The Best CVT Transmission Fluids: Top Picks for Lubrication
These top CVT transmission fluids will keep your car running smoothly.
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BY Corrina Murdoch / LAST UPDATED ON August 16, 2021
Unless you‘re a diehard proponent of a stick shift and are holding steadfast to traditional gear changing, your car probably has a CVT transmission. These transmissions smoothly move between an unrestricted number of gear ratios during driving, resulting in increased fuel economy and an easier time with hilly terrain. Now, a CVT system won’t work its vehicular magic on its own — you have to feed it a healthy supply of transmission fluid.
And, if you really want your transmission to hum, using the best CVT transmission fluids is the only way to go. To help you along, we’ve sourced the best CVT transmission fluids on the market, along with tips on taking care of your transmission.
This transmission fluid can be used in most belt and chain-driven CVTs. It's formulated with premium synthetic base stocks, long-life friction modifiers, special anti-wear additives, and shear stable viscosity modifiers.
- Fluid is compatible with new car warranties
- Offers high-level wet clutch performance
- Prevents wear and tear on gears
- Cost-effective option
- Not suitable for Ford hybrids or Toyota CVT rides
- Creates a strong odor requiring ample ventilation
Affordable and effective, this automatic transmission treatment features lubricating additives on top of its existing base stock formula. It improves shifting ease when moving into higher gears.
- Protects internal components from friction wear
- Limits risk of transmission shudder
- Not prone to thickening if exposed to high heat
- Not suitable to all vehicles on the market
- Only use on vehicles using a belt- or pulley-type transmission
Formulated to be a universally-compatible transmission fluid, this synthetic treatment is a blend of base oils and special additives to improve lubricating ability. Coming in a full gallon, it makes transmission upkeep easy.
- Extremely durable against wear and tear
- Drastically limits the friction coefficient between internal hardware
- Limited risk of corrosion due to oxidation
- Improves overall vehicle performance
- Because it is universal, not CVT-specific, it may cause warranty issues
- Higher price point than other comparable products
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Benefits of CVT Transmission Fluid
- Limits wear and tear. CVT transmissions are popular because they are designed to adapt the gear ratio to optimize engine efficiency regardless of speed. It sounds great, but it also means faster wear simply because the fluid is circulated more because of all the gear ratio changes. Properly formulated CVT transmission fluid mitigates this issue since it is specifically made to lubricate this type of transmission.
- Smoother gear transition. That kick you feel when challenging a steep highway hill doesn’t actually need to be there. It’s the result of issues with gear transition, one of the reasons CVT transitions became popular in the first place. Proper transmission fluid ensures this iconic smooth transition, regardless of the incline.
- Optimizes friction coefficient. Anytime two surfaces rub against each other, like the gears controlled by your transmission, small bits scrape away. Grinding your gears is a common phrase for frustration, because it is nothing but damaging. CVT transmission fluid prevents the gears from scraping at each other through lubrication.
- Improves fuel economy. Fuel costs money, and the less efficiently your car performs, the more you’re shelling out for the gas or diesel to keep it going. Your transmission plays a massive role in efficiency, since that is the primary job of a CVT setup. It smooths out your ride, requires less frequent trips to the pump, and limits your carbon footprint.
- Protects your transmission. Water is all around us, including in the air both you and your car breathe. The hydrophobic nature of transmission fluid keeps that moisture out. Since it’s the same humidity that would ultimately cause corrosion via oxidation, this is a clear benefit.
- Helps your vehicle last longer. Using the best CVT transmission fuel is about more than autopilot preventative maintenance. It’s an active effort you can make to seriously prolong the lifespan of your transmission. The average cost to replace a CVT system is $4,800. Up against that number, spending a few bucks on new fluid every 30,000 miles or so seems like a pretty low-key way to save your car (and your wallet).
Types of CVT Transmission Fluid
Not all continuously variable transmissions are made alike. In fact, there are three subtypes of these transmissions: pulley, toroidal, and hydrostatic. The first is also called a belt-run system. It uses interconnected pulleys as opposed to gears to complete transitions. Toroidal models rely on rollers and discs to get the job done. A hydrostatic model relies on pumps to control fluid and rotational movement. Because of the different hardware employed to achieve gear transitions, there are available fluids to accommodate the specific target friction coefficient of each subtype. If you are looking to go the extra mile in caring for your transmission, though these might cost a bit extra, the specialized formula often makes it worth it.
