Sometimes maligned, sometimes acclaimed, the continuously variable transmission is poised to snap up more North American market share in coming years.
After a surge of interest early in the past decade, the CVT had some rocky market introductions and its use declined sharply. But now automakers, pressured by rising fuel economy requirements, are reconsidering the efficient, gearless transmission.
Still, automakers must remedy past problems -- and overcome the CVT sneer factor -- to make the transmission as acceptable as the new wave of cutting-edge automatic transmissions.
As recently as 2005, CVTs accounted for just 1 percent of the North American market, according to industry forecasting firm IHS Automotive. Two years ago, propelled by Nissan Motor Co.'s widespread use of the transmissions, CVTs shot up to 7 percent of the market. IHS now forecasts that CVT penetration will more than double to 16 percent of vehicles sold in North America in 2015.
Carla Bailo, Nissan Americas senior vice president of r&d at the company's tech center in suburban Detroit, says Nissan was wary about consumer reaction to CVTs.
"We debated a long time about whether customers would be satisfied with the feel of a CVT," she recalls. "Would they be concerned about the no-shift feel or about the type of noise that CVTs have?"
But, she says, customers have accepted CVTs: "Most of them don't notice it so much."
At American Honda Motor Co., spokesman Chris Martin says customers are more focused on results than the technology.
"Nobody's coming into our dealerships and asking us for CVTs," Martin says. "But they are coming in and asking for fuel economy. And if you look at the government efficiency requirements for the next few years, a CVT provides the fuel efficiency we want in both highway and city driving."
This autumn, the four-cylinder-engine version of the redesigned Honda Accord -- one of North America's biggest volume vehicles -- will be combined with a CVT. Industry watchers are speculating that Toyota Motor Corp. is also planning a CVT next year for its redesigned Corolla, another big-volume vehicle. A company spokesman declined to discuss future product.
Toyota and Honda are under competitive pressure to improve the fuel economy of their key products. A major rival, the redesigned Nissan Altima, uses a CVT to claim the best fuel economy in its mid-sized sedan segment: 27 mpg city/38 highway.