A Continuously Variable Transmission (or CVT) allows your vehicle to seamlessly shift through gears. With more gears than regular automatic gearboxes, a CTV can significantly improve your driving experience. But are they reliable, and how long do they last?
It’s possible for a CVT to last as long as the vehicle does. Its life expectancy is 100,000 miles to 200,000 miles, depending on the model of the car. Factors affecting its lifespan include the vehicle’s maintenance, how fast you drive, and whether it was a later addition to the vehicle.
Let’s explore how long a continuously variable transmission lasts, how reliable they really are, and how to increase their lifespan.
Are Continuously Variable Transmissions Reliable?
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, CVTs were very unreliable and were considered a risk. Over the years, there have been multiple lawsuits filed against CVT manufacturers. As a result, while new CVTs last for around 100,000 miles, older models are less reliable.
Over the years, modifications to the design allowed CVTs to improve. With the right maintenance, they can last as long as automatic or manual transmission systems.
While many manufacturers have tried, most haven’t been able to make their CVT systems effective. However, some CVT manufacturers are more reliable than others, with Honda, Toyota, and Subaru being notable examples.
Let’s explore some of the most reliable CVT systems:
The Honda CVT’s unique feature is the Honda Control. Honda Control automatically detects when the vehicle needs to go faster and will maintain a higher engine speed for longer. The ride is frictionless, with a smooth transition between acceleration and deceleration and vice versa.
Other perks of the Honda’s CVT include better fuel economy and smoother gear changes.
However, Honda’s CVT isn’t immune from errors. In 2015, there was a major recall of the Honda Civic due to an issue with the transmission software.
The 10th generation Civic has a 1.8-liter turbo engine and CVT. These are some of the best and most reliable models on the road with a CVT, and they last for at least 200,000 miles.
Toyota has been renowned for being the top choice for CVT vehicles. Toyota features a Direct Shift CVT, which combines parts of a CVT with a traditional transmission system.
It uses a traditional transmission’s first gear to help with acceleration. But as the vehicle gains enough speed, it transitions to a continuously variable transmission.
This hybrid, direct shift CVT has a 60% fuel efficiency improvement from previous models, an improved belt efficiency, a 15% increase in ratio spread, and a more powerful shift speed.
With regular upkeep, Toyota CVTs last for around 200,000 to 250,000 miles.
While Subaru isn’t really a mainstream car, it features a CVT in several of its models. The CVT is combined with Subaru’s boxer engine and offers a reduction in fuel consumption, an optional manual mode, smooth operation and acceleration, and an automatic adjustment.
Subaru is seen as a reliable manufacturer, but they have had issues with their CVTs in the past. Vehicles have been found to be leak fluid, shake, and stall. From around 2012 till 2017, Subarus had much lower ratings when it came to reliability. To address the issue, Subaru extended their warranty as compensation for the transmission problems.
On average, the Subaru Outback’s CVT lasts for around 250,000 to 300,000 miles.
How Often Should CVTs Be Changed?
CVTs last as long as traditional transmissions. Their life expectancy depends on multiple factors, including maintenance and how you drive the vehicle. If you maintain your CVT properly, you won’t have to change it for as long as the vehicle’s engine lasts.
Replacing a CVT usually costs thousands of dollars, which is why you shouldn’t shy away from spending on regular maintenance.
Here’s how to properly maintain your vehicle’s CVT:
Change the Fluid
If the transmission fluid’s level is low or the fuel is dirty, it won’t be able to properly lubricate the CVT system. If this is the case, you should get your fluid changed or the transmission components will start wearing down.
Always change the transmission fluid after the recommended mileage based on your vehicle’s type. The fluid also won’t be able to do its job at cooling if the coolers are clogged and the fluid can’t flow to cool the transmission or if the fluid has leaked.
If you aren’t sure whether you need to change the CVT fluid, consult a mechanic.
Change the Oil
Ideally, you should change the transmission oil after around 50,000 miles. If you notice that the transmission oil is burning off, it’s a sign of an overheating issue. With regular checks and timely oil changes, your CVT will last much longer.
Change the Filters
Most CVTs have only one oil filter and some may have two. If the filter clogs up with dirt or other contaminants it could potentially cause damage to the transmission.
Because it’s located inside the transmission, you’ll have to pay attention to the odor, color of the fluid, noise, and feel of the gear to determine if the filter needs to be changed.
After every 25,000 miles, it’s recommended to change the oil filter along with the transmission fluid.
Flush the System
Manufacturers don’t recommend system flushing as part of the regular maintenance of CTVs. The fluid should ideally last as long as the vehicle does. However, sometimes the transmission system needs to be flushed, especially if it changes color or smells burnt.
You should get a transmission flush according to the instruction manual, but only after 30,000 miles, two years, or if there’s a leak.
Will a CVT Last 200,000 Miles?
A normal CVT, with regular upkeep and maintenance, can last for around 100,000 to 200,000 miles. However, it all depends upon the model, brand, and how well you take care of the vehicle.
For example, a Toyota Prius’ CVT can last for well over 300,000 miles, but an outdated model might only last for around 100,000 — and prove to be less reliable.
However, even older CVTs can easily last 200,000 miles with regular maintenance and the occasional “flushing.”
What Are the Signs That a CVT is Failing?
A damaged CVT could spell the end of your vehicle’s life. Often, the transmission gives out warning signals that it’s failing, but car owners lack the awareness or knowledge to identify what the signs are.
These are the signs you should be watching out for to avoid a transmission failure:
- Leakage of transmission fluid: If you see a pink oil or fluid leaking from your car, it’s your transmission fluid.
- Burnt smell: If there is a burning smell near your car, it may be due to transmission problems.
- Change in color of transmission fluid: If the transmission fluid turns brown or black, it’s a major issue.
- Odd noises: Grinding or screeching noises coming from the gearbox may be a sign of transmission failure.
- Delayed movement or vibration: If you’re driving at a high speed and feel the car vibrating, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong.
- Difficulty in shifting gears: If there is a noticeable delay in shifting gears or the vehicle lurches while driving, it’s usually because of a damaged transmission system.
- Transmission slips: This occurs when the engine is revving but the power isn’t transferred to the wheels.
For all these signs, be sure to contact a CVT expert and get your transmission checked. Do not attempt the repairs at home, as transmissions are very complex to deal with and replacement can be costly.
How Much Does it Cost to Replace a CVT?
Most CVTs don’t have the lifespan of a traditional automatic box and have to be replaced if they get damaged. It costs around $3,000 to $5,000 to replace a CVT, depending on the vehicle model and type of CVT system.
The cost of replacing a new CVT is significantly higher, but newer systems usually last much longer without getting damaged.
Repairing a damaged CVT is even more expensive, so it’s best to replace the whole system instead.