Automatic vs. CVT Transmissions Explained

Automatic vs. CVT Transmissions Explained - Motorcars Acura

Automatics have come a long way in recent years, going from a compromise that you made for the sake of not having to shift gears yourself to an option that delivers both faster shift and better fuel economy than a manual. But now there is another alternative to an automatic, a continuously variable transmission, usually referred to just as a CVT. For the driver, a CVT works pretty much the same as a traditional automatic, but the mechanical workings of a CVT are completely different, and it’s good to know what the differences are for the sake of an informed decision. That’s why we put together this guide, which should clear things up.

Acura MDX Shifter

How Automatic And CVT Transmission Work

Traditional Automatic Transmission

Operating a vehicle with an automatic transmission is basically the same as it has ever been. You select Park, Reverse, Neutral, or Drive (some vehicles also have a Sport option), and the transmission will shift itself into the appropriate gear. When in Drive, the transmission will continue shifting up and down to make sure you’re always in the right gear for your speed, throttle position, and a number of other factors.

Automatic transmissions used to have fewer gears than their manual counterparts, but these days they have far more. That’s what gives them such an advantage when it comes to both performance and fuel economy, there is always a correct gear whatever the circumstance.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

In terms of driver input, a CVT works exactly the same as a traditional automatic. In fact, it might be difficult to tell the difference at first.

The way a CVT transmits power from the engine to the wheels is completely different from how a traditional automatic works, however. Rather than set gears that the transmission selects, the transmission internals continuously change shape, so that the drive ratio is always the right one for the conditions.

Acura MDX

Benefits of Driving a CVT or Automatic Transmission

There are good reasons to use both traditional automatics and CVTs, which is why Acura makes vehicles with both. These are the big advantages of both:

Automatic Pros

  • Greater driver engagement and response through the use of individual gears
  • Greater serviceability and lower repair costs compared to CVTs
  • Genuine relationship between engine sound and speed traveled

CVT Pros

  • Superior fuel economy compared to traditional automatics
  • Smaller size and lighter weight
  • Smooth acceleration with no “shift-shock”
  • Fewer components and lower cost to manufacture

Acura Integra

Acura Models By Transmission Type


  • MDX
  • RDX
  • TLX


  • Integra (also available with a 6-speed manual)