OEM Transmission Fluid
This type of transmission fluid has a big market share, partly due to its compatibility with service contracts. It’s usually made by a subsidiary of the manufacturer itself, meaning the formula is curated to that exact vehicle — factoring in things like heat dissemination and engine model. There are some OEM transmission fluids that are fairly versatile, boasting a long list of vehicles with which they are compatible, while others only work on select models. If you want to be sure that the CVT transmission fuel will meet your new car’s needs, this is the type to choose.
Universal Transmission Fluid
There are two ways to break down the concept of universal transmission fluid. The first is the most common: CVT fluid that works on all continuously variable transmissions. If it’s touted as a universal model, you can expect it to work whether your car relies on a pulley system or hydrostatic setup. Preferred to those newer to car maintenance, you can find high-end formulas, complete with effective base oils and efficient additives.
The other approach to universal transmission fluid is when the formula reportedly works on both ATF and CVT transmissions. Some companies have achieved impressive results with these synthetic formulas; but, unless the product has proven itself on the market, avoid this type. If you end up with a solution that is actually meant for an ATF transmission, you could do serious (and irreparable damage to the vehicle). If you’re looking for universal use, make sure it is a CVT-specific universal application.
Valvoline was founded in 1866 in Binghamton, N.Y., and is currently based in Lexington, Ky. The company has been making lubricants and automotive chemicals such as motor oil, automatic transmission fluid, and antifreeze, for over 150 years. We recommend its Valvoline Continuously Variable Transmission Fluid.
Almost as old as cars themselves, Castrol hit the market in 1899. Founded by Charles Wakefield, the namesake is a shout out to the company’s innovation of including castor oil in their lubricants. An American brand, it’s corporate headquarters may be in Berkshire, UK, but its lubrication manufacturing, BP Lubricants, is based out of New Jersey. This company is renowned for its high-grade oil and gas products, with a proud history in NASCAR and other racing endeavors. Among its top products is the Castrol Transmax Universal Fluid.
Dating back to 1903, Amalie Motor Oil is renowned for its invention of the first multi-grade motor oil. Using that success as a springboard, this Pennsylvania company now has a catalog of over 3,000 different products. Retailing throughout the United States (and to over 100 other countries), it has become a huge name in the transmission fluid industry. With quality comes a bit of an extra price tag, but this company offers truly reliable formulas with impressive chemical profiles. The Amalie Universal Synthetic CVT Fluid really showcases its usefulness through its lasting and reliable performance.
You can’t go through a list of top vehicle manufacturers without giving a shout out to General Motors, the owner of ACDelco. The brand, as it is now known, debuted in 1995, as a primarily OEM parts and fluids manufacturer. Though it also includes aftermarket items in its repertoire, the ACDelco claim to fame is compatibility with factory-supplied setups. Headquartered out of Michigan, this business continues to control a large market share of the vehicle fluid industry. Take its ACDelco Dex CVT Fluid, for instance. It’s both effective and able to work in any CVT setup.
Red Line Synthetic Oil
Based out of California, this company was founded in 1979, expanding throughout California from Novato to Benicia. Its claim to fame began with the appointment of Roy Howell, a chemist working at a competing company called Lubrizol, as research and development. It was clearly a good move, since the company is now well-known in the racing industry. With a full range of polyol ester base lubricants, its products are meant for transmissions that handle heavy jobs. A good example is the Red Line V-Twin Shockproof Transmission Oil, a formula crafted for smooth, lasting performance.
CVT Transmission Fluid Pricing
- $15 to $20: This is typically what you will pay for a quart of CVT transmission fluid. A manufacturer's "genuine" CVT fluid maybe a little more expensive than a universal brand.
- Over $50: Expect to pay this amount for 6 quarts of transmission fluid. Pay attention to the quantity because some brands sell quarts, while others sell gallons of transmission fluid. European brands favor liters.
