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Your CVT questions answered.

CVT Explainer | CarMax

The continuously variable transmission, or "CVT," has become a staple in many vehicles today. The mix of functionality and simplicity should make the CVT a welcome addition to your next car. These transmissions can be found in a wide range of cars on the roads today but first, let’s explore exactly what it is and how it’s different from a conventional automatic or manual transmission.

What is a CVT?

In the simplest terms, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) allows for a larger number of speed ratios to fit every driving situation. A CVT is a more streamlined form of the standard multi-gear automatic transmission. Where normal transmission uses a series of fixed gears, a CVT utilizes two cones which face each other and are connected to a pulley-and-belt system.

How does a CVT work?

In a normal combustion engine, there is a mixture of air, fuel, and spark that create small explosions which move the pistons up and down. That motion then turns a crankshaft and after some magic in the middle the car begins to move. That middle bit is the transmission which helps match the speed that the engine is spinning at with the speed of the car's wheels. This is typically done via a series of gears; you (or the transmission) move from one gear to the next as speed increases.

Unlike a typical automatic transmission, a CVT does not have gears that take you through "steps" during the process of accelerating. Instead, a CVT is made up of two cones facing each other which are connected to a pulley-and-belt system. Where a typical automatic or manual transmission has a finite number of gears, a CVT's number of speed ratios is only limited by the car itself and what you, the driver, ask of it.

In response to feedback from buyers, some CVT transmissions even come with a fixed set of ratios to simulate the same step-up and step-down feeling you get in a standard automatic transmission.

What cars have a CVT?

Today, most major manufacturers offer vehicles with CVT transmissions. Subaru was one of the first to utilize it on a modern mass-produced vehicle back in 1999, but since then Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota have all started using CVTs.

Specifically, the CVT has appeared on popular vehicles like the Ford Fusion Hybrid from 2010 to present, the Honda Accord from 2013 to present, and all Subaru Impreza, Forester, Legacy, and Outback models from 2014 to present.

It's not a new technology though. Back in 1885, the very first car produced by Karl Benz featured an early version of the CVT!

Should I buy a car with a CVT?

Yes; the CVT as transmission technology is here to stay, and for good reason. Automakers have found that the CVT can provide an enjoyable ride, and are designed to potentially improve fuel economy. Additionally, since the CVT features a more simple and streamlined design, it also has far fewer parts. This means that a CVT is generally lighter and takes up less space than a normal transmission. The continuously variable transmission continues to evolve and spread across more vehicles. It offers a great mix of functionality and simplicity that will likely become a staple on many cars for years to come.

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