Shifting into no-gear
CVTs return to add mpg -- but will no-shift feeling be seen as blissful or bland?
Sometimes maligned, sometimes acclaimed, the continuously variable transmission is poised to snap up more North American market share in coming years.
After a surge of interest early in the past decade, the CVT had some rocky market introductions and its use declined sharply. But now automakers, pressured by rising fuel economy requirements, are reconsidering the efficient, gearless transmission.
Still, automakers must remedy past problems -- and overcome the CVT sneer factor -- to make the transmission as acceptable as the new wave of cutting-edge automatic transmissions.
As recently as 2005, CVTs accounted for just 1 percent of the North American market, according to industry forecasting firm IHS Automotive. Two years ago, propelled by Nissan Motor Co.'s widespread use of the transmissions, CVTs shot up to 7 percent of the market. IHS now forecasts that CVT penetration will more than double to 16 percent of vehicles sold in North America in 2015.
Carla Bailo, Nissan Americas senior vice president of r&d at the company's tech center in suburban Detroit, says Nissan was wary about consumer reaction to CVTs.
"We debated a long time about whether customers would be satisfied with the feel of a CVT," she recalls. "Would they be concerned about the no-shift feel or about the type of noise that CVTs have?"
But, she says, customers have accepted CVTs: "Most of them don't notice it so much."
At American Honda Motor Co., spokesman Chris Martin says customers are more focused on results than the technology.
"Nobody's coming into our dealerships and asking us for CVTs," Martin says. "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."
This fall, the four-cylinder-engine version of the redesigned Honda Accord -- one of North America's biggest volume vehicles -- will be combined with a CVT. Industry watchers are speculating that Toyota Motor Corp. is also planning a CVT next year for its redesigned Corolla, another big-volume vehicle. A company spokesman declined to discuss future product.
Toyota and Honda are under competitive pressure to improve the fuel economy of their key products. A major rival, the redesigned Nissan Altima, uses a CVT to claim the best fuel economy in its mid-sized sedan segment: 27 mpg city/38 highway.
Nissan’s Bailo: Customers have accepted CVTs.
By and large, as Honda's Martin says, few consumers seem to care whether their vehicles have CVTs. Compared with such passenger-oriented features as navigation systems, seat cushions and air conditioners, underhood technologies and transmission designs typically leave consumers indifferent.
But CVTs are hated by many auto enthusiasts, who complain that the transmissions replace the G-force sensation of high-torque starts and jolting gear shifts with a smoothly rising acceleration that is devoid of driving passion.
"Sometimes I get into a new car and say, 'Uh-oh, it has a CVT,'" sighs Davey G. Johnson, who reviews vehicles as senior West Coast online editor for the car buff magazine Autoweek, a sibling of Automotive News. "It might turn out to be OK. But mostly, they're for people who don't care about performance."
Reviewer Luke Madden, writing this month in the London-based Auto Express about the hybrid version of the Toyota Yaris, noted that "the performance is strangled by the CVT gearbox."
The news that Honda will put a CVT into the new Accord prompted a Motor Trend magazine reader to bemoan online: "This is further proof Honda is so lost in the dark it's not even funny anymore."
CVTs have no gears. A set of pulleys steadily increases or decreases the ratio of engine shaft to driveshaft speed, with infinite variability. Engine speed increases on a smooth upward curve. In fact, part of the marketing effort behind CVTs has been to sell that smoothness as desirable.
Troubled past for CVTs
Although the ride produced by CVTs may be smooth, their market introduction has been anything but.
CVTs have had a polarizing effect on the public since their U.S. debut on the Subaru Justy subcompact in 1987. Subaru combined that car's three-cylinder engine with a CVT, a combination that proved to be of little interest to U.S. consumers. Subaru ended U.S. sales of the Justy in 1994.
Today, Subaru is seeing positive sales results from a new generation of CVTs in its Legacy and Impreza. According to Subaru of America, the CVT was a key contributor to the Impreza's 36 percent fuel economy improvement.
General Motors tried to use a CVT made in Hungary on the Saturn Vue and Ion coupe from 2002 to 2005. That transmission suffered such a high failure rate that GM became embroiled in a class-action lawsuit with Saturn owners, which it agreed to settle in 2008 for an estimated $100 million. But the reimbursements were blocked by GM's bankruptcy filing a few months later. Litigants are still appealing for their settlement money.
In 1999, Ford Motor Co. formed a joint venture with German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG to create and build CVTs in a former Ford factory in Batavia, Ohio. The project fell two years behind schedule before Ford bought out ZF's interest and introduced the transmissions in its 2005 Ford Freestyle, Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego in North America to dismal reviews.
Ford had expected Batavia to turn out a million CVTs a year. Instead, it built only a few hundred thousand over four years. Ford killed the project in 2007 and, except for its hybrid vehicles, has exited the CVT business.
"CVTs are not the way forward for Ford," says Richard Truett, Ford powertrain spokesman "Our new fuel-efficient technology is designed to work with six-speed and higher automatics."
Nissan embraces CVTs
On the other side of this troubled history is Nissan. The automaker has been more successful in embracing CVT technology, a strategic move that CEO Carlos Ghosn launched in 1999 when he spun off Nissan's transmission operations into a separate company called Jatco Ltd. Today, Jatco CVTs are the standard transmission in all Nissan front-wheel-drive vehicles. Jatco has just opened a U.S. tech center across the street from Nissan's tech center outside Detroit to prepare for increased CVT production in North America.
Lately, Nissan has been pushing the technology into new uses.
This summer, Nissan will launch its redesigned Pathfinder SUV with a standard CVT. Earlier this year, the automaker introduced a luxury Infiniti model, the JX crossover, with a standard CVT.
No less significant, Nissan also has introduced the CVT on the Maxima, a D-platform car that Nissan pitches to driving enthusiasts as a "four-door sports car." That is the very demographic of drivers who have tended to turn their noses up at CVTs in the past.
Bailo says Nissan has gradually expanded CVT use.
"We were very strategic about how we deployed CVTs. First we only put them in our small cars," she says. "And as we got smarter and learned how to make them more efficient and able to handle the higher driveline torques, we gradually introduced it into the bigger products, up into our D platforms."
Simulating gear shifts
Even Nissan is soft-pitching the technology. On the Maxima, CVTs have been given a Drive Sport mode control setting. The setting causes the CVT to pause, for lack of a better word, at a preselected number of spots on the smooth upward curve of acceleration. The pause holds the engine at a certain rpm longer than necessary, then releases it to provide that familiar thrust forward of a traditional step automatic.
The bottom line: It creates the illusion that the transmission has gears -- a sensation that Nissan had intentionally avoided. The company acknowledges that adding that sense of "shifting" siphons away some of the potential fuel economy but says the loss is marginal.
Honda will use a similar feature on the CVT that appears this year on the new Accord. Martin says Honda is spending $120 million to produce a new-generation CVT at its transmission factory in Russells Point, Ohio, and another $100 million to produce the CVT's pulleys in Anna, Ohio.
Using faux gear spots on the new transmission, Martin says, the engine will "lose a little bit of efficiency, but it will make the CVT more palatable to American consumers."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.