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General Motors Wants More CVTs, For Some Reason

Fun-sapping transmissions could spread across automaker's FWD lineup.

With a single sentence on Tuesday, one General Motors executive was able to strike sorrow into the hearts of automotive enthusiasts by heralding a future full of GM cars packing continuously-variable transmissions.

“We’re relatively bullish on CVTs,” Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion systems for General Motors, said at a seminar this week, according to Automotive News.

CVTs, for those never forced to drive a car equipped with one, are soul-sucking excuses for transmissions that trade in the comfort and familiarity of traditional gears for a belt-driven setup. In principle, this arrangement means CVTs are more efficient than traditional automatics, especially in cars making lower amounts of power; in practice, they tend to curse the vehicles they parasitize with lackluster performance, a rubbery powerband, and an engine note under acceleration that falls into the uncanny valley between the synthetic hum of an electric car and the familiar step-stair roar of a geared, gas-powered vehicle.

Nevertheless, General Motors sees a place for the transmissions in its smaller cars as it tries to push towards meeting the expected Corporate Average Fuel Economy goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

“We’re optimistic about CVTs in the U.S. market for front-wheel-drive applications up to a certain weight level,” Nicholson said. “They don’t make sense in everything, but you will see more of that from GM in the future.”

As of today, GM only offers a CVT in a single model, the Chevrolet Spark. The carmaker purchases the transmissions for that car from Nissan subsidiary Jatco, and presumably receives them in large crates marked with frowny faces.

And much as GM and Ford joined forced to develop the 10-speed automatic transmission for use in everything from the 2017 F-150 to the new Camaro ZL1, the General could team up with FoMoCo to develop a new CVT for their joint use. Ford, reportedly, is also considering moving into that variety of transmission.

While carmakers from Nissan to Subaru have made great strides in improving the driving experience of CVTs—in large part, by making them behave as though they have actual gears—the transmissions remain largely maligned amongst enthusiasts and auto writers. While they may offer added efficiency, continuously-variable transmissions largely deprive drivers of the joy of wringing every ounce of performance from the small cars they frequently come in. As the saying goes, it’s better to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow—as long as the slow car doesn’t have one of those damned CVTs.