Few things in life are certain… Death, taxes, and the seeming indestructibility of Japanese cars. Just as Toyota’s Land Cruiser makes for a great choice for effortless outback off-roading, Hondas works the same way. A good old Honda is perhaps the perfect four-wheeled choice for anyone, as it can always be depended upon. But with fellow Nipponese stalwart, Nissan, having faced countless problems with their transmissions, one does wonder, what about Honda CVT reliability?
There has been a myriad of recalls and lawsuits over the years made against Nissan. So much so, it looks like their future cars will move towards a more conventional automatic gearbox. On the other hand, things seem much more tranquil over at Honda’s headquarters. Although a larger carmaker by volume, Honda’s penchant for bulletproof reliability appears to stand firm. Hailed as a natural evolution to transmission design, CVTs were supposed to show the way forward.
They are engineered to allow gearboxes to shift along smoothly and quietly, while also being simpler and inexpensive. At first sight, it does seem like CVTs make for a win-win scenario. But their relative new-ness compared to the refinements made towards more traditional transmissions mean they can be less reliable and are often more costly for a fix. But can a Honda CVT reliability be just as bad to maintain, or could it outshine the rest of the car industry?
What is a CVT?
Before we dive deeper into looking at Honda CVT reliability, it will be helpful to know more about it. How does a CVT transmission work and what makes it that special? Well, CVT stands for ‘continuously variable transmission‘. In many of the more mainstream and economical cars today, CVTs are a popular choice relative to more “regular” automatics and manuals. In its function, you can easily confuse a CVT for an automatic, as they operate the same way.
From a driver’s point of view, a CVT changes gears automatically. As such, it doesn’t require any manual input from you, aside from needing to change the direction of travel. So, that would be putting it in gear, reverse, neutral, and so on. The main difference here is that the conventional automatic and manual transmission have gears. By varying their gearing ratios, those gears regulate the power being sent to the engine.
Otherwise, the torque that is sent to the wheels is uncontrollable. Most vehicles today have anywhere from 1, or upwards of 10 gears working in their transmission. Meanwhile, heavy-duty vehicles like large trucks can have up to 18 gears. A CVT is different, in that it doesn’t have any gears. Instead of using fixed gears, CVTs use a system of two pulleys, joined by a belt of a chain in the middle. For Honda, a metal drive belt is what runs between the variable-width pulleys.
What are the benefits of a CVT over conventional automatic transmissions?
This template of two pulleys being connected via a chain or belt is the most common variation of the CVT used today. One pulley is connected to the engine, while the other is attached to the transmission. The latter will transfer engine power to the rest of the drivetrain. Based on your input, the coned pulleys will move inwards and outwards accordingly. By the movement of these coned pulleys, it will then determine which “gear” you’re using.
As a result of this design, a CVT transmission can theoretically have an infinite number of gear ratios. Or at least, it can be programmed to have infinite gearing ratios compared to a geared transmission. This can have a wealth of benefits compared to a more conventional automatic (or manual) transmission. Here are some of those upsides for our Honda CVT reliability guide:
1. Improved fuel economy
Perhaps the best upside that can impact your usability is the increased fuel efficiency that is offered by a CVT. CVTs manage this compared to regular automatics thanks to their “infinite” gearing. First off, a CVT is able to maintain the engine’s power delivery more smoothly. Moreover, it can ensure that your car’s speed is in its most optimal range. Plus, a CVT is also more compact in its design, and that lightweight packaging means that there’s less mass to haul around.
2. Does not have any “shift shock”
This is what happens when you change gears with a regular transmission. That ‘shift shock’ is the momentary loss of power while waiting for the gears to change up or down. A CVT does not have gears and only needs to move its coned pulleys in or out. By design then, CVTs can maintain a very smooth and seamless power delivery. This allows for the car’s wheels to receive power from the engine without interruption from the gearbox.
3. Smooth gear changes
On the subject of interruption, CVTs are significantly smoother when it comes to changing “gears”. Traditional automatic transmission needs to “hunt” for gears, and then change up or down respectively. This process of trying to find the right gears can make it noticeable whenever the car is trying to change gears. But CVTs are technically single-speed transmissions. With its potentially infinite gear ratios, gear changes are extremely effortless and smooth.
4. Compact design
Owing to the engineering behind it and its lack of needing gears, CVTs are much simpler in design. They need fewer moving parts compared to normal automatics, and are thus more compact and light. It also means that from a technical standpoint, fewer things could go wrong. This is thanks to the fact that there’s less friction between its (fewer) moving parts. Less heat means that there could be a much longer lifespan for a CVT compared to traditional gearboxes.
What about the downsides of a CVT transmission?
Although there are plenty of benefits to be had with a CVT-equipped car, there can be some very severe disadvantages. For some, these downsides might be worth it given how much else a CVT can offer you. Subjectively, it might put off others. For one, a CVT’s smoothness and “step-less” gearing can feel as though you’re devoid of any interaction or fun. As good as that might be, it could also be boring, depending on what the driver expects from a car.
