Tighten Your Belts: Is Continuously Variable Transmission Right For You?

Posted on: 14 September 2016

The traditional automatic gearbox may be as useful and reliable as it always was, but new technologies are offering customers a range of alternatives to standard automatic transmissions. One of the most popular is continuously variable transmission (CVT), a revolutionary new type of automatic transmission that uses pulleys and belts rather than conventional chains. These pulleys automatically adjust the gear ratio as you raise and lower the revolutions of your engine, providing a technically unlimited amount of gears.

As you can imagine, the presence of unlimited gears to choose from can dramatically increase the efficiency of your engine, and CVT can benefit both you and your vehicle in other ways too. However, using a CVT does come with a number of distinct disadvantages, so if you are considering fitting CVT to your car or purchasing a vehicle fitted with CVT you should make sure this type of automatic transmission suits your needs.

What are the advantages of using continuously variable transmission?

Increased fuel economy: A vehicle equipped with CVT can maintain the optimum number of revolutions per minute while cruising, preventing inefficient fuel combustion caused by running at low or high revs. This can provide a dramatic improvement in your car's fuel economy, especially if you are an urban driver accustomed to frequent gear changes.

Increased performance: By the same token, keeping your engine running at the optimum number of revs can also increase your car's performance, though probably only marginally. However, if a CVT is adjusted to provide the optimum amount for overall power rather than towing, dramatic performance increases are possible (this is a complex job, however, and should generally only be performed by transmission specialists).

Reduced emissions: Because a CVT-equipped engine is constantly revving at the optimal rate, combustion efficiency inside the engine's cylinders is increased. This helps to reduce harmful emissions and minimise the amount of unburnt fuel expelled from your exhaust system.

Faster acceleration: Since a CVT does not have to pause to shift gears, acceleration in a CVT-equipped car is continuous and therefore noticeably faster. 

Smoother ride: This lack of sudden gear shifting also prevents the lurching sensation commonly associated with shifting gears, making for a smoother and easier ride, especially in heavy traffic and urban areas.

What about the disadvantages of using continuously variable transmission?

Noise: One of the most common complaints about CVT-equipped engines is the noise they make, as the lack of gear shifting and stable number of revs can create a constant, annoying drone when your car is cruising at high speeds.

More expensive maintenanceAlthough CVT is increasing in popularity, it is still considered niche equipment by some mechanics and manufacturers, and you may have to spend more time and money to fix malfunctions if things go wrong. The increased complexity of CVT compared to standard automatic gearboxes also means that repairs can take longer, and spare parts may be difficult or expensive to find.

Difficulty using: This final disadvantage is probably more of a human failing than a mechanical one, but many drivers used to operating traditional automatic gearboxes may find using CVT difficult and unintuitive, at least at first.