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Is a CVT transmission reliable?

December 08, 2018
Jatco CVT8
Jatco CVT8. Photo credit: Jatco

There are two types of CVTs, the electric or eCVT used in hybrids and the CVT with a chain or belt running between two pulleys. Here, we only discuss the second type. First, let's see who produces the CVTs.

The Japanese company Jatco, a Nissan subsidiary, is the largest CVT manufacturer. Jatco supplies CVTs for Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Chrysler (Dodge Caliber, Compass, Jeep Patriot) and the French company Renault. Even GM uses the CVT from Jatco for its Chevrolet Spark. Another Japanese company, Aisin AW makes CVTs for Toyota. Toyota also builds some CVTs in house. Honda, Subaru and Audi make their own CVTs. See the photo of Subaru CVT.

The number of CVT complaints varies not only between manufacturers, but even between different model years of the same car. The quality of Nissan CVTs, for example, has not been consistent. You might see some of the early Nissan Murano SUVs are still going with over 200K. However, the compact-size CVT that went into the 2013 Sentra had some problems. The 2013 model year saw a spike in CVT problems in several Nissan models, including the Altima and the Pathfinder. Other model years were better. The Murano didn't have nearly as many CVT problems.

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Chrysler and Mitsubishi also had problems with CVTs in some model years. Honda currently uses CVTs in the Fit, Civic, Accord and CR-V. They had occasional CVT problems but not too many. Honda did issue the recall 15V-574 for the 2014-2015 Civic and 2015 Honda Fit.
Toyota equipped the 2014-plus Corolla and Scion iM models with the CVT. There are a few complaints, and Toyota issued the Special Service Campaign J0D in March 2018, but suspended it in April as there were still some issues.
Subaru had some problems with CVTs and in November 2018 they announced the warranty extension, read more below.

Given all that, the CVT reliability should be judged on a case by case basis.

Where can you check reliability of particular models?
ConsumerReports - to access their ratings online, you would need a paid subscription. You may also find the printed copy of their car buying guide in the book store or local library.
Safercar.gov - follow the Vehicle Owners menu and then Search Safety Problems. If you compare the number of complaints from one model year to another, it's easy to see the model years with the most problems.
CarComplaints.com - you can also see the model years to avoid.
Another life hack is to check the vehicle's trade-in value. What will it tell you? Dealers know which car is good, and which has many problems and they set the trade-in value accordingly. Check the trade-in value at KBB.com or CanadianBlackBook.com and if it's very low compared to other similar cars, you know this car is trouble.

It's possible that shorter transmission fluid change intervals could make a CVT last longer. Many manufacturers, however, mention the CVT fluid change in the maintenance schedule only for severe driving conditions. These conditions might include towing, driving on dusty or muddy roads, or in freezing or very hot temperatures. If you want to keep the CVT fluid fresh, you can have your dealer check the CVT fluid and change it if contaminated. Nissan, for example, advises that:

Your dealer can also inspect the fluid deterioration data using a CONSULT. If the deterioration data is more than 210000, replace the CVT fluid.

CONSULT is the name for the Nissan scan tool.

There is another interesting trend in the automotive industry. Manufacturers are looking for ways to make the vehicle components (including CVTs) cheaper and lighter, which in some cases means cutting corners. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We observed that the new "improved" technologies do not always result in better long-term reliability.

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Often an older technology lasts a lot longer. For example, many car manufacturers now use smaller transmission fluid coolers, but we do know that many transmission problems happen because of overheating. We found many Youtube videos where the automotive enthusiasts are upgrading the CVT fluid coolers.

CVT warranty extensions and recalls

Many manufacturers offered a number of software reprograms for their CVTs. Subaru extended the warranty for their CVTs, read more in this Forbes article. Toyota issued Special Service Campaign J0D.
Mitsubishi issued a recall for its CVT issues, read more in this CNet article. Nissan has extended the CVT warranty for 2003-2010 models to 10-years /120,000 miles. Another warranty extension posted on the www.nissanassist.com website announced the CVT warranty extension to 7 years/84,000 miles, for the non-hybrid 2013-2014 Pathfinder. The extension applied to "all non-hybrid 2013 JX35 manufactured between March 15, 2013 and June 14, 2013." It's possible more warranty extensions will be announced in the future, so if you had to pay out of your pocket for the CVT repairs, keep the receipt.
Check for recalls at Safercar.gov