John Goreham John Gorehamis a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John’s focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of an academic team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of the battery thermal control designer. After earning his engineering degree, John also completed a marketingprogram at Northeastern University. For 20 years, he applied his engineering and sales talents in the worlds of semiconductor manufacturing, biopharmaceutical production, and automotive electronics supply chain. Always a writer, John has published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to online publications such as Car Talk, John’s work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers, and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites.
John Gorehamis a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John’s focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of an academic team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of the battery thermal control designer. After earning his engineering degree, John also completed a marketingprogram at Northeastern University. For 20 years, he applied his engineering and sales talents in the worlds of semiconductor manufacturing, biopharmaceutical production, and automotive electronics supply chain. Always a writer, John has published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to online publications such as Car Talk, John’s work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers, and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites.
If you're shopping for a new commuter car or crossover, you may have found that the model you favor comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
You may also have heard some bad rumors about CVTs and been warned off of them by your cousin’s brother’s friend.
We have compared CVTs to traditional transmissions and come to a firm conclusion on whether they are a good choice.
Table of Contents
- CVT Transmission Explained Video
- What Is a CVT Transmission?
- CVT Transmission Pros
- CVT Transmission Cons
- CVT Transmission Problems
- CVT vs "Automatic" Transmission
- How Do CVTs Work?
- How Long Do CVT Transmissions Last?
- Are CVTs Reliable?
- Who Does It Best?
- Toyota CVT
- Honda CVT
- Nissan CVT
- Subaru CVT
- CVT Conclusions
- Best Car Deals by Category
- Frequently Asked Questions
CVT Transmission Explained Video
What Is a CVT Transmission?
A CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, is a type of automatic transmission that constantly and seamlessly shifts through an unlimited number of gear ratios to make the engine run more efficiently. They are also known as, "single-speed" or "shiftless" transmissions.
Traditional, mechanical transmissions have a fixed number of gear ratios, such as 6,8, or 10, and have a noticeable shift-feel when switching between gear ratios.
Since a CVT does not rely on a fixed number of gear ratios, the transmission is constantly adjusting based on how much power is needed, which results in a very smooth and fuel-efficient driving experience.
CVT Transmission Pros
- Fuel Economy. Outstanding fuel economy
- Driving. Smooth driving sensation
- Familiar. No difference in usage than old-school automatics (familiar controls)
- Reliable. Some brands have outstanding reliability history
CVT Transmission Cons
- Different Feeling. No-shift feeling takes getting used to
- Some Have Poor Reliability. Some used vehicle models and years do have examples of poor reliability
CVT Transmission Problems
Like many new technologies, some early CVTs had legitimate reliability issues. Nissan, Subaru, and other brands responded with technical service bulletins, extended warranties, and in some cases, recalls. Let’s keep in mind that other types of automatic transmission during that same period also had TSBs, extended warranties, and recalls.
Aside from some legitimate failures, CVTs gained a bad reputation early on because they offer a different sensation than traditional fixed gear ratio transmissions. They are smoother and don’t provide the “shifting” feeling we had all become accustomed to. New is scary, and sometimes it makes a driver react negatively. Others feel the opposite way. Drive a CVT for a while, then hop in a car with a traditional transmission, and you may say, “Why does this car keep on shifting?” It doesn’t take long to appreciate the smoother drive of a CVT if you are open to it.
CVT vs "Automatic" Transmission
A CVT offers most of the same ease of use that traditional automatics do. One selects Dive or Reverse, and the CVT then handles the engine’s speed range settings.
Technically, a CVT is an automatic transmission. Like all automatics, you have a gear selector, and the usual P, R, N, D, L are offered. Paddle shifters may also be included. CVT designs vary. Some have torque converters like traditional fixed-ratio automatics. Others use other techniques to achieve the same ends. In daily use, a CVT acts like any other automatic transmission with regard to how your drive mode is selected. Where a CVT differs from a traditional automatic transmission is the number of fixed speed ratios it can achieve. Unlike a traditional geared transmission, a CVT can vary the engine speed across a very wide range.
