CVT stands for continuously variable transmission. Most people are probably familiar with the more common automatic transmissions, dual clutch, or manual gearboxes that you might find in most cars and light trucks. All of these will have a set number of fixed gears. Some older models might only have two or three gears while some of the more modern automatic transmissions might have nine-speeds or more.
The advantage of the CVT is that it is both gearless and essentially has an infinite number of gears at the same time. Like an automatic, it has no clutch pedal. It has relatively few moving parts. An easy way to think of it is as a belt riding on two opposing cone-shaped pulleys. As the belt slides back and forth, the pulleys effectively have variable diameter. So one grows and the other shrinks with speed.
The idea behind a CVT transmission is not new: the concept is based on a design originally conceived by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400s. The CVT transmission has been used for years in light motor craft applications, like snowmobiles and go-karts. Smaller, lighter and easier to manage than a traditional automatic transmission with multiple gear ratios, these variable transmissions allowed for quick acceleration and found their way into motorcycles.
By continuously varying the gear ratio it can keep the engine speed within a more ideal RPM range for peak fuel economy or peak acceleration and torque when required. Some even tout fuel economy figures that surpass the manual transmission, which historically was the benchmark for efficiency. As of late, there have been CVT offerings from some major automakers including Audi, Honda, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota, among others. These automakers often pair their technology with a unique name like Subaru's Linetronic or Audi's Multitronic. It is touted as being smooth and step-less as it is no longer required to shift gears like a more conventional transmission.
Still, like anything, it has its critics. Some are simply subjective regarding the driving experience. Others are more speculative about repair costs. Though this technology is almost as old as the car itself, having first been patented by Mercedes-Benz in 1886, its implementation in large scale is relatively new. So, time will tell if the CVT transmission will really be the replacement for the conventional automatic transmission or if it was just a bit of a diversion from the norm. If you're considering a CVT-equipped vehicle for your next new car purchase there are numerous reasons why it might be the right fit for you.