a heavy trailer. In addition, a breakdown can overtake you after hitting the wheels on a brick lying in a puddle or after an unsuccessful attempt to climb a curb.
  • Maintenance requirement. It is desirable to service the variator more often than the hydromechanical gearbox – change the oil and filters, clean the magnets to collect chips every 15-20 thousand miles. Some manufacturers indicate a service interval of 30-40 thousand miles, but such estimates seem too bold. If you want the gearbox to last long and not upset you with breakdowns, stick to the first figures.
  • Less user experience. CVTs have been used for a relatively short time – since the 1980s, while hydromechanical machines appeared back in the 1930s. Because of this, some of them suffer from birth defects: electronic unit overheating, clogging of hydraulic valves, and so on. In new cars, such breakdowns appear less often, but still happen.

How to Extend the Variator Life?

A CVT is a good alternative to a hydromechanical transmission for those who prefer a measured ride. To increase its resource, it is vital to follow simple requirements:

  • Move off smoothly and refuse sharp maneuvers;
  • When traveling long distances, periodically change the mode of movement – sometimes slow down;
  • Refuse to go off-road even if the variator is installed on a crossover with all-wheel drive and high ground clearance;
  • Change the oil on time and choose the original consumables recommended by the manufacturer;
  • At each service visit, check the transmission cooling system and clean it if necessary;
  • Move a car with a CVT on a tow truck and refuse to tow other cars;
  • When stopping for more than 2 minutes, move the transmission control selector to position P or N. Do not do this for short pauses.

When buying a used car, it is indispensable to arrange a test drive to check the variator. Signs of a malfunction will be a howl or rattle when driving, a delayed reaction to pressing the gas pedal, and poor acceleration dynamics.