- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

Continuously variable transmissions have been around for a few decades, but with rare exceptions U.S. car buyers have been unable to sample this innovative technology. Saturn wants to change that when it introduces a new sport utility vehicle that will offer a CVT as its only automatic transmission option. That would make the Saturn SUV the highest-volume light vehicle with a CVT in the United States.

The CVT uses a metal belt that rides up and down between two pulleys to allow for an infinite number of transmission points as the belt moves along the pulleys. One of the pulley sheaves is fixed, and the other rides in and out.

The CVT is not limited to three or four fixed gear points, as in a conventional step-gear transmission. With a CVT you are able to access a wider range of gear settings. The lowest gear is a little lower than a conventional automatic, and the highest gear is a little higher. Thus the CVT is always optimizing engine power under virtually any possible driving condition.

There's only one car now available in the United States that uses a CVT. That's the Honda Civic HX, with sales of a few thousand annually. Honda plans to introduce two additional cars with CVTs next year, including the Insight, a hybrid gas-electric car with the highest mileage of any car sold in the Unites States. Despite this fact, Honda will only use CVTs in a minuscule number of cars it sells here.

CVTs are more mainstream in Japan, where at least 25 models offer CVTs. Nissan offers no fewer than 14 models with the innovative transmission. Audi recently introduced a CVT into its A6 model, but that is offered only in Europe at this time. Some years ago Subaru offered a CVT in its tiny Justy model. However, a Subaru spokesman at the time said that American consumers did not know what to make of a CVT.

Most of Nissan's CVTs are made by Jatco, a big supplier of these transmissions. Shumpei Takasaki, a Jatco vice president, says fuel economy is the major advantage of CVTs. He estimates a 15 percent fuel savings, depending on engine capacity and torque. GM has not yet finished its EPA mileage testing for its SUV, but a spokesman says the company expects to see 5 to 10 percent greater fuel economy with the CVT.

To some extent, this advantage is offset for carmakers by the greater cost of CVTs. Mr. Takasuki says a CVT costs about 20 percent more to manufacture than a conventional automatic. The cost to carmakers should drop in the coming years as the cost of new machinery is amortized and greater volumes of CVTs are produced. The fact that CVTs have 45 percent fewer parts than an automatic transmission should also eventually contribute to shaving the cost of making those components.

General Motors won't say how many CVTs it will eventually offer annually, but the auto giant has set up an assembly line in a plant in Szengotthard, Hungary, to make CVTs. General Motors reports that it would be safe to infer that the Hungarian factory will turn out a volume of CVTs that is several times greater than the 25,000 units initially slated to go into the Saturn SUV.

Saturn executives acknowledge they will have an educational job to do with consumers who consider vehicles equipped with CVTs. For the most part, the experience is transparent. You really can't tell the difference between using a CVT vs. a step-gear automatic transmission. However, when you drive a car with a CVT, you don't feel abrupt downshifts or the rise and fall of engine speed as you change gears.

MOTOR MATTERS


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