CVT vs Automatic Transmission – Differences, Pros & Cons

Is it wiser to buy a CVT or automatic transmission? Here are the pros and cons of them and the key differences.

Cvt Vs Automatic Transmission

Typically speaking, cars come with one of three different transmission types. It could have a manual transmission that requires the driver to shift the gears, or it could come with one of two types of automatic transmissions. The conventional automatic is most commonly known, but the CVT is a newer version. So, what are the differences between the CVT vs. automatic transmission?

We look at the shiftless transmission to see how it compares with the automatic. Our guide also shows you the pros and cons of both transmission types, so you can choose the setup that’s right for you. 

What is a CVT Transmission?

Cvt Transmission

CVT stands for continuously variable transmission. To understand its operation, you must understand both the manual and automatic counterparts. With a manual transmission, the gearbox has a set amount of gears. The driver is responsible for determining what gear the vehicle should be in. While the automatic transmission also uses a set amount of gears, the included hydraulic system responds to the pressure and adjusts the gear on its own. 

The CVT works like an automatic transmission because the driver is not needed for manual operation. However, the CVT doesn’t contain gears. Instead, it relies on two pulleys. One of the pulleys is connected to the engine, while the other attaches to the wheels. There is a flexible belt that is connecting the two pulleys together.

Depending on the power needs of the vehicle, the pulley width changes. As one becomes larger, the other naturally gets smaller. Because neither of these pulleys is fixed in place, there’s no limit to the gear ratios that can be created. This is very different from a manual or automatic transmission that comes with a set amount of gears.

However, there are other types of CVT setups other than the pulley design. For example, a less-common Toroidal CVT uses rotating discs and power rollers to create the same effect. There is also a hydrostatic CVT that utilizes pumps for fluid control and rotational motion. 

RELATED: Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions: Which is Better?

CVT Transmission Pros

1. Better Power for Small Engines

Typically, a four-cylinder engine isn’t going to create the same amount of power as a larger engine could, mainly because of the size. However, the compact design of a CVT makes it possible to increase the power substantially.

For this reason, a lot more economical four-cylinder cars are now coming with CVTs included. It’s the cheapest way to increase power and keep the vehicle cost down. 

2. Responsive Acceleration

In a typical automatic transmission, there is a constant need for the system to find the gear. However, that doesn’t happen with a CVT. 

The transmission does need to change gears, so all of this operation is eliminated. What drivers are left with is a smoother, more responsive acceleration. 

3. Eliminates Abrupt Downshifting

Because of the lack of gear hunting, the CVT also eliminates the dreaded downshift abruptness that occurs with automatic transmissions. In most cases, the change in power delivery isn’t even noticed.

This benefit is helpful when you need extra power to pass a slow vehicle. It is also helpful when you are climbing a hill and need to accelerate. 

4. Improved Fuel Economy

The CVT is much lighter than a typical automatic transmission. Yet, it is capable of delivering a substantial amount of power to the wheels. 

This lightweight design creates superior fuel economy. This fuel savings is just one reason that many of today’s hybrid models come equipped with a CVT. 

Cvt Transmission
CVT Transmission

CVT Transmission Cons

1. Lose the Connected Feeling

Driving a car with a CVT is completely different than what is experienced with an automatic transmission. You will notice different sensations that some drivers don’t appreciate.

With an engine note that doesn’t change because the engine is operating at consistent speeds, it’s difficult to get a feel for the performance of the vehicle. Additionally, it might take a moment for the transmission to respond when starting off from a complete standstill. This lag is caused by the adjustment of the engine and CVT before power can be sent to the car’s wheels. 

2. Engine Limits

CVTs cannot be installed with every engine. These transmissions are limited by the belt and pulley belts that are powering them. Whether it uses a steel-reinforced V-belt or heavy-duty pulleys, both only handle low torque applications.

Unlike the automatic transmission, there are no gears that bite and transfer power without slipping. For this reason, you will only find CVTs installed on smaller engines that don’t create a lot of torque. 

3. Not as Durable

Overall, the CVT has proven to be less reliable than most automatic transmissions. Aside from that, it can be expensive to repair, leading many people to replace the entire case when something goes wrong.

Additionally, the cost of maintenance is higher. For example, you want to change your automatic transmission fluid every 72,000 miles, but a comparable CVT will require a change every 60,000 miles. 

4. Harder to Work On

The CVT technology is relatively new. While many auto technicians are versed in the automatic transmission, the design and operation of this model is completely different. 

That problem leaves fewer auto mechanics that understand the CVT. Because of this shortage, you may have trouble getting a quality repair from your local shop. 

What is an Automatic Transmission?

Automatic Transmission

The automatic transmission is made of gear seats, a torque converter and a hydraulic system, all working in harmony. The hydraulic system is responsible for regulating the clutch and bands that control the gear sets, while the pump pushes fluid through. 

As fluid forces the valves to close or open, varying gear circuits respond. Automatic transmissions come with a set number of gears.

RELATED: 8 Symptoms of a Bad Automatic Transmission

Automatic Transmission Pros

1. Connected Driving Experience

Drivers are more aware of the feeling between the vehicle speed and the engine with an automatic transmission. It’s simple to feel when the car is shifting up or when more power is needed by downshifting.

With this setup, drivers often feel more in control during the shifting process. Overall, it creates a more engaging drive.

2. Less Expensive Maintenance

The automatic transmission requires longer service intervals than a comparable CVT. With fewer trips to the service center, you keep more money in your pocket.

Additionally, the cost of repair can be higher on the CVT. Most auto mechanics understand how to work on automatic transmissions, making it easier to find a reliable service center that is also affordable.

3. Can Be Used With Any Engine

Automatic transmissions can be used on a variety of engines. While it’s possible to use an automatic transmission on a smaller four-cylinder, it can also be designed for a high-performance V8 engine. 

There are numerous automatic transmissions on the market, designed to each fit a particular need. Whether an economical car needs a cheaper six-speed automatic or a heavy-duty truck requires the use of a ten-speed automatic, there’s a design that works. 

Automatic Transmission Cons

1. Use More Fuel

Overall, the automatic transmission is going to weigh more than a comparable CVT. This added weight results in a less-efficient operation. 

Many automatic transmissions will cause the vehicle to use more fuel than if a CVT were installed. Additionally, this lack of efficiency leads to more emissions.

2. Hunting for Gears

While many drivers appreciate the feel of an automatic transmission, there are times when the operation can be annoying. In fact, it could feel at times that the transmission is hunting for gears.

This is most often felt during downshifting. When the car is climbing a hill and more power is required, the transmission might take a moment to find its place. 

Which is Better: CVT or Automatic Transmission?

There’s no way to determine whether an automatic transmission or CVT is better because each has a purpose. If you are looking for a more economical car that is fuel-efficient and lightweight, the CVT makes the most sense.

However, if you desire high-power and don’t want to spend as much on maintenance, you will prefer the automatic transmission.

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Written by:

Magnus is the owner and main author of MechanicBase. He has been working as a mechanic for over 10 years, and the majority of them specialized in advanced diagnostics and troubleshooting. Certified Automotive Diagnostic Technician.