Well, folks, it was nice knowing you. Really, it was. I’ll never forget the days I spent reading Nissan LEAF-related anecdotes from gslippy, and Hummer-related anecdotes from Hummer, and of course fully capitalized anecdotes from bigtruckseriesreview @ Youtube. Really, ladies and gentlemen: the pleasure was all mine.
I’m not saying these things because I’m going anywhere. On the contrary, I think you’re going to make me leave after I devote today’s column to defending the single-most hated item in the entire automotive industry: the continuously-variable automatic transmission. (If you hadn’t read the title, you’d be thinking: “Is he going to defend… the Dodge Avenger?”)
Car enthusiasts, as a whole, hate the CVT, a fact I primarily attribute to the noise it makes. You see, the CVT either doesn’t have gears or has an infinite number of gears. No one knows for sure, except a TTAC commenter who will reply with a long, detailed explanation of just how many gears a CVT has before calling me a giant doofus.
Anyway: because of the CVT’s lack of gears, or possibly its infinite gears, it loses the typical upshifting and downshifting noises we’ve all come to appreciate from a normal transmission. This seems to really piss off car people. Seriously, if you’re a car enthusiast, it doesn’t matter what you think of US government policies: your least favorite drone is the one that comes from the CVT.
But I’m here to tell you the CVT isn’t so bad. Really, it’s not. And I will explain precisely why in the next few hundred words, all of which will conveniently ignore any possible opposition. Here goes:
1. Performance. Betcha didn’t think I’d pull that out as number one, eh? But it’s true: the CVT is better than a traditional automatic for performance.
Here’s why. Say you’re cruising along in your four-cylinder Altima, which is equipped with a CVT and hubcaps. And you reach a stoplight next to a four-cylinder Camry, which also has hubcaps, but includes a highly inferior six-speed automatic transmission. In this situation, there’s only one thing to do: continue talking on the phone.
No, what you really do is you race, because that’s the only way to determine value in our society, at least according to those Fast and Furious movies. And if you do race, what you’ll discover is that the Camry has to go through upshift after upshift, constantly starting over from the bottom of the rev range, while the Altima’s CVT simply holds its engine at peak power. The Altima, meanwhile, would whrrrr its way to victory, miles ahead of the Camry (apparently this was a long drag race), and the Camry’s owner would hide in shame and mediocrity.
2. Fuel Economy. As we all know, the CVT offers vast fuel economy benefits over a typical automatic transmission. There are several highly technical reasons for this, and I – as a highly trained automotive journalist who recently attended a press event where I was allowed to drive a Jeep Wrangler on a race track – know absolutely none of them.
Because of my distinct lack of technical acumen, I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. And the numbers are:
Toyota Prius (CVT): 51 MPG city, 48 MPG highway
Lamborghini Aventador (Not a CVT): 11 MPG city, 17 MPG highway
From this we can gather that the CVT is incredibly beneficial to fuel economy, possibly as much as five times over a regular transmission. Also, the Prius might be faster than the Aventador, based on reason number one.
3. Can still sound like a normal automatic. So you understand that the CVT is better for performance. And you know that it’s better for gas mileage. But you just can’t get over the fact you’d rather listen to “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus, playing on repeat, with backing vocals from that girl who did the “Friday” song, than spend even a moment listening to a CVT automatic.
Fortunately, I have a solution for you: manual shift mode. I’m currently driving a CVT-equipped Subaru Impreza press car, and while it certainly makes the traditional CVT “whrrrrr” noise, you can, at any moment, put it in manual mode, where you will quickly discover its shift paddles are roughly 57 times better than the ones in my Cadillac. Goodbye, annoying CVT sounds!
Unfortunately, this also means “goodbye, awesome fuel economy” and “goodbye, street racing potential.” But if you ever find yourself wishing to maximize those incredibly important items, just slide it back over to “D.” And turn up Miley.
So there you have it, folks: a defense of the continuously-variable automatic transmission. I’ll go into hiding now.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars and the operator of PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.