CVT transmissions tend to face freezing cold harder than heat. This is due to simple physics that come into play in cold, like thickening of the transmission fluid and contracting of certain transmission parts.
Common CVT transmission problems in colder weather include:
- Higher operating RPMs before reaching working temperature
- Sluggish performance
- Longer warm-up times
- Delayed engagement
As you can see from the list above, a lot of the CVT problems listed above could also be assigned to other types of automatic transmissions when you analyze their cold weather problems. CVT’s, despite their unique design, are not much different when it comes too cold.
Let’s dissect each of the concerns.
High Operating RPMs
Upon starting my research, I immediately realized that the most common issue people are reporting with their CVT transmissions in the cold is the high operating RPMs upon starting, which can seem strange.
But is this really an issue?
No. The truth is, the majority of leading CVT transmission manufacturers implement a so-called “warm-up” protocol that ensures that the CVT transmission reaches the optimal working temperature as soon as possible.
To do that, the transmission keeps the engine working at higher RPMs and the variators inside the transmission do not change positions as early as they normally would, which would lower the engine’s RPM and reduce the transmissions’ effort.
This behavior ensures that the transmission reaches the optimal working temperature as soon as possible to prevent damage to which a transmission is exposed when working outside the optimal temperature range.
If you only use your car to scoot around town, your CVT equipped car may never exit the warm-up mode, since it’s unlikely it’ll reach the optimal working temperature before you return home. Once you drive off on a longer journey, your car should exit this mode once it warms up enough to signal the transmission it’s in the clear.
Which manufacturers implement this feature?
Nissan and their JATCO, Japanese based transmission, use this feature. Subaru and their in-house developed CVTs also implement this and so does Ford with their ZF CVT transmissions. Suzuki also uses this technology and so does other car manufacturers that implement Aisin CVT transmissions.
The sluggish performance problem is tightly related to the high operating RPMs that many users reported and I described above.
For new CVT transmission owners, sluggish performance of the CVT transmission in the cold may seem as a malfunction. The car not only feels sluggish because it doesn’t want to “change gears” and pull forward, it also seems as though the car is much louder than usual due to the high engine RPM (not to mention the higher fuel consumption).
If I compare this behavior to a car with a manual transmission, it feels as though you would drive around in the 3rd instead of the 4th gear.
Longer Warm-Up Times
All transmissions, from the basic manual, classic hydraulic automatic, the direct shift DSG transmission and the CVT transmission require longer warm up times when temperatures dip below and around freezing.
What is the best way to warm up a transmission?
Just take it easy. That’s it, there is no need to leave your car idling on your driveway, in fact, it’s much better to start driving and warm up the transmission as you drive. This ensures that the transmission fluid starts flowing around every moving part of the transmission, providing it with sufficient lubrication from the get-go.
Make sure that the first 10–15 minutes of your drive are really relaxed and smooth. Avoid kick downs and sudden accelerations.
This phenomenon is defined as the delay you feel when shifting from park to drive and the despite the change in drive mode, your car takes a second or two to process the change.
Delayed engagement is normally considered a sign of transmission problems, but if you only notice this on your CVT transmission during the winter, it’s no reason to worry.
Due to the thickening of the transmission fluid, your transmission may appear a bit sluggish and delayed when it comes to making gear changes.
CVT transmission fluid thickens during cold temperatures because the base oil used in CVT transmission fluid contains molecules that become more viscous and move slower when exposed to cold. This affects the natural flow of the transmission fluid that is needed to engage the gears on time.
Once you warm up your transmission and the transmission fluid regains its optimal viscosity levels, you can expect an improvement in transmission behavior.
To avoid this, you can buy and use a special block heater, park your car inside a warm garage and ensure that the transmission fluid in your CVT isn’t past its prime.
Recap & Final Thoughts
When it’s cold, give your CVT transmission some breathing space. As I said before, the best way to get the transmission warmed up and the transmission fluid moving over all the moving internal parts of the transmission.
Aside from the symptoms above, your CVT transmission should have no problems dealing with the freezing temperatures. If you notice any of the symptoms above even when the transmission fully warms up or once winter is over, make sure you immediately get your transmission checked by a professional.