How Do CVTs Work?
CVTs use a variety of designs, but they share a common theme. Instead of a set number of individual gears, CVTs employ methods to vary the engine speed across the engine’s operating range. In other words, the fixed gear ratios are replaced with a constantly varying speed setting.
Some CVTs use a belt or chain-driven system. Others, like the Toyota CVTs, are “electronic” and use no belts and no chains. For example, the CVT in a Prius, or a RAV4 Hybrid, uses a pair of motors in concert with a gear system.
Some CVT designs even add a “shift” feeling if you accelerate aggressively. The idea being that drivers may wish to feel the old-school shifting sensation.
How Long Do CVT Transmissions Last?
CVT transmissions last just as long as a traditional automatic transmission and are designed to last the full life of the vehicle. The typical CVT has a life expectancy of at least 100,000 miles. Certain models like the Toyota Prius commonly last well over 300,000 miles. Like all vehicle components, some brands have a better life expectancy than others when properly maintained.
Are CVTs Reliable?
Yes, CVTs have good reliability overall. CVTs from some brands have proven to last the vehicle's life with reduced maintenance needs as an added benefit.
Are there some older models that have had trouble? Of course. A good way to determine if a model has a track record of good reliability is to use a resource like Consumer Reports or Car Complaints. These sites compile owner-reported data to give shoppers of new and used cars a gauge of a vehicle’s reliability. Both also break down trouble spots in great detail.
For example, the Toyota Prius, which comes only with a CVT, has a perfect record of 5/5 reliability at Consumer reports from 2009-2020. By contrast, the 2014 and 2016 Nissan Altima, which uses a different CVT design, has the lowest rating of ⅕, and the transmission is singled out as part of the reason for the low rating at Consumer Reports.
Who Does It Best?
Several manufacturers offer CVT transmissions, so who does it best? Here are some of the top manufacturers to compare.
Toyota touts its CVT transmission as the best choice for performance and fuel efficiency. Toyota has a Direct Shift CVT, which combines the most efficient parts of the conventional transmission and CVT transmission.
The Direct Shift-CVT utilizes the first gear of a conventional transmission, which helps the vehicle accelerate more quickly. After the vehicle reaches the speed where CVT transmission is better, the transmission changes to function like a CVT. The top benefits of the Direct Shift-CVT include:
- Incredible shift speed
- 6% fuel efficiency improvement
- Improved belt efficiency
- 15% increase in ratio spread
- Narrow belt angle
Toyota models with the conventional CVT (not Direct Shift) include:
- Toyota RAV4
- Toyota Prius
- Toyota Corolla
- Toyota C-HR
- Toyota Camry
Typically, Toyota is touted for reliability. While this is largely the case, they have had recalls. One of the biggest recalls was for the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback due to breakage-prone torque converters of the CVT.
Honda Control is a unique feature of Honda CVT. The car automatically detects “sporty” driving (i.e. down a winding road) and will maintain a higher engine speed. By maintaining a higher engine speed, the vehicle improves the smoothness of the ride amidst deceleration and acceleration.
The top benefits of the Honda CVT include:
- Improved fuel economy
- Smoother gear changes for a smoother ride
- Honda Control
Honda has many vehicles with CVT, including:
- Honda Civic
- Honda Accord
- Honda Fit
- Honda Insight
Honda had a major recall on CVT transmissions. One recall was on the 2014 and 2015 Honda Civic for an issue with transmission software. The software caused pressure on the CVT pulley, which resulted in drive shaft pulley breakage. Additionally, there is a lawsuit against Honda for 2016-2018 Honda Civic CVT transmission problems where the vehicle states it was in park when it was not.
Nissan was the first to introduce CVTs up to 3.5 liters. They offer many CVT models, including compact and luxury vehicles.
