CVT Transmission Problems: CVT transmissions have a bad reputation. The people who have lived through a CVT nightmare can definitely understand why, but on the other hand, there are literally millions of people who drive around with CVT gearboxes without ever having any issues. And not only with new cars, with high mileage cars as well. When we did our research for this article, we got even more confused about CVT transmissions than we already were. For example; there were 100s of people (mainly on forums) claiming that their CVT transmissions easily lasted 300,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) and you also stumbled upon forum threads and lawsuits of people that experienced complete CVT failures before their cars reached 50,000 kilometers (30,000 miles). This lured us into further research which we will present in this article. If you want to learn more about CVT transmission read our guide which we posted last week.
We will break down what the most common CVT Transmission Problems And Symptoms are, how certain car brands do in the CVT department and our recommendations.
CVT transmission problems and symptoms
When it comes to CVT transmission problems and symptoms, the problem is that many of them cannot be directly explained. Certain symptoms can indicate multiple problems. This guide is just this, a general guide to CVT transmission problems and symptoms, but keep in mind that each of these problems needs professional diagnostics.
1- Slipping, grinding and jerking
If you feel that your CVT transmission is slipping, you are right to take action in diagnosing what the issue is. Excessive slipping of the transmission might indicate serious structural transmission issues or problems with the transmission fluid. If there is not enough transmission fluid, there might be a lack of lubrication that is needed for the constant adjustment of the CVT pulleys and belt or chain. The same might happen if the transmission fluid is worn out. While some slipping of the CVT transmission is normal, you will definitely feel when there is excessive transmission slipping that bothers your regular driving routine.
CVT transmission grinding noises remain a mystery, there is no definitive answer as to what the problem is when you hear a grinding noise coming from a CVT transmission. We talked to a Honda dealership here in Germany and they told us that any kind of grinding in the CVT gearbox is a sign of worn-out internal components. They did say that the grinding noises might be resolved with a shorter transmission fluid interval, but in most cases, this happens on high mileage vehicles where a transmission replacement is to be expected.
Any kind of CVT transmission jerking, lurching or jumping forward is a serious sign for concern. In most cases, there are problems with either too low transmission fluid, contaminated and worn out transmission fluid or a reprogramming of the CVT is needed. We have also found accounts where certain CVTs are just not as smooth as others and a degree of jerking is to be expected when the CVT shifts between the “high” and “low” “gears”. There are many people online and at dealerships claiming that a degree of jerking under low speeds is normal.
2- Control Module problems
Just like all other automatic transmissions, the CVT comes with a TCM, a transmission control module. This module gathers all the signals from various sensors in your car and determines how the transmission should react.
If there is a fault in the transmission control module of your CVT transmission, you may experience sudden changes in your transmission behavior. There might be delayed engagement, exaggerated slipping of the gearbox, and all sorts of other symptoms. You can determine if the part at fault is your transmission control module when these symptoms show up suddenly and without prior problems. Structural and mechanical damage to the CVT will arise gradually but electronic problems tend to show up instantly.
3- Whining, clunking and rattling sounds while driving
Any sort of weird noises coming from the CVT transmission is a sign of trouble. In some cases, it might just be that you used the wrong transmission fluid or that you need to replace your transmission fluid. However, we were told that a good number of CVTs that are making weird noises are having trouble with one of the internal bearings.
A good mechanic will first rule out other potential sources of weird sounds such as bad wheel bearings, suspension problems and braking system problems. All of those are much cheaper to repair and easily confused with transmission problems.
4- Transmission fluid problems
Old and worn-out transmission fluid is the number one killer of CVT transmissions. We cannot stress this enough. Most of the CVT problems and symptoms we are listing here today is caused by having a subpar level of CVT transmission fluid, worn-out CVT transmission fluid or the wrong CVT transmission fluid. Just like in any kind of transmission, a healthy and sufficient amount of transmission fluid prevents mechanical damage of the transmission by lubricating all the moving parts and keeping them cool at the same time.
Make sure your CVT transmission is regularly checked for any leaks and that your CVT transmission fluid is being replaced according to the manufacturer’s interval. Many owners decide to short the transmission fluid replacement interval because it has shown great potential in keeping your CVT healthier in the long run.