It can feel as though you’re lacking in engagement. But this is merely a matter of taste. There are certainly some other more critical downsides that can be felt by a larger subset of prospective owners. For our Honda CVT reliability overview, we’re going to highlight a few flaws with CVT gearboxes:
1. Noisier than automatic transmissions
By design, CVT transmissions prefer to hold the gearing at higher RPMs. This doesn’t cause as much real wear and tear, or an increase in fuel consumption. However, it does mean that CVTs are noisier compared to regular automatics. You’ll notice a slight whirring or humming noise while driving along. Sometimes, the added sound might be attributed to manufacturers intentionally engineering in a “step” function to their CVTs.
2. Costly repairs and maintenance
As we mentioned earlier, CVTs are simpler in their construction. It is more compact in its footprint and has fewer moving parts to rub against and emit heat. Common sense would dictate that there are fewer things that could go wrong. However, CVTs are a fairly new piece of technology relative to other transmissions. Therefore, there aren’t as many spare parts made available for CVTs should they start going wrong.
This scarcity can make hunting for certain components harder. Moreover, there are fewer technicians who are qualified enough to service or repair CVT gearboxes. Consequently, it may cost more than a more conventional transmission when it comes to maintenance. The engineering that goes behind a CVT may mean that it requires more maintenance, as well. For example, a CVT might need more frequent changes of transmission fluid compared to automatics.
What are the symptoms of Honda CVT reliability problems that you need to know?
The goods news here is that Honda makes some of the most reliable CVTs on the market today. Few owners have made complaints on Honda CVT reliability issues. It’s especially jarring compared to the problematic CVTs that Nissan has in their cars. However, it would be a good idea to understand more about how you can spot a CVT problem, should it appear. This will help to better prepare you in case you need to send your car off for repairs.
There are thankfully some very clear symptoms that can be exhibited should your car’s CVT be starting to fail. We definitely do not recommend driving your car around for much longer if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Firstly, it can be hazardous to drive with any significant traffic, as transmission problems will affect your speed. More to that, continued use while your transmission is acting up could exacerbate the problem even more.
That added strain will make for even bigger repair bills later on. For our Honda CVT reliability guide, here are some early tell-tale signs of transmission troubles that you need to look out for:
1. Transmission running loud
As we’ve learned earlier, CVTs are a bit louder than the more conventional gearboxes owing to their design. However, these noises should be fairly faint, and can simply be drowned out by your radio. If you start noticing it becoming ever louder, then this is a sign that your car’s CVT starting to show signs of failure. For the most part, CVT problems are noticed by an unpleasant and very loud rattling or whining noise while the car’s running.
2. Vibrations or shuddering while under acceleration
One thing to note here is that some carmakers are intentionally programming a “step” feature into their CVTs. This simulates the feedback and sounds of more traditional gear changes. However, this feeling is different than the constant vibrations or shuddering that might point towards CVT failure. Overheating problems can cause mounts and bearings to wear out prematurely, hence causing all the shaking.
3. Sluggish acceleration or stalling while driving
If your car is struggling to get up to speed, it is another sign that your CVT transmission is on its way out. This slow acceleration happens when your car hesitating to change up a gear. Ordinarily, CVTs should offer you a gradual and progressive build-up of power. For some cars, significant component failure could also trigger the car to go into its “limp home” mode that restricts speed. Sometimes, CVT failure can cause the car to stall or shut-down completely while driving.
4. Burning smell
Although CVT transmissions have few running parts, they can still run hot. Without proper cooling or maintenance, therefore, they can still overheat. You can notice a particular burning smell, which is a sign that something is running a lot hotter than it should be. Or, you might be able to check your car’s temperature gauge and see if there are any anomalies there. Apart from an overheating transmission, that burning smell could also point to fluids leaking on the hot exhaust.
5. Leaks (transmission fluid)
This leads us to the next segment, which is transmission fluid. Just like a conventional gearbox, CVTs have their own formulated transmission fluid to aid in lubrication. Overheating can cause parts of the cooling system to wear out prematurely. This includes cooling lines or seals. The result is a pinkish puddle underneath your car. Transmission fluid leaks is another sign of potential failure with your CVT gearbox, as it can no longer provide the optimal amount of lubrication.
How could these symptoms of Honda CVT reliability problems happen in the first place?
There a large number of unique variables that could prompt the Honda CVT reliability symptoms to crop up from earlier. As we mentioned before, some parts such as the mounts and bearing could wear down. Other potential causes are a lot more serious, such as the drive-belt slipping. This slippage is what causes sluggish performance or slight shudders while driving. But for the most part, issues with Honda’s CVT transmissions are simply down to the transmission fluid.
