Understanding Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs)

While manual and automatic transmissions have been the dominant types for most of automotive history, continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) have carved out a growing niche for themselves. Although CVTs date back to the era of Leonardo DaVinci, they have gained widespread adoption in the automotive industry only in recent decades. This piece aims to provide a detailed understanding of CVTs, including how they operate, their advantages and disadvantages, and cost implications.


A Historical Perspective: The Journey of CVTs

The concept of a continuously variable transmission is not new; it was first conceptualized by Leonardo DaVinci in 1490. Despite being patented in 1886 and gaining some recognition by 1910, CVTs only started to feature prominently in automobile lineups around the 1980s. Still, many people today are unfamiliar with the mechanics and advantages of CVTs.

How Does a CVT Work?

Unlike automatic or manual transmissions that employ a fixed number of gears, CVTs function without gears—or rather, they function with an infinite number of gears. Traditional transmissions use three to six fixed gears to transfer power from the engine to the wheels, leading to a noticeable “surge” during gear shifts. CVTs, on the other hand, use a belt or chain connecting two variable-diameter pulleys. One pulley is attached to the engine and the other to the wheels. As these pulleys change size, the belt shifts position, resulting in a seamless and infinite range of gear ratios. This complex system is managed either hydraulically or electronically, using sensors to determine the optimal gear ratio for the current driving conditions.

Comparison with Automatic Transmission

While automatic transmissions also relieve the driver from manually selecting gears, they differ significantly in operation. Automatic transmissions use a predetermined set of gears and shift between them, whereas CVTs continuously vary the gear ratio without any fixed states. This offers a smoother and more efficient transition of power from the engine to the wheels, eliminating the jerky sensation often experienced with traditional automatic transmissions.

The Advantages of Using a CVT

Smooth Ride: Traditional transmissions shift gears at predetermined points, leading to a momentary pause or “jerk” as the vehicle moves from one gear to another. CVTs eliminate this jerkiness by continuously varying the gear ratio, ensuring a smooth, uninterrupted acceleration curve. This can make for a more comfortable and less stressful driving experience.

Fuel Economy: In manual or automatic transmissions, the engine operates within a range of RPM levels, some of which may be suboptimal for fuel efficiency. A CVT allows the engine to stay at its most efficient RPM for a given speed, thereby optimizing fuel consumption. Over time, this can lead to substantial savings on fuel costs.

Versatility: With traditional transmissions, uphill driving or off-roading can sometimes be challenging as the system hunts for the “right” gear. CVTs sidestep this problem entirely. Their infinite gear ratios allow the vehicle to adapt instantly to any driving condition, providing just the right amount of power whether you’re climbing a steep hill or cruising on a flat highway.

The Disadvantages of Using a CVT

Noise Levels: The constant changing of gear ratios in a CVT can result in a constant engine drone that some drivers find annoying or disconcerting. This is often described as sounding like the engine is “straining,” even when operating normally. While not a performance issue, it can be a comfort and perception issue for some drivers.

Cost of Repairs: The technology behind CVTs is more complex and less ubiquitous than that of more traditional transmission systems. As a result, not all mechanics are trained to repair them, and those that are often charge more for the service. Additionally, because of their complexity, CVTs can be more prone to failure, requiring more frequent repairs that can be costlier than their traditional counterparts.

Limited Performance: High-performance sports cars and larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs often avoid using CVTs. The technology is generally not designed to handle the high levels of torque generated by such vehicles. So, if you’re looking for a car that will deliver both high performance and the capability to handle heavy loads, a CVT might not be the best choice.

Cost Implications

Owning a car with a CVT might involve a higher initial investment, and the repair costs can also be more expensive. Despite these costs, the improved fuel efficiency may offset the extra expenditure over the vehicle’s lifetime. Therefore, prospective buyers should weigh these financial aspects carefully and consider the availability of skilled mechanics for CVT maintenance.

Weighing the Options

Continuously variable transmissions offer a unique set of advantages and disadvantages, making them suitable for specific uses and preferences. While they excel in providing smooth and fuel-efficient rides, they may not be the best fit for those seeking high-performance vehicles or those concerned about repair costs. Understanding these aspects can help potential car buyers make an informed decision.


Boyd, A. (2014, January 16). Gearing Up. University of Houston.

Cole, C. (2014, February 13). How Does a CVT Work?. Autoguide.com.

Hearst Autos Research. (2020, April 13). CVT Transmission vs. Automatic: Quick Guide. Car and Driver.

See AlsoTransmission Care & Troubleshooting

Featured image from Wikimedia, public domain. Adobe Stock Photo under license.

Matt Keegan
Author: Matthew Keegan
Matt Keegan is a journalist, media professional, and owner of this website. He has an extensive writing background and has covered the automotive sector continuously since 2004. When not driving and evaluating new vehicles, Matt enjoys spending his time outdoors.

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