The top benefits of Nissan CVT include:
- Smooth ratio changes (CVT shifts ratios 30% faster) for seamless acceleration
- Quicker response and efficiency
- Fuel economy
Some of the Nissan models with CVT include:
- Nissan Altima
- Nissan Murano
- Nissan Pathfinder
- Nissan Rogue
- Nissan Sentra
However, Nissan has made headlines for recent CVT issues. The most common problems with Nissan CVT transmissions are:
- Problems with the Murano (2003), Altima (4th and 5th generation), Pathfinder (3rd and 4th generation), Rogue (1st and 2nd generation), Sentra (6th generation), and Versa (1st and 2nd generation)
- Shaking or stuttering during acceleration
- Hot transmissions
- Transmission shutdowns without warning
- Problems accelerating
Given the host of serious problems with several Nissan CVT models, Nissan CVTs are not reliable. Nissan has taken responsibility and offered extended warranties. While they are looking to resolve the issues and improve their CVTs, they have a reputation for low reliability.
Subaru offers CVT for several models. Subaru combines its Boxer engine with the CVT. They offer a unique manual mode via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The benefits of Subaru CVT include:
- Reduced fuel consumption
- Smooth operation
- Automatic Mode instantly adjusts for your acceleration
- Lighter vehicle
- Smoother acceleration
- Offers manual mode
Subaru models with the CVT include:
- Subaru Outback
- Subaru Legacy
- Subaru Forester
- Subaru Impreza
- Subaru Crosstrek
- Subaru WRX
Overall, Subura is recognized as a reliable manufacturer. However, they have had issues with the CVT transmission. The Subaru CVTs received incredibly low ratings for reliability for several models for around five years (2012 to 2017). Subaru extended their warranty to address CVT transmission problems. The most common issues with Subaru CVT vehicles were:
- Shaking, shuddering
- Leaking fluid
Many manufacturers such as Subaru, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota use continuously variable transmissions on their most popular models. If you are shopping for a new Prius, Civic, Accord, Corolla, Forester, or Outback, don’t let a CVT automatic concern you. CVTs have proven enjoyable and reliable for many vehicle owners. If you are shopping used, do your homework and look for the reliability history of that specific make, model, and year using sources like Consumer Reports. Avoid years with any poor records of reliability.
CVTs offer smooth driving, familiar controls, and great fuel efficiency gains. If you have not tried one yet, we suggest giving the new feeling a bit of time. Do so, and the chances are you will learn to love the feeling and enjoy many years of satisfied driving.
CVTs have been used in various vehicles for many years and are generally considered reliable transmissions. They are especially popular in hybrids and SUVs because they offer excellent fuel efficiency and smooth, uninterrupted power delivery.Why avoid CVT transmissions? ›
Disadvantages of CVT Over Automatic Transmissions
You may feel a delay when you step on the accelerator. That's because, compared to a regular automatic transmission, there's a slight pause as the CVT band adjusts. CVTs can be hard to get used to because they just don't feel the same way a traditional automatic does.
In today's marketplace, new cars with CVTs can be expected to provide reliable operation up to about 160,000 Kilometres. For most cars, overall reliability will be poorer than that expected with a conventional automatic or manual transmission.What is the biggest problem with CVT transmission? ›
Most problems are not unique to CVTs, CVTs are susceptible to a range of problems caused by a lack of transmission fluid. Perhaps the biggest problem with CVTs is unfamiliar drivers thinking there is a problem. CVTs sound different from other transmissions, so you might hear a disconcerting whirring or clunking noise.Which manufacturer makes the best CVT? ›
Honda makes one of the best CVT transmissions around, and it really helps with the refinement of the Honda CR-V.Can a CVT transmission last 200 000 miles? ›
You should easily see 200,000 miles, possibly 300,000 miles or more. BUT, to do that you need to change the oil at least every 50,000 (preferably less), no matter what your manual says. And use the latest fluid.Why are CVT repairs so expensive? ›
It is more expensive to fix a CVT vs. a traditional automatic transmission because they tend to fail catastrophically. If rebuilding the CVT is not an option it has to be replaced with a brand new machine.Is CVT maintenance expensive? ›
Low Maintenance cost
As the CVT has limited moving parts, naturally the cost of maintaining that transmission will be a lot less when compared to the other automatic transmissions.
