Volkswagen and the CVT
Those with a strong eye for detail might wonder why “Volkswagen” and “CVT” would appear together when the fact remains that the CVT — Continuously Variable Transmission — is a technology that the company has not embraced as others have. In today’s blog, we’re going to talk about the relationship between VW cars and CVT systems, and also what these transmissions are, how they work, and why it is that VW never took them on.
What is a CVT Transmission and How Does it Work?
While most people tend to just lump CVT transmissions together with other automatics, they are actually considered to be a category of their own when it comes to transmission systems, making them a kind of “third option” when it comes to gearbox choices. The continuously variable transmission, or CVT for short, was first introduced back in the late 1980s, but didn’t become truly popular until after 2000 when certain OEMs realised its potential as a fuel-saving technology.
When drivers are operating a CVT, they do so in very much the same way as they would an automatic, which is why so many people consider it to be essentially just another form of automatic gearbox. Drivers move the gear shifter into “Drive” or “Reverse” and so on depending on which direction it is that they need to go. The CVT is very different, however, in its mechanics since unlike a regular automatic transmission, it doesn’t have a limited number of gear ratios.
A typical automatic transmission moves a vehicle through six, seven or more gear ratios that are fixed in place. It simply does so by itself without the driver having to depress the clutch and move between them. A CVT works on a kind of “sliding scale” moving itself seamlessly to match the driving conditions using a system composed of two opposing cone-shaped pulleys. While an automatic transmission might be 6-speed, or even 10-speed, a CVT is generally referred to as simply “single speed” or “shiftless” since there isn’t really any fixed number of ratios to point to.
Why Did Volkswagen Not Embrace the CVT?
The technology itself sounds very promising, and indeed has been embraced by many major international OEMs, in particular Japanese makers such as Toyota and Nissan. European brands such as Peugeot have also heavily embraced the technology for their economy and smaller-sized vehicles, as have several prominent US OEMs, including Ford and GM.
However, one very noticeable absence from the list of CVT users is the world’s best-selling car maker: Volkswagen. Why didn’t VW get in on the CVT action when so many of their competitors were? The CVT was ideal for high-quality but entry-level, economical vehicles, a category of vehicles that VW is not averse to producing…but it never happened for them.
The main reason for this is that despite the apparent potential and fuel-efficiency of the CVT tech, it also comes with several key drawbacks that many car buyers found they did not like at all in daily use. These were enough for many to sell, exchange or rethink their purchase in favour either of a manual transmission, but most likely for an alternative automatic technology. When it comes to cutting edge automatic tech, of course, VW shines with its own S-tronic/DSG, and Tiptronic systems.
We’ll discuss these shortcomings of CVTs further below, but essentially it comes down to the fact that Volkswagen never embraced the technology because they saw no viable future for it within their own model range.
Which Automatic Technology Does VW Use?
Volkswagen is perhaps best known for its more specialised automatic transmission technology, and in particular their high-end dual-clutch system known as the “Direct Shift Gearbox” or DSG for short. These dual-clutch systems use a pair of clutches that anticipate the next needed gear ratio ahead of time to make shifts smoother and more seamless, but without the problems that come with doing that with CVT technology.
Volkswagen’s DSG is used on the Golf GTI and Golf R models, as well as the Tiguan and Passat models, and Jetta models in the US. It is also widely applied within their corporate family, such as Audi where it is known as S-Tronic transmission, and can be found in many models, such as the RS series, and Q series of SUV models, among others. The DSG also comes with “Tiptronic” transmission which means the driver can switch to manual control using wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Dual-clutch-based transmission technology has been key in helping to close the efficiency and performance gap between manual and automatic cars, even to the point where manufacturers of high-end sports cars and supercars are replacing manual transmissions with dual-clutch automatic systems — something that many in the past thought could simply never happen because an automatic Lamborghini could never be as fun to drive as a manual, right? Thanks to the DSG, that long-held assumption is no longer true.
What Are the Pros and Cons of a CVT?
To wrap up, let’s take a closer look at the main advantages and disadvantages of CVT technology. This can also provide key insight into why it is that VW never embraced it fully.
Pro: Seamless Shifting to Fit Exact Driving Conditions
Among the primary benefits of the CVT is the fact that one can enjoy seamless shifting since there are no specifically defined gear ratios. Whatever the conditions in which you’re driving, uphill or downhill for example, the transmission is set to place itself as the optimum position for efficiency and performance. That’s a key innovation over traditional automatics that still have to up and downshift, which creates lag and sometimes reduces performance when encountering certain conditions.
Pro: Optimal Fuel Consumption
The other primary benefit is that while a traditional automatic transmission tops out at about 10 or 11 gear ratios, the CVT can go on and on, along with everything in between, which tends to generate much better fuel economy. This is what tended to place them in entry-level and economical car models marketed to budget buyers.
Con: Can’t Be Used in High-Performance Cars
The key failing of the CVT is that it simply doesn’t work when you want a high-performance model with a decent horsepower and torque rating. The CVT has become synonymous with “slow and steady” everyday driving, and the vehicles that used it such as the Toyota Prius were often slammed by car reviewers for sluggish acceleration and poor on-road performance.
Con: Engine Droning
Another problem came in the form of engine noise. Because the CVT doesn’t operate with fixed gear ratios, it relies on special software and other “fakery” to make it seem like it’s working like a more typical automatic transmission. However, the most common result is a distinct droning sound coming from the engine as the car moves between ratios in its undefined manner, something that many drivers complained was noticeably different and more irritating as a driving experience.
Con: Expensive Maintenance
Finally, despite being marketed as an efficient and economical technology, repairing or replacing it is prohibitively expensive, which makes it something of a risk for some buyers: cheap to use, but if anything were to go wrong, it could mean a cripplingly expensive repair bill.