5- Overheating problems
All kinds of automatic transmissions are incredibly sensitive to overheating. The CVT transmission is no exception. Overheating can be a result of improper use (heavy towing for example), it can occur when there is not enough transmission fluid or if the transmission fluid is worn out. It can also occur if the circulation of the transmission fluid is impaired due to a faulty oil pump.
Your car’s dashboard should alarm you if the CVT gearbox is overheating. If this does happen, make sure you stop your car as soon as possible. If overheating is caused by traffic conditions (extreme heat and prolonged stop-and-go traffic can overheat the CVT) you can drive away as soon as your CVT gearbox has cooled off. If the overheating transmission warning message ignites repetitively, there is certainly something wrong with the CVT transmission. If that is the case, the car should head straight to the service center.
6- Check engine warning light due to CVT gearbox problems
Certain CVT-equipped vehicles will come with a specific “Check CVT transmission” warning light on the dashboard message. In most cases, however, the “Check Engine” warning light will come up and only after proper diagnostics have been executed will you know that the fault lies in the internals of the CVT transmission. Some CVT gearboxes will also flash one or all of the gear selector lever lights in order to indicate transmission problems.
7- Slipping of the metallic multi-plate chain or belt
The metallic multi-plate chain or belt needs to be clamped down with a certain level of force in order to prevent slipping on the pulleys regulating the gear ratio. While a certain amount of slip is ok and expected out of the factory, having too much slip is an indicator of serious transmission damage.
8- Flywheel problems
CVT transmission either has a flywheel or a torque converter, similar to the one you would see on a standard hydraulic automatic transmission. There have been several accounts of flywheel problems on CVT transmission where dealerships suggested the car owners simply replace the entire CVT gearbox without even paying attention to the flywheel of the CVT transmission. In this forum thread, the owner of a Honda Insight was about to have the entire CVT transmission replaced for 4800$ when in reality, the problematic part was a faulty CVT flywheel. Symptoms of a faulty CVT flywheel can vary, there can be slipping, juddering and other issues, but there are usually no fault codes when using diagnostic tools which oftentimes leads dealerships to believe there is a structural problem with the CVT transmission and that a replacement is needed.
9- CVT Clutch problems and symptoms
Most CVTs come with a clutch that stands in between the engine and the transmission. As you press on the gas pedal, the clutch should slowly engage the engine and the transmission which results in a smooth take-off. If you experience problems such as jerky starting, lurching forward and delayed engagement the problem might be the CVT clutch. In some cases, simply reprogramming the clutch after a transmission fluid change can resolve the problem, see this forum thread.
Frequently asked questions
Do CVT transmissions have problems?
Yes, just like every other type of automatic transmission, CVT transmissions have their problems. Some problems are unavoidable due to construction issues of certain manufacturers but generally, with regular maintenance, a CVT transmission should last as long as your engine.
What happens when a CVT transmission goes bad?
When there is a catastrophic failure, you will no longer be able to drive with a bad CVT transmission. In some cases, your car will enter limp mode which enables you to reach a safe place to park or return home. A bad CVT will first start releasing weird sounds and actions such as juddering, lurching etc.
Are modern CVT transmissions reliable?
Yes, modern CVT transmissions are definitely reliable. With regular maintenance, they easily last 180,000 miles. They are no less reliable than other types of automatic transmissions.
What causes CVT transmissions to fail?
The main cause for CVT failure is irregular or no maintenance at all. CVT transmissions are incredibly sensitive when it comes to maintenance, which mainly involves replacing the transmission fluid and filters. Other reasons for failure include improper handling and manufacturing defects.
It is hard to talk about CVT transmissions in general because as we did our research for this article, we quickly learned that different CVT transmission manufacturers offer different solutions to certain inherent CVT faults. And while a CVT transmission from company A can be faultless, the second CVT from company B can have the same exact design principle yet it still causes a number of problems. This is where CVT transmissions get their bad reputation. Once people hear those horror stories of owners having to replace entire transmissions for 3-6000$ they think this is the norm. And we truly believe it is not.