What do you think about continuously variable transmissions?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have seen a few cars offered with "Continuously Variable Transmissions." The Nissan Murano offers one, as does the Saturn VUE. This is an interesting concept to me. It offers an infinite number of gears, the lure of optimal gas mileage in every situation and a smoother ride without shifts. But the whole idea of belts versus gears concerns me. I am in the market for a new car, and I am wondering if I should jump aboard the CVT bandwagon (with an extended warranty, of course). Or should I leave it to some other foolish early-adopters to work out the kinks? -- Chris

TOM: Why leave it to other fools when you can do the job yourself? That's what I always say.

RAY: The CVT is not a new idea, Chris. It's been around for decades. In fact, Subaru offered one in the Justy in the late '80s. And, in addition to the cars you mention, you can now get a CVT on a Toyota Prius, a Mini Cooper, an Audi A4 and a Honda Civic. The problem has always been getting CVTs to work reliably with bigger, more-powerful engines. In the past, they weren't able to handle high torque.

TOM: Now engineers believe they've solved the problems, which is why you're seeing CVT options on cars with higher-powered V-6 engines.

RAY: We recently drove an Audi A4 with a 220-horsepower V-6 engine and a CVT, and it was quite magnificent. Power was instantly and smoothly available, there were no jerky shifts at all, and it got almost the same gas mileage as the four-cylinder A4. It was very, very impressive.

TOM: But the question remains: What's going to happen to the CVT in 50,000 or 100,000 miles? And should you buy one now, or wait until other people answer these potentially expensive questions?

RAY: I say, go for it, Chris. We have no idea how well it will hold up over time. So buy as many extended warranties as they'll sell you. String them together end to end if you can. And then drive the bejeezus out of it. Because the sooner people like you help answer these questions about CVTs, the sooner my brother and I can go out and buy one without worrying about it.

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