Putting old CVT fluid in the trash is illegal in some areas - and it's harmful to the environment, so you shouldn't do it anyway. Find a drop-off point at a local auto parts dealer or recycling center (try Earth911).
Putting old CVT fluid in the trash is illegal in some areas - and it's harmful to the environment, so you shouldn't do it anyway. Find a drop-off point at a local auto parts dealer or recycling center (try Earth911).

In the ongoing search for lower motoring costs, continuously variable transmissions (CVT) are becoming increasingly popular. However, CVT fluids are more complex than those used in ordinary automatic transmissions, and they can be much more model-specific. As a result, greater care is needed when choosing them. We've been looking at the subject in detail so we can help you make the right decision. We have several recommendations, including our top pick, Valvoline's CVT fluid. It's a high-performance alternative to many factory-spec fluids, at a much more competitive price.

Why are we seeing CVT fitted to more vehicles?

The idea of a continuously variable transmission dates back to the 15th century and Leonardo da Vinci, although it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that it saw commercial use in sawmills, then later in road vehicles.

The idea is basically that instead of stepped gears — with their restricted ranges — a belt or chain runs between two conical pulleys. The CVT "gearbox" responds precisely to the demands of the engine so you get smooth and very efficient power delivery. That, in turn, means better fuel economy.

What does CVT fluid do?

The problem with CVTs is that they can run very hot, leading to excessive wear, the belt or chain slipping or vibrating, and even component failure. When new models were being developed in the early 2000s, manufacturers realized that existing automatic transmission fluids weren't up to the job. A new type of fluid was needed.

At the time, because of differences in the technologies used, each of the car makers developed their own CVT fluids. Because of this limited use, they were, and still are, comparatively expensive.

However, due to the overall growth in popularity of CVT-equipped vehicles (there are now more than 200 different models on the road), other lubricant manufacturers developed their own products. These are just as effective as the OEM brands and are usually considerably cheaper!

Considerations when choosing CVT fluids

So, you have either model-specific CVT fluids — genuine Honda, genuine Nissan, etc. — or you have a choice of "universal" CVT fluids.

You need to be very careful because, despite the name, universal CVT fluids cannot be used in all vehicles. They might have wider compatibility — so they can be used in Toyota , Mazda, Hyundai, Chrysler, and more — but there are always exceptions, particularly with hybrids.

Manufacturers will usually warn you that their CVT fluid isn't suitable for a particular vehicle, but it's still absolutely vital you check compatibility for exact model. These fluids can be very specific to particular vehicles. If in doubt, we strongly recommend you bite the bullet and pay the extra for the "genuine" fluid. A few bucks more per quart is a lot better than a busted transmission that will cost thousands to replace.

That aside, claims are fairly similar: smoother performance, less wear, no vibrating, etc. Products from recognized brands can all be trusted. If you have a choice, often it's simply a question of picking your favorite.

Price

CVT fluids from well-known lubricant brands are about $7 to $9 a quart, though you'll get a better deal if you buy in bulk, and your vehicle probably needs at least 10 quarts for a full change. Genuine OEM CVT fluids range anywhere from $12 to more than $20 a quart.

FAQ

Q. Can I change my own CVT fluid?

A. There's no reason why an experienced home mechanic shouldn't be able to handle the job on most vehicles but check the procedure before you start. If you're not confident, take it to an expert. Your transmission is way too expensive to risk damaging it with a botched fluid change.

Q. What's the difference between ATF and CVT?

A. Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF) is used in standard, non-variable transmissions. Exact formulations vary from one manufacturer to another. It can be cheaper than CVT fluid. However, while we have heard of instances where ATF has been used in CVT vehicles, it's definitely not something we would recommend.

CVT fluids we recommend

Best of the best: Valvoline CVT Fluid

Our take: Premium fully synthetic can be used in place of numerous OEM products.

What we like: High performance fluid for GM, Chrysler and many other vehicles, both chain and belt drives.

What we dislike: Should not be used in Toyota and Ford hybrids.

Best bang for your buck: Castrol Transmax CVT Fluid

Our take: A low-cost alternative for a wide range of CVT vehicles.

What we like: Focused on extending transmission life. Oxidation resistant. Should eliminate belt or chain slip.

What we dislike: Nothing. But check compatibility carefully before ordering.

Choice 3: Genuine Nissan CVT Fluid

Our take: OEM for all Nissan and Infiniti models requiring NS-2 fluid.

What we like: According to the makers, it's a "unique formulation of advanced friction modifiers and additives…" It's what Nissan puts in their CVT models.

What we dislike: At least double the price of anything else.

Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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