2015 Subaru WRX - shift lever with CVTEnlarge Photo
In the 2015 Subaru WRX, for instance you can tap into eight simulated ratios in a dedicated mode, while the Nissan Juke has a similar feature; and even the 2014 Toyota Corolla S offers seven 'speeds.'
There are plenty of indications that all the effort is working with consumers—to the extent that some owners might not even know they have one.
“In our latest Vehicle APEAL Study (2013 MY), owners with CVTs reported virtually the same satisfaction levels as owners with manuals or traditional automatics,” commented David Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president, global automotive. The APEAL study examines what consumers like about their new vehicle after 90 days of ownership.
Maintenance: where traditional automatics still have the advantage
Although CVTs might offer a cost advantage to the automaker, and help keep sticker prices down, they're not necessarily lower in upkeep to the owner. At a time when many conventional automatic transmissions are sealed and essentially maintenance-free for 100,000, or more in some cases, many CVTs might require rather costly fluid changes—which can also quickly erase any money saved on a slightly fuel-economy advantage.
But much of the data shows that CVTs are leaving owners satisfied. In J.D. Power’s latest Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), which goes back three model years (2011, in this case), CVT vehicles had the lowest rate of engine/transmission problems.
As for dual-clutch gearboxes, they're hardly maintenance-free either. For instance, VW's DSG still surprises owners with its requirement for fluid and filter changes at 30,000-mile intervals—for several hundred dollars a pop.
The one-track mind of dual-clutch gearboxes
“There are clearly a lot of issues with dual-clutch gearboxes,” said Fisher. “We don’t see a lot of them in high-volume models, and there's a reason for that.”
“We see a lot of vehicles with jerkiness,” especially at low speed, explained FIsher. “And as the clutch wears, you end up with these situations where there’s a non-linear power delivery.”
Fisher pointed out that you need only take a cursory look at federal (NHTSA) complaint data for certain models to get an idea of how commonly dual-clutch gearboxes are malfunctioning, or at the very least misunderstood.
Like CVTs, dual-clutch transmissions offer the potential for greater performance (by the stopwatch) and better fuel economy, compared to regular automatic transmissions, yet they sacrifice some drivability and general smoothness to get that.
Many of the dual-clutch gearboxes seem to be tuned for top performance, Fisher observes. “With all these, zero to 60, or quarter-mile, they’re flawless. It’s in the mall parking lot where they can be a disaster...in those extended drives, in transitions, where they’re on and off the gas.”