Like It Or Not, More CVTs Coming From Automakers


Xtronic CVT, 6th generation  -  for 2013 Nissan Altima

Xtronic CVT, 6th generation - for 2013 Nissan Altima

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Automakers are in the midst of a love affair with the continuously variable transmission (CVT). The gear-eliminating transmissions boost fuel economy, improve performance and are less complex (and hence less expensive), allowing automakers to achieve CAFE regulations and pad the bottom line at the same time.

To the enthusiast driver, however, nothing has contributed to the decline of the modern automobile quite as much as the CVT. The gear-less transmissions produce more sound than fury, and feel to many of us exactly the same way that a failing automatic transmission feels. Do we need to mention that that’s not a good association to have?

Love them or hate them, CVTs are hear to stay for the exact reasons mentioned above. As Automotive News (subscription required) points out, CVTs are expected to grow in usage from seven percent of the market in 2010 to 16 percent of the market in 2015, thanks in part to general acceptance by consumers.

Nissan has been a strong proponent of CVTs, and it now uses them on all front-wheel-drive vehicles. Still, the automaker had concerns about the technology in the early days, and Nissan America’s senior vice president of R&D, Carla Bailo, admitted, “We debated a long time about whether customers would be satisfied with the feel of a CVT.”

The net result? As Bailo puts it, “Most of them (new car shoppers) don’t notice it so much.”

Even Honda is embracing CVTs on new models, like the upcoming redesigned Accord. Said American Honda spokesman Chris Martin, “Nobody’s coming into our dealerships asking for CVTs. But they are coming in and asking for fuel economy... a CVT provides the fuel efficiency we want in both highway and city driving.”

Not every automaker feels the same, however. GM has abandoned CVTs after a disastrous experience with CVT failures in Saturn Vue and Ion models. GM later agreed to a class-action lawsuit settlement over CVT failures, but payments to plaintiffs were blocked by GM’s 2008 bankruptcy.

Ford attempted to use CVTs in its Freestyle, Five Hundred and Mercury Montego models, but the reviews were bleak (in fact the Freestyle’s transmission still sticks in our mind as the worst CVT we’ve ever driven). Ford’s powertrain spokesman, Richard Truett, summed up the automaker’s position by saying, “CVTs are not the way forward for Ford.”

While modern CVTs have gotten more reliable and more user-friendly (including some that simulate “gears” and allow drivers to manually shift), they’re still loathed by those with a passion for driving. As long as the bulk of consumers don’t care what translates torque into forward motion, CVTs will only continue to climb in popularity.
 
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