Skip to main content

The real reason why you don’t like CVT transmissions is deeper than you think

Cognitive dissonance is a mental discomfort caused by holding opposing ideas simultaneously within your mind’s eye. For instance, considering yourself an honest person while telling a lie, or saying you enjoy both good music and Post Malone. The uncomfortable feeling is your mind’s struggle with conflicting ideas, beliefs, or sensory inputs.

The concept of cognitive dissonance, a longtime resident in my bruised and battered brain, re-occurred to me recently as I drove a Honda Clarity that featured a CVT or Continuously Variable Transmission. For the initiated, this is a transmission without gears, personality, or any concern for the driver’s mental well-being.

The most common CVTs work in such a way to maximize efficiency and gas mileage by keeping the engine in its performance sweet spot – keeping the engine parts spinning at speed that produces good power without too many wasted revs – by using an adjustable belt to create an infinite number of gears. Forget 1st and 2nd gear and embrace 1.4th gear and 4.7th and anything in between.

Because CVTs are constantly attempting to maximize efficiency, they often act in ways that are unintuitive and even contradictory to a driver’s expectations and behavior. Where all drivers — manual and automatic — are used to the stepwise behavior of revving up an engine until a gear change drops the RPMs, then revving up again, CVTs will maintain and change RPMs regardless of what you are doing with the gas pedal.


It is beyond unnerving to be attempting to pass a truck on a highway and have the CVT acting in unexpected ways. Now to be clear, the acceleration you desire still occurs in a CVT car. You get the speed you were asking for. But you will also receive sensory inputs in the form of sound and a swinging tachometer needle that fly in the face of what you are asking for with your right foot.

It is this cognitive dissonance that is at the heart of why people do not like CVTs and hybrid cars in general. Without predictable behavior, most drivers feel alienated from their control of the vehicle, thus losing confidence. Many people falsely associate this strange transmission behavior to the hybrid system and come away with negative feelings to all hybrid vehicles. This is a shame, because hybrid technology is both wholly distinct from the transmission, and also very helpful toward our societal goal of using less fossil fuels.

All drivers have been programmed since obtaining their license that the engine will rev progressively until it reaches a high point, at which point either the automatic transmission changes gears or the driver manually engages the next gear. There is a natural logic to all the sights, sounds, and sensory feedback during this process.

CVTs are undoubtedly more efficient, but this efficiently is coming at the cost of scores of confused and dissatisfied consumers. Until fully electric cars can whisk us around transmission free – although EVs have their own cognitive dissonance problem with the lack of drivetrain noise – CVTs should be avoided by the public and manufacturers alike.

People like it when their 3,000–pound death machines act in ways they can expect and are able to predict. By altering a major one of these sensory feedback mechanisms, several manufacturers haven’t just walked away from dynamically rewarding cars but have also implemented technology that actively displeases a majority of customers. All in the sake of efficiency.

Luckily, cognitive dissonance is a curable condition. Simply get yourself a manual or automatic transmission and some tea with lemon.

Editors' Recommendations

Adam Kaslikowski
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I don't have oil in my veins, but I do have it all over my carpets and clothes. Over my 10-year journalistic career, my…
EV vs. PHEV vs. hybrid: What’s the difference?
BMW X5 PHEV charge port

When sizing up options for your next car, you may be figuring out whether to get an electric vehicle, only to discover there are a bunch of variations to consider -- not just hybrids, but plug-in hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles, and fuel cell electric vehicles are just some of the other categories. The depths of EV jargon run so deep that we wrote an entire EV glossary, but for now let's zero in on the difference between electric vehicles, hybrids, and plug-in hybrids. These options blend old tech and new tech in a way that's often practical, cheaper than an EV, and still more efficient than an old-school gasoline car.
What is an electric vehicle?
An electric vehicle skips the internal combustion engine found in most traditional cars in favor of an electric motor. This allows EVs to operate without needing gasoline. Instead, they're powered by an electric battery that will need to be charged regularly, either at your home or at a charging station like a Tesla Supercharger. The Ford Mach-E, Kia EV6, and Rivian R1S are all popular examples of modern EVs.

The electric motor works by way of a rotating magnetic field. Inside the motor, three electromagnets surround a free-floating rotor, which spins based on which magnet is attracting it most. That rotor in turn produces power to the wheels of the car and pushes it forward and backward. Regenerative braking reverses the relationship and turns motion into electricity. While you're slowing to a stop, the force of the turning wheels spins the rotor and generates a charge via the electromagnets in the motor, which in turn goes up into the battery for storage. If you're curious, you can dig into the nuts and bolts of how an electric vehicle works.
What's the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid?
In short, a hybrid primarily relies on gas with an electric backup, while a plug-in hybrid relies on electric power with a gas backup.

Read more
You’ll soon be able to watch YouTube videos in your Android Automotive car
Android Auto in a car.

Google is making a bigger play for the in-car infotainment system. At Google I/O 2023, the company took the wraps off of a series of improvements to both Android Auto and Android Automotive, allowing those who want Google-based services in their car to get more features and better account integration.

As a reminder, the two systems may have a similar (almost identical?) name, but are actually quite different. Android Auto essentially just projects content from your phone, whether through a wireless or wired connection. It's Google's answer to Apple's CarPlay, and doesn't work without your phone. Android Automotive, however, is a version of Android that runs in the car itself, as the car's main infotainment system. It works whether you have a connected phone or not. Collectively, Google refers to the systems as Android for Cars -- yes, yet another name.

Read more
Are EVs safe? From battery fires to autopilot, here are the facts
Lucid Air electric car

While many people will be primarily concerned with EV range before buying their first electric vehicle, others are a little nervous about having a giant lithium-ion battery strapped to their car's undercarriage. Those things can catch fire -- just ask Chevy Bolt owners. But how much of a real danger is that? And should it prevent you from buying an EV?
What safety features do EV batteries have?
The major safety issue with lithium-ion batteries is their temperature. If they get too hot, they're prone to igniting. If they get too cold, they freeze and permanently stop working. Charge and discharge rates need to be carefully regulated too, or you'll get electrical fires. Over time, small imperfections in a battery's structure can lead to short circuits and reduced lifetime.

EVs have what are called battery management systems (BMS) to keep tabs on all of these variables. The BMS will generate warnings when needed and intervene directly by cutting off power if things get out of hand. EV battery packs also have thermal management systems. Typically, this is a closed loop of liquid coolant flowing alongside the battery cells, but air cooling and welding battery cells directly to the car chassis are also means of mitigating extreme heat.
How well do EVs handle a crash?
Since there's no engine at the front of an EV, the hood typically houses a frunk -- meaning a front trunk. This acts as a large crumple zone in the case of a head-on accident. One crash in Germany avoided casualties thanks to this inherent characteristic of electric vehicles. Crash tests bear this out. Popular EVs like the Tesla Model 3, Hyundai Ioniq 5, and Nissan Leaf have all received overall five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Read more