This is the most important factor to consider when shopping for CVT transmission fluid. It's critical that the lubricant you choose is designed to work with your vehicle's make, model, and year. This confirmation is vital because if you don't pick the right fluid, it can cause a lot of damage, which can be costly.
CVT transmission fluids should perform well in several areas. They should have high steel-on-steel friction and protect against wear, rust, and corrosion. They should minimize sludge and varnish formation and have low-temperature properties so it's easier to shift in cold weather. The fluid should also have foam resistance, good shear stability, and oxidation stability.
- Cost. As we noted above, the price of CVT transmission fluid is based on the size of the container as well as whether it's a universal product or specific to the type of vehicle you own. It's up to you if you'd rather spend a little more money on an OEM product you know is compatible or save a few dollars on an aftermarket brand. Many universal CVT transmission fluids work just as well as OEM fluids.
- Chemical makeup. There is a significant difference between the molecular properties of mineral oil and synthetic oil. Yes, all transmission fluids have the same end-goal in mind, but not all of them achieve it the same way. Mineral oils leave you more vulnerable to oxidation, so while natural might sound better, you’ll want to go with synthetic when it comes to CVT transmission fluid.
- Quantity. There’s a massive difference between the amount of fluid you’ll need for a top-up and for a complete change. Most transmissions require between nine and 13 quarts, but if you’re refreshing the fluid instead of replacing it, you’ll need far less than that. Use your dipstick to ensure you are getting the correct fluid quantity for your needs.
Best CVT Transmission Fluids Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- You probably need to replace your transmission fluid if your vehicle suddenly shifts up and down, you hear grinding sounds, your vehicle shifts erratically, or you see a spike in RPMs before shifting.
- It's critical that your CVT fluid is compatible with your vehicle's make, model, and year. Check the manufacturer's specifications to ensure that it is designed for your particular vehicle.
- If you put regular automatic transmission fluid into your CVT transmission, it will be extremely damaging and will eventually cause your transmission to die.
Q: Does CVT transmission fluid need to be changed?
CVT fluid moves continually throughout your system, meaning it's exposed to heat and small-scale debris. This causes it to wear out. Because of how CVT transmissions work, the fluid wears out sooner than other models. Typical recommendations for transmission fluid changes are every 30,000 to 60,000 miles. When you have a CVT transmission, aim to change it at least every 30,000 miles.
Q: Can you put regular transmission fluid in a CVT transmission?
You shouldn’t use standard transmission fluid in your CVT system. The function of CVT transmissions is more demanding, and it will wear out ATF fluid much more quickly. If you do it by accident, it’s not the end of the world. You can use it for a while, but you’ll want to schedule some time to replace it with the right formula.
Q: Is CVT fluid the same as transmission fluid?
CVT fluid is a type of transmission fluid, meant for a continuously variable transmission system. Other names for CVT systems are single-speed, steeples, or pulley transmissions. The other type of transmission fluid is for an automatic transmission. It requires ATF fluid which may not live up to the demands of a CVT setup.
Q: How long does a CVT transmission last?
CVT transmissions are popular because they can last you upwards of 100,000 miles, provided you take care of it. Book in regular fluid changes and practice standard vehicle maintenance. As a rule, the better you treat your car, the longer it will work for you. CVT transmissions are no exception, requiring routine upkeep to keep performing well.
Q: What is the purpose of CVT fluid?
Transmission fluid lubricates the transmission so it can dissipate heat. It also protects against wear and corrosion and helps maintain viscosity and lower-temperature fluidity.
Q: Is it better to use a vehicle-make specific fluid or one that is universal?
That is a personal preference. Universal CVT fluids tend to be a good alternative to vehicle-make specific brands, and they may also be a little less expensive.
Q: How often do I need to change my CVT fluid?
That depends on your vehicle. It can be as often as every 30,000 miles to as little as every 100,000 miles. Consult your owner's manual to find out.
The Valvoline Continuously Variable Transmission Fluid is an easy choice for its smooth performance and high compatibility rating. If you’re after something on the more cost-effective end, you can try the Cam 2 Full Synthetic CVT Fluid, a small but mighty budget selection. Either way, the important thing is keeping your transmission happy so you can travel with ease.