Reader Question: Would You Buy a CVT?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Charlie asks: Almost every new car seems to come with a CVT transmission as the one and only choice. I have never liked them and have heard they’re both fragile and expensive. Why are CVTs becoming so common and would you buy one?

My reply: Continuously variable (CVT) transmissions are becoming hard to avoid – chiefly because it is hard to avoid the government. Which has pushed mandatory MPG minimums (i.e., Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards) so high – the minimum average (not highway) is currently 35 MPG  – before “gas guzzler” taxes are applied, driving up the price of the car and making it harder to sell.

So the car companies resort to any technology which increases the MPGs, even if only slightly. The CVT is one such technology. It can increase a car’s mileage by about 3 MPG  overall vs. an automatic with fixed gears by continuously varying the effective drive ratio for the speed/load – by altering the diameter of a band/pulley system.

A regular automatic’s fixed gears are not exactly right for every condition; the transmission has to “step up” and “step down” to get close to the right ratio.

CVTs are more compact, making them ideal for FWD applications. But they are noisy compared with regular automatics and some people dislike the “shift-less” operation. They don’t seem to be as long-term reliable as most automatics, especially the automatics of the Pre-Insane Era (roughly, 2010 and before) which had five or six speeds rather than eight, nine or even ten – as now.

And they’re generally not serviceable when they fail – which is why they’re expensive. You replace the whole thing.

I personally would not buy one for these reasons. But it’s getting hard to exercise that choice – without buying an older car. The good news there is you can also avoid ASS and driver “assistance” technology, too!

. . .

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  1. Having driven a CVT a bit, I can’t understand how it could possibly save gas with the several second response gap and high rpms when you try to pick up speed suddenly, like when you try to pass another car.

  2. Why can’t car CVTs be reliable? Scooters, snowmobiles, and ATVs have used ’em for years, and they hold up just fine. Also, you don’t always have to replace the whole thing; with my scooters, usually doing the drive belt is all that’s needed.

    • By their very components I don’t see how they could last. They probably don’t last all that long on ATV’s or snowmobiles either. A 4000 lb car is another thing though. JATCO and TEAM both make them. JATCO is notoriously bad and TEAM isn’t too great. Nissan has finally divorced itself from Peugot and hopefully, JATCO too. They ruined their reputation with those transmission. The good news is you can get one for a song. The bad news is they last about as long as it takes to play the song.

      I suppose hydrostatic transmissions are not good mileage wise but they use them on big rigs and do ok. Of course the reason they’ve become popular on big rigs is because the big companies hire “steering wheel holders” and not truckers. They come out of trucking school and have no idea how to shift a manual.

      • The difference is that, for scooter CVTs, particularly for a popular model, the whole transmission is cheap. I replaced the whole thing; the variator, clutch, and belt combined were $250 or so. You can take apart the variator, remove the roller weights, clean everything, and put it back together; if the weights are worn, then you can replace them when everything is apart. Anyway, CVTs on scooters aren’t that expensive, and they’re easy to work on.

        My only point was that this isn’t a new technology; this isn’t a new concept. The car CVT works the same as one does on a snowmobile, ATV, or scooter; the only difference is that the car CVT is bigger. I just don’t see why they can’t make ’em work in cars.

        • Probably because cars have a much greater load and temp. Belts have limits. The main problem as I see it is saving money. Never mind the stuff JATCO and TEAM produce is shat.

  3. Rather walk than ever own a cvt

    Some people say they’re great for racing, but whose racing, and who wants a noisy rubber band and cone failure prone gearbox


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