Towing With A CVT Transmission: Everything You Need To Know

We have been on a little CVT adventure in the past month and we have talked to several CVT technicians, mainly from Honda dealerships and Toyota dealerships. During this time we wrote the general guide to CVT transmissions, and their problems and we also broke down which company makes the best and most reliable CVT transmissions. Today, however, we will answer all the questions that come up when trying to tow trailers with a CVT car. As is common with CVT transmissions, there are a lot of people who despise using CVT cars for towing, but there is also a big number of people who have absolutely no problems.

To end this confusion we did a deep dive on towing with a CVT transmission and here are our findings and recommendations.

Why are people skeptical about towing with a CVT transmission?

CVT transmissions have a bad reputation when it comes to towing and it stems from a very good and logical reason. It is common knowledge that car manufacturers themselves will mainly use CVT transmissions in low power, low torque cars which will rarely be seen towing heavy camper trailers, boats, etc. CVT transmissions used to only be used in small city cars with small engines and they were perfect for those applications.

The reason for this is that CVT transmissions just do not handle high torque and power due to their design. If you paid any attention to the automotive world in the past few years, however, you surely noticed that CVTs are not just transmissions for small city cars anymore. They are also common in big SUVs like the Nissan Pathfinder or the 2021 Toyota Highlander. And those SUVs are going to be towing at least something in their lifetime. These bigger cars with CVT transmissions are usually featuring a “tow” mode with their CVT transmission which must mean they are built for towing. And in theory, they are!

Can CVT cars tow just as much as cars with standard automatic transmissions?

The short answer to this question is simply, no, CVT-equipped cars cannot two as much as cars with standard automatic transmissions or manual gearboxes can.

Let’s take the 2021 Toyota Highlander for an example. The “standard” version of the Highlander features a petrol V6 engine paired with a standard hydraulic automatic transmission. The alternative to the “standard” is a Hybrid version with 52 horsepower less and as it is common for Hybrid Toyotas it features a CVT transmission. 

The “standard” petrol-powered Toyota Highlander with the standard automatic transmission has a tow limit of 5000 pounds or 2267 kilograms, while the Hybrid Highlander only has a towing limit of 3500 pounds or 1587 kilograms. That is a significant reduction in towing capabilities.

We do understand that the Hybrid Highlander does have 52 less horsepower but we can’t go past the fact that surely the lower towing limit is related to the fact that the Hybrid Highlander features a CVT transmission that is known for being less of a towing machine.

What do car manufacturers say about towing with a CVT transmission?

Car manufacturers will clearly define the towing capabilities of any vehicles they manufacture. Having a CVT transmission makes no difference. Read your user manual to see the exact figures or if towing is even allowed. If the user manual states that your CVT transmission car can tow let’s say 2000 pounds, then you should have no worries towing that weight (with passengers accounted for) in fear of canceling your warranty. Towing with a CVT transmission is allowed in the range that has been defined by the car manufacturer.

Most car manufacturers will advise those who commonly use their CVT cars for towing to shorten the CVT transmission fluid replacement interval in order to prevent transmission damage. CVT transmission fluid degrades quicker when it is under more load and stress.

How to tow with a CVT transmission

Towing with a CVT transmission is in theory no different than towing with any other form of an automatic or manual transmission. Certain cars with CVT transmissions do however feature a “tow” mode button. The tow mode usually does two things:

  • It limits the gear ranges when going up a steep hill in order to maximize engine power and prevent transmission damage.
  • It also limits the gear range of the CVT transmission when descending from a steep hill. Keeping the gear ratio low, helps the car control the speed and preserve brakes.

It is recommended that you drive calmly and consistently when towing with a CVT transmission so you do not overwork and overheat your transmission. If there is no flat parking for your CVT car and trailer, make sure that the weight of the car and the trailer is not being held by the transmission. Let the parking brake take the pressure and not the transmission! Making the CVT hold the weight of the car and the trailer is causing unnecessary damage to the transmission.

Many owners of CVT transmissions that also tow regularly like to fit aftermarket transmission coolers that are bigger and more capable of reducing the temperature of the CVT. This is a good plan for increasing the lifespan of your CVT.

How to tow a car with a CVT transmission

There are two important things to know if you plan or if someone else is going to tow your CVT-equipped car.

  • Never tow a CVT car with its drive wheels on the ground. A towing dolly must always be used. For example, front-wheel drive CVT vehicles must never be towed with front wheels on the ground and vice versa for rear wheel drive vehicles.
  • All-wheel drive vehicles like a Nissan Pathfinder must never be towed with any wheels touching the ground. Never! Doing so may result in big repair costs and damage.

Conclusion – Should you tow with your CVT transmission car?

Here is our opinion; yes, you should be completely fine towing with your CVT car as long as you are not pushing the limit of the towing capacity. That is never a good idea, even with a manual or standard automatic transmission. CVT transmissions are even more sensitive despite what the manufacturers tend to claim. We would have absolutely no problems towing a trailer regularly with a CVT transmission if that trailer would not exceed the 75% of the towing limit, just to stay on the safe side. You should also take environmental factors into account:

  • Are you going to tow on a flat asphalt road? 
  • Are there going to be steep inclines and declines? 
  • Is there a chance that you get stuck in mud or off-road?
  • How many people are you bringing with you?
  • Is this a one-time occasion or are you going to be towing with your CVT regularly?

CVTs are definitely stronger and more durable than they were 15 years ago, which is also the reason why car manufacturers increase the tow capacities on CVT vehicles but there are still a number of people who experience trouble when towing with a CVT transmission and there are also people who tow with their CVT cars regularly without having any issues as you can see in this Subaru forum thread.

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