In fact, this applies to every transmission. As with every other component of your car that has a lot of moving parts, it will need lubrication. Just like motor oil within your engine, transmission fluid will make sure that there is as little friction as possible within the CVT. Less friction will cause fewer parts from degrading, and will also emit less heat. Overall, transmission fluid is an important part of any gearbox, and it’s important that it is looked after.
If certain seals or parts wear down, it could allow contaminants to mix in with the transmission fluid. Or, transmission fluid that hasn’t been changed out in a while can wear itself down thanks to the intense heat. Contaminated or worn-out transmission fluid can have a significant impact on your Honda CVT reliability. Running these sub-par fluids for a long time can cause problems such as overheating or leaking, as it can no longer maintain its lubricating properties.
How can you fix these Honda CVT reliability issues?
There is at least some good news to be found amidst all this doom and gloom. Unlike some other brands such as Nissan or Jeep that is plagued with reports of unreliable CVTs, Honda is quite the opposite. Honda makes some of the most reliable cars today, and this stellar reputation trickles down to its CVT gearboxes. So, you can be safe in knowing that a Honda with a CVT can comfortably last 10 years or more – 5 at the very minimum.
However, that doesn’t mean that all Hondas are immune from some sort of transmission problem. We can take a look at sites such as CarComplaints.com to find a more extensive database of customer complaints and reports for certain cars. As an example, two of the more problematic Hondas have been the 2001 Civic and the 2003 Accord. Each one has more than 500 complaints logged in just for issues around its transmission alone.
How much will fixing Honda CVT reliability problems cost me?
On average, their transmissions will start showing signs of failure at around 100,000 miles for both models. The aggregate repair cost on average for either Honda to have their CVT transmission repaired is around $2,000 to $3,000. However, it’s worth noting that in most cases, CVTs can be hard to fix. As such, many owners here have found out that most of their problems could only be solved once the whole CVT transmission has been replaced entirely.
As we’ve learned earlier on in our Honda CVT reliability guide, CVTs can be more expensive to repair or replace. The relative shortage of parts and skilled technicians will make your options fairly limited. Moreover, the labor costs will be monstrous. This is since, in some Hondas, the whole engine needs to be removed before being able to access the CVT. Therefore, CVTs can take more time and money to have them mended compared to a regular transmission.
What can you do to prevent these Honda CVT reliability problems from happening?
Another plus point aside from Honda’s top-notch reliability is its warranty service. In the case of Honda CVT reliability issues, transmissions are covered for repairs or replacement. This coverage is good for 5 years or 60,000 miles – whichever one comes first. This leads us to a very good point, in that good maintenance is all you need to prevent CVT issues down the line. You should always consult your owner’s manual to more accurately pin down the service interval for your Honda.
We learned already that many potential CVT faults and issues needn’t ever happened if you’re more attentive towards the transmission fluid. In general, Honda recommends a full flush and replacement of the transmission fluids every 20,000 miles or 2 years. This applies to whichever comes first. You might also want to consider calling up your local Honda representative to quote them directly as to when you might need to swap your transmission fluid.
Or, you can check the state of the transmission fluid for yourself through the engine bay. You should try to find a yellow tab on the back-end of the engine compartment. This marks the transmission fluid reservoir. You can then use the dipstick to check the amount of transmission fluid left. While you’re there, you can also assess its condition. Remember, transmission fluid should a pinkish or reddish color. If it’s gone brown or smells like it’s burnt, then it should be replaced.
Mind the transmission fluids, and your driving style
There are also several other factors to consider in knowing when to change your transmission fluid. This could depend on how hard you drive your car or the climate around you. Living in hot and humid areas would necessitate you to replace the transmission fluid more frequently. This is important, as your Honda’s CVT will need ample amounts of lubrication to work at its best. And having good transmission fluid will also ensure a long lifespan for your Honda’s CVT.
It would also help to preserve the condition of your CVT by changing up your driving style. Aggressive driving with smoky burning starts will only serve to wear out your CVT much faster than it needs to. Add to that, be sure not to put too much load on your car. Maybe think about hiring a truck for the next time you move house. More weight that your car needs to move around will mean putting more strain on the CVT. Honda or not, a CVT won’t last long in those conditions.
Honda CVT reliability – Conclusion
In short, we can conclude our Honda CVT reliability guide by saying that their luster for low-maintenance cars remains as glowing as ever. Even compared to its Japanese rivals, Honda’s track record for excellent durability and reliability will make it quite a strong recommendation for anyone that wants a car that won’t break down all too often. You can be certain that in many ordinary cases, you won’t be facing any problems with your Honda’s CVT transmission.
However, no matter how tough your Honda might be, it will only be as strong as how its human will care for it. All that is required is following along with your manufacturer’s set service intervals. A quick flush and swap of transmission fluids can do wonders in making sure you can be spared from headaches and big repair bills down the line. In regards to CVTs, good maintenance will go a long way in making sure you can enjoy thousands more smoothly-geared miles to come.