Nissan CVTs are known to overheat, especially after traveling at highway speeds for a long time or driving up a steep grade. When the transmission overheats, the vehicle often goes into a fail-safe or “limp” mode, resulting in a loss of power.How do I protect my CVT transmission? ›
Adopt good driving habits: When driving on a hill, avoid using the throttle to hold yourself, instead, hit the brakes to resist backward motion, and once you have released it, hit the throttle again. Also, just like any other automatic transmission vehicle, do not neutral stop your vehicle, it could damage your CVT.
CVT Maintenance and Repair Advantages and Disadvantages. In general, CVTs are no more or less reliable than traditional automatic transmissions.Do CVT transmissions have problems? ›
CVTs are not without mechanical problems, and as with conventional automatics, it can be expensive to repair or replace a CVT. Search the website www.carcomplaints.com and you'll find a number of common issues with CVTs. These include overheating, slipping, jerking, shuddering, and a sudden loss of acceleration.How much does it cost to change CVT transmission fluid? ›
The transmission fluid used on a CVT is expensive and ranges from $15 to $30 a quart. The transmission's capacity is 4 to 5 quarts. The labor to change the fluid can be from $70 to $110. If you add it all up, for between $120 to $260 you can prevent a major problem!What is the average cost to replace a CVT transmission? ›
Replacing a CVT transmission costs roughly between $3,000 and $5,000 or higher. The CVTs won't last nearly as long as the standard automatic transmissions, and it's not surprising if they fail to run for more than 100K miles or less.How often should CVT transmission fluid be changed? ›
How Often Does My Nissan Need a CVT Fluid Exchange? At Chapman Nissan, we recommend having the continuously variable transmission fluid exchanged around every 30,000 miles.Which type of transmission lasts the longest? ›
Manual transmissions require less servicing to remain functional and don't need the same type of oil as an automatic transmission. Cars with a stick-shift usually last longer than an automatic of the same make and model.Do all Nissan CVT transmissions fail? ›
Nissan's CVTs are known to be notoriously unreliable, and many owners complain about having to repair or even replace their car's transmission more frequently compared to regular automatic or manual transmissions.What years did Nissan have CVT transmission problems? ›
Generally, the issues have been reported between 2012/2013 and 2018. There were some problems in 2003 when Nissan first began using this transmission and in the 2007-2012 CVT generation. Specific models include the Murano, Sentra, Altima, Rogue, Versa, and Versa Note.Why are so many cars doing CVT? ›
Automakers increasingly use CVTs due to several benefits they provide: Increased fuel economy. CVTs are more efficient than standard automatic transmissions and are commonly utilized in hybrid powertrains and smaller cars to maximize the number of miles you can travel on every gallon of gas. Responsive acceleration.Why did Honda switch to CVT? ›
Benefits of the Honda CVT
To achieve an engine's best fuel economy rating, a vehicle must keep the engine running at its most optimal speed. This is where the CVT steps in. This transmission can keep the engine's speed within the most efficient range. In turn, you get to save money at the gas station.
