Are CVTs The Fuel-Efficient Transmission Of The Future?

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Xtronic CVT, 6th generation  -  for 2013 Nissan Altima

Xtronic CVT, 6th generation - for 2013 Nissan Altima

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If you've driven a Toyota, Lexus or Honda hybrid, or any recent Nissan automatic, you'll be familiar with continuously-variable transmissions (CVT).

You'll be familiar with the smoothness, the quiet running at low speeds, and the way the revs soar when you ask for a bit more power. But with CVT becoming more popular, is public perception of noisy, slow CVT cars slowly changing?

For customers used to regular torque-converter automatics with distinct steps in power and torque delivery, CVTs can feel unnatural and even annoying. Planting your foot to the carpet sends the engine revs upwards for the most power, but also the most noise. In a vehicle with a small engine, it can feel like a lot of work for very little progress.

But, as Automotive News reports, CVTs have gone from 1 percent market share in 2005, to 7 percent in 2010. By 2015, that figure could more than double to 16 percent.

CVTs are increasingly used for efficiency reasons. By continually altering the relationship between engine speed and power transmitted to the wheels, a CVT can ensure that no more fuel is used than is needed at any point.

This means, when cruising around town or even staying at a steady speed on the freeway, the revs can remain low, saving fuel. But ask for more power, and the engine spins faster and stays there, supplying as much power as it can muster, rather than having to switch between ratios like a regular gearbox.

Nissan Motor Co uses CVTs in several vehicles, and has found that, once used to the transmission, drivers don't mind the different characteristics.

Chris Martin, spokesman for Honda, concurs, adding that drivers are more interested in the end result (economy) than the means by which it reaches that end.

"Nobody's coming into our dealerships and asking us for CVTs, but they are coming in and asking for fuel economy. And if you look at the government efficiency requirements for the next few years, a CVT provides the fuel efficiency we want in both highway and city driving."

Honda is set to launch an Accord with CVT in the fall, and Toyota--already well used to CVTs in all Toyota and Lexus hybrids--may give next year's Corolla a CVT too.

Perception of the transmission is tainted by those who consider CVT-equipped cars unenjoyable to drive, or feel that they're indicative of vehicles with low performance, but that's certainly not the case in some high-end hybrids, like the 340-horsepower 2013 Lexus GS 450h.

Others aren't quite so fun--the Toyota Prius uses CVT to good effect in terms of efficiency, but the drone of its four-cylinder under full throttle could never be considered musical, nor could several other small, four-cylinder vehicles with CVT.

However, whether consumers like them or not, CVT could well be the best route to better fuel efficiency from vehicles in the future. And as the technology improves, drivers will quickly get used to their new, stepless transmissions.


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