Three letters that can strike fear into the heart of any auto enthusiast – and it’s not CEL – CVT. The Continuously Variable Transmission has been around in some form or another since the late 1800s. Milton Reeves of Indiana developed the first CVT for sawmills (and later used them in some really unique automobiles). There were many other versions of belt drives with variable pulleys used in automobiles and industrial machines over the next century. The first CVT I ever used was on my dad’s vintage Delta wood lathe from the 1950s.
CVTs first started showing up to the mass market in late-1980s Japan, with Fuji Heavy Industries supplying CVTs to Subaru for the Justy. After a few short years the ECVT was terminated over poor reliability. Reliability concerns continue to plague the reputation of CVTs to this day, stoked by a combination of economy-car popularity and negligent owners who ignore maintenance intervals for a variety of reasons.
Along with their reputation for unreliability, CVTs are famously boring to drive. Most of that reputation comes from the cars that they came in – after all, nobody ever Got Their Kicks on Route 66 in a Jeep Compass. The most excitement I’ve ever had in a CVT-equipped Compass was when the brakes gave out on my rental. Some historically fun cars are starting to get CVTs instead of traditional automatics – the Subaru WRX, for instance – but are they engaging?
I hated CVTs along with the rest of the community; I ridiculed them; I swore I’d never own one.
But then I got my second Honda CR-Z. It was originally a project purchase. A friend of mine was the original owner of a 2013 Honda CR-Z with a CVT, and after 248,000 trouble-free miles, the CVT did its best impression of a hand grenade. Intending on a quick fix-and-flip, I ordered a used transaxle from eBay and went about replacing it. About 40 hours of work and 3 stitches later (watch out for sharp edges, kids), I had a running, driving CVT-equipped Honda CR-Z to post up for sale.
After a slow sale and a left-knee injury that left my 2011 Honda CR-Z with a six-speed manual quite solidly parked, I ended up keeping the CVT car.
I hate how much I love it.
Full power is always on tap. It’s a CR-Z, so it’s not a lot of power. But all 130 horsepower are there, all the time. There’s no corner where you have to choose between over-revving in 2nd, or waiting to catch back up to the power band in 3rd. Rev limiter? Never heard of her. Literally. The computer won’t let you hit the rev limiter, because you get more power well below the rev limiter. Going uphill? No more automatic transmission slamming down a gear; the CVT just increases engine RPM and gives you more power.
Honda did something that Nissan and Subaru didn’t: Honda let the CVT actually continuously vary. On a lot of CVTs, pre-set ratios are programmed in to the computer to mimic a traditional automatic as it “shifted through the gears” instead of changing ratios on the fly. Honda’s programming delivers the power smoothly in normal driving, without stepping or jerking. The CR-Z has a pair of paddle shifters that let you cycle through “seven gears” at will, but I can’t stress how awkward it feels knowing they aren’t real.
Hold both paddles down and you get what Honda calls “Low Mode.” Ostensibly it’s for driving up or down steep hills, but it makes the car really fun to drive on twisty roads or a track. Low Mode makes any touch of the throttle instantly jump into the power band and stay there, all 140 lb-ft of torque ready at any speed. There’s no clutching in to row down a gear or three to pass the Harley that finally used the pull-off on the Tail of the Dragon. No chance of a money shift. Just all the car’s power, ready as soon as the pedal hits the floor.
The CVT can provide a more comfortable ride for passengers, if you care about them. No more making your date’s head bounce off the headrest every time you let off the gas and press the clutch, or when the transmission decides it’s time to let the RPMs fall into the next gear. For anyone with a neck injury, the passenger seat is a lot more comfortable with no gear changes jerking you around.
I never thought I’d love a car with a CVT, but here I am… and apparently someone made a limited slip differential for it.