Toyota Camry (XV70) – 2.0L (2019–present) Toyota Avalon (XX50) – 2.0L (2019–present) Toyota Corolla Cross - 2.0L (2021–present) Toyota Innova/Kijang Innova Zenix (2022–present)What year did Nissan improve CVT? ›
The manufacturer first began developing their CVT back in 1992 but did not begin to implement the part routinely until about 2003. While the CVT is an ingenious milestone in the optimization of modern vehicles, Nissan's CVT transmission is only hindering the company's capability for growth and advancement.Should I worry about CVT transmission? ›
CVTs can be expensive to repair or replace when compared to a conventional automatic transmission. Some of the common problems that owners run into include overheating, slipping, and sudden loss of acceleration. Shuddering is also a common problem.Does CVT transmission fluid need to be changed? ›
Most CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) need inspections and/or fluid changes. We advise owners to refer to the owner's manual for specific guidance and to keep records of related services. Remember that unlike engine oil, transmission fluid should never burn off.Do CVT belts wear out? ›
It's unlikely for a CVT belt to break, they are very tough but they can start slipping due to wear and fluid issues so changing the fluid regularly (i.e 30k) will help prevent issues with the belt and CVT transmission overall.Can CVT last 10 years? ›
At least more than five years! CVT is still a new technology and the automakers have been working to improve it. But, they will still last for a long time if you do proper maintenance. Change the transmission fluid regularly, possibly every 30,000 kilometers.Is there a recall on Nissan CVT transmission? ›
Nissan agreed to pay over $277 million as part of the settlement to resolve certain defective transmissions claims. The following Nissan models are included in the 2022 Nissan CVT settlement: 2014 – 2018 Nissan Rogue. 2015 – 2018 Nissan Pathfinder.What happens when a CVT fails? ›
Transmission 'jerking', slipping, grinding or jumping during acceleration when the car is shifting gears. Noisy while driving – some customers have issues with a 'whining', 'clanging' or 'rattling' sound while driving especially with Nissan CVT's. Contaminated or low transmission fluid. Overheating.What is wrong with Nissan CVT transmission? ›
Reported issues include loss of power, transmission jerking, transmission slipping, CVT coolant hose leaks and failures, and a CVT error message being displayed. These problems call the Nissan CVT transmission reliability into question and can result in serious harm to unsuspecting drivers.Is the Toyota CVT reliable? ›
CVTs are popular because of the smoothness they provide in town and thanks to their popularity among hybrid car producers, particularly Toyota. CVT gearboxes, on the other hand, are generally quite dependable and provide outstanding fuel efficiency. When you want to pull away, they give powerful acceleration right now.
We improved the electronic control system and the hydraulic system components under its control. In addition, adoption of a high-performance ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid) enhances response and stability. As a result, the CVT shifts ratios about 30% faster than the previous version.Are there any reliable CVT transmissions? ›
So What is the Reliability of CVT Transmission? CVT transmissions have been shown to improve fuel efficiency and are typically more dependable than typical automatic gearboxes. The majority of cars with CVT gearboxes have comparable dependability ratings to those with conventional counterparts.Do all Nissans have CVT problems? ›
SUMMARY: Nissan CVT issues are common among Nissan vehicles. Otherwise known as a continuously variable transmission, the feature was intended to increase the performance of vehicles by creating smoother gear shift capability.How much does it cost to replace a CVT transmission? ›
Replacing a CVT transmission costs roughly between $3,000 and $5,000 or higher. The CVTs won't last nearly as long as the standard automatic transmissions, and it's not surprising if they fail to run for more than 100K miles or less.Which company CVT is best? ›
Toyota CVT transmissions are made by Aisin, which is a Japanese automatic transmission manufacturer owned by Toyota. Aisin is known for making some of the best automatic transmissions in the world and they did a fantastic job with both the standard Toyota CVT and e-CVT transmissions.How can I make my CVT transmission last longer? ›
Adopt good driving habits: When driving on a hill, avoid using the throttle to hold yourself, instead, hit the brakes to resist backward motion, and once you have released it, hit the throttle again. Also, just like any other automatic transmission vehicle, do not neutral stop your vehicle, it could damage your CVT.Who makes the worst CVT transmission? ›
But Nissan's CVTs are also known for failing early on, which is why they're the subject of many lawsuits. The transmissions are notorious for shuddering, making strange noises, overheating—and forcing the vehicle into a “limp” mode. Some would argue that Nissan's CVTs are the worst transmissions ever built.What is wrong with Nissan CVT? ›
Nissan vehicles with CVT transmissions still experience shaking, shuddering, overheating and acceleration problems. Nissan has since offered extended warranties for many of these vehicles, but has allegedly failed to come clean regarding the vehicle defects.Which Nissan models have transmission problems? ›
The models which may include defective Nissan CVT transmissions include Nissan model lines Sentra, Pathfinder, Quest, Versa, Versa Note, Altima, Rogue, Juke, Maxima, and Murano.Are CVT transmissions expensive to repair? ›
CVTs can be expensive to repair or replace when compared to a conventional automatic transmission. Some of the common problems that owners run into include overheating, slipping, and sudden loss of acceleration. Shuddering is also a common problem.