The 2016 Honda HR-V and the 2016 Nissan Maxima demonstrate all you need to know about the potential and pitfalls of the continuously variable transmission.
One company understands that the only way a CVT will be successful in North America is if the transmission is invisible to consumers. That is, it has to perform like a regular, geared automatic transmission; it can’t make strange noises; and it can’t let the engine rev up to the point of raucousness.
The other company seems to have simply dumped a CVT into its vehicle to claim better fuel economy. It’s as if little or no attention was paid to managing unpleasant engine noises, buzzes and vibrations, or whether acceleration is smooth or even adequate.
The CVT has a checkered past in North America. It has come and gone more times than Brett Favre. Ford and GM tried building their own a decade ago and were forced to drop them after quality and other problems surfaced. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Jeep division dumped the CVT from the Compass three years ago, replacing it with a traditional six-speed automatic, and U.S. sales of the stubby crossover took off.
CVT technology has continued to improve as companies such as Japan’s Jatco figure out ways to make CVTs handle more power. A torque converter added smoothness. Faux shift points made them feel familiar to drivers who prefer step-gear automatic transmissions.
The CVT has just one forward gear and does not shift. Instead of gears, two movable pulleys connected by a metal belt transmit power to the wheels.
Now, led by Nissan, the CVT is making inroads in North America. The CVT offers several huge advantages over the traditional automatic: It has far fewer moving parts. It’s smaller, and it weighs less. It’s also less expensive to build, says AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.