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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.

CVT
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

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Adam Kaslikowski
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