Nobody liked the first wave of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). These new gearless transmissions first appeared in big numbers in Nissan products. They droned, they felt weird, and drivers missed the sensation of shifting. The great news is that these issues with CVTs are largely behind us now, and as a whole, the new vehicles being supplied with CVTs are excellent and not spoiled by the technology.
The CVT is simply a gearless transmission. Once manufacturers figured out that a 5-speed automatic had better fuel efficiency than a 4-speed and that a 6-speed was better than a 5-speed the die was cast. Cars like the Chrysler 200 that have not yet switched to CVTs now come with a 9-speed automatic. The point of diminishing returns was way back at 6-speeds, but automakers will do anything to eek out a fraction of an MPG to meet government mandates.
The CVT’s main advantage is that it has infinite drive ratios between its “first” gear and its “last” gear. The results are real. Fuel efficiency is improved by as much as 10% over a geared transmission. The big downside was that the sensation of the car climbing the rev-band then shifting, then having that start again, is now part of most buyers’ psyche. Taking that away is OK as long as the new sensation is better. Initially, it wasn’t. Nissan deserves praise for being bold and making the switch to CVTs, but they paid a price. Reviewers panned them. However, Toyota and others held off. Although they used CVTs in hybrids, Toyota, Honda, and Subaru watched the Nissan issues play out and they then brought to market CVTs that have the fuel economy benefits, but also have the sensations of shifts we seem to need as a species.
About three months ago Nissan announced a new generation of CVT for its vehicles it calls D-Step Shift Logic. The company quietly added the technology to the Altima about 18 months ago and has now committed to putting it on every model by the end of 2015. The new CVT from Nissan will do what the Toyota and Subaru systems do, and drivers will feel the imaginary shifts. If you are shopping for a car or crossover and the CVT transmission is worrying you, a test drive should be all it takes to put that concern to bed.
Main story image of a Subaru CVT courtesy of Doug Gordon and Youtube.com