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What Is a CVT?

A late-60s continuously variable transmission, featuring rubber drive belts.

For a long time, car shoppers faced the choice between manual transmission and automatic transmission, with both featuring several distinct forward gear ratios. Other transmission technologies that have been developed more recently, like dual-clutch or automated manual, still have distinct gear ratios or speeds.

But one kind of transmission shifts more smoothly than the rest because it does not have distinct gear ratios: the continuously variable transmission.

What Is a CVT?A CVT transmission cutaway.

A continuously variable transmission, or CVT for short, is a form of automatic transmission that does not feature any distinct gear ratios or shift points. CVTs transfer engine power smoothly and without the typical shift shock associated with multi-speed transmissions. There are a couple of ways to do this, such as with variable-diameter pulleys and belts, hydraulic pumps, or toroidal plates.

CVTs aren’t all that new. They’ve been in production, in one form or another, for at least 60 years, but many drivers still are not that familiar with them.

How Does a CVT Handle?

As a driver, you’ll likely only notice a couple of differences between a traditional automatic transmission and a CVT. First, CVTs do not shift. They continuously change gear ratios according to engine power and vehicle speed. Second, with infinite gear ratios, the CVT is always in the most efficient configuration. Depending on how they’re programmed, modern CVTs can accelerate faster and deliver better fuel economy by always being in the right gear ratio without any of the inefficient intermediate steps.

Still, some drivers prefer the feeling of a traditional automatic transmission. If you like the feeling of your vehicle shifting, you can get a vehicle with a CVT that can simulate shift points associated with traditional automatic transmissions, and some even have manual shift buttons or paddles.

What Is a CVT’s Maintenance Schedule?

Taking care of a continuously variable transmission is similar to taking care of any other automatic transmission. You can prevent overheating by driving responsibly and avoiding towing and heavy loads. Regular maintenance, which should include using a quality CVT fluid and replacing it every 15,000 miles or so, is also key to the longevity of a CVT.

Check out all the transmission products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on continuously variable transmissions, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Benjamin Jerew View All

Ben has been taking things apart since he was 5, and putting them back together again since he was 8. After dabbling in DIY repairs at home and on the farm, he found his calling in the CGCC Automobile Repair program. After he held his ASE CMAT for 10 years, Ben decided he needed a change. Now, he writes on automotive topics across the web and around the world, including new automotive technology, transportation legislation, emissions, fuel economy and auto repair.

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