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CVT

DIAGNOSTICS
BY WAYNE COLONNA

DaVinci sketched the first CVT more than


500 years ago, but CVT-equipped vehicles
remained a relative rarity until the
mid-1990s. Your CVT diagnostic
success will be ensured by an
understanding of their
unique operating
strategies.

50

June 2007

Photoillustration: Harold A. Perry;


Photos: Jupiter Images & Wieck Media

he positive effect continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) have on


engines is what makes them such a
favorite with a number of automobile
manufacturers. They also make a
perfect companion to hybrid vehicles. But, like any transmission, CVTs do break down
occasionally, and diagnosing some of the problems
that crop up is not always a piece of cake. This article
is designed to help you get those CVT vehicles that
do end up in your service bays back on the road.
The idea behind a CVT is to optimize engine
torque and to have greater control over engine rpm
along with fuel economy. Its the same reason were
beginning to see more and more six-, seven- and

eight-speed transmissions, especially behind larger


engines: With an increase in the number of ratios
from a low gear to Overdrive, engine rpm need not
run as high before the next shift occurs. This simulates the seamless ratios of a CVT.
Compare, for example, the vehicle speed to engine rpm of a 2006 Nissan Altima 3.5L using an
RE4F04A four-speed automatic transmission to a
2006 Nissan Murano 3.5L using a CVT during a
full-throttle upshift (Figs. 1 and 2 on page 54). Notice how engine rpm with the CVT is more linear
than that of the engine pushing the four-speed
transmission. This has a significant effect on the
volumetric efficiency (VE) of the engine, as you
can see comparing the graphs in Figs. 3 and 4.
June 2007

51

1
Even though most CVTs use drive
and driven pulleys with a push belt
(photo 1 above) to provide seamless
ratio changes, they each have their
own unique ways about them. Its
identifying these differences that becomes an essential element in the diagnostic process.
One significant difference to be
aware of is whether or not a CVT that
shows up at your shop uses a torque
converter. This determines the strategy used when the vehicle is placed into gear as well as when it comes to a
stop while in gear. In most cases,
when a conventional torque converter
is used, a CVT will remain in gear in a
similar fashion to a conventional automatic transmission. The Nissan Murano RE0F09A (photo 2), Saturn VUE
VT25E, Ford Five Hundred CFT30
and Dodge Caliber CVT2 CVTs are
just a few examples of this combina-

Photos and screen captures: Wayne Colonna

CVT DIAGNOSTICS

tion of a CVT and a torque converter.


These converters also have a clutch
that supplies engine torque directly to
the transmission when the clutch is applied. Unique strategies are utilized to
safeguard against damage to the belt
and pulleys should the converter clutch
get stuck on due to a faulty solenoid,
stuck valve, leaking sealing rings or a
defective converter. In one such strategy, the computer compares engine
speed to the primary pulley shaft (turbine/input) speed after a start-up in
Park. If theyre exactly the same or
within a specific parameter, the computer will determine that the converter
clutch is stuck on and will prevent a
Reverse or Drive engagement as a safeguard for the belt and pulleys.
Another strategy allows for the converter clutch to be applied early in the
ratio up-change. If the converter
clutch experiences a chatter problem,
Secondary
Secondary
Driven
Driven Gear
Gear
On
On the
the Final
Final
Driveshaft
Driveshaft

the vibration could be misinterpreted


as a belt-to-pulley problem. If the
chatter is very slight, it could also be
misinterpreted as an engine miss. The
cause for this vibration could be something as simple as deteriorated or incorrect fluid usage. This could be difficult to diagnose without the proper
test equipment. Test equipment will
allow you to graph engine speed as
well as the drive and driven pulley
shaft speeds during the time of the
chatter, and comparing these signals
would allow for greater diagnostic accuracy. If the converter clutch was the
cause of the chatter problem, it could
be seen with the rpm irregularities between engine speed and drive pulley
speed. If rpm irregularities are seen
between the pulley speeds, theres a
belt issue. If irregularities are not seen
between engine speed and drive pulley or between the pulleys, an engine
Start
Start Clutch
Clutch
Drum
Drum Splines
Splines
Onto
Onto the
the End
End
Of
Of the
the Driven
Driven
Pulley
Pulley Shaft
Shaft

High-Efficiency
High-Efficiency
Pump
Pump
Chain-Driven
Chain-Driven
By
By the
the
Input
Input Shaft
Shaft

52

June 2007

CVT DIAGNOSTICS

RPM

RPM

VSS

VSS

Fig. 1: 2006 Altima with 4-Speed Automatic Transmission

miss should be considered as the cause.


CVTs without a torque converter are
typically driven through a dual mass
flywheel or a torsional damper plate
that connects the crankshaft to the input shaft. The BMW Mini Cooper
VT1F, the Audi A6/8 01J and Honda
Civic (photo 3) CVTs are examples of
this design. To prevent a stalling condition when the transmission is placed in
gear or when it comes to a stop in gear,
a clutch inside the transmission must
release. The VT1F and 01J CVTs release the forward or reverse clutch,
while the Honda Civic CVT releases a
start clutch in both Drive and Reverse.
These clutches are pulsed on and off
very frequently and are susceptible to
failure. This can cause a variety of
complaints, such as chatter on takeoff,
sudden slipping or neutralizing conditions, unusual idle fluctuations or a loss
of hill-hold function.

Audi offers an update package that


increases the forward clutch from six
frictions to a seven-friction stack-up
(photo 4), but it must be accompanied
by a computer reflash that changes
pressure and apply strategies. If the
reflash is not performed, the updated
clutch pack will be damaged in fairly
short order.
Honda also offers a replacement
start clutch drum (photo 5). In fact,
theres a specific TSB (02-003) for
1996-98 Honda Civic HX models for a
complaint of shudder, judder, surging,
shock, noise or idle fluctuation. The
bulletin calls for replacement of the
TCM and start clutch as a set. TSB 02084 describes the fix for similar symptoms on later Honda models.
Relearn procedures are very important on CVTs that substitute a clutch
inside the transmission for a torque
converter. If relearn procedures are

June 2007

not performed after any repairs, driveability problems and transmission failures will absolutely occur. Be aware
that these procedures exist and that
they must be performed.
Audi not only has a clutch relearn
procedure, but also a special procedure for changing the fluid. All four
wheels must be off the ground a minimum of 8 in., and each wheel must be
able to be rotated freely by hand.
While observing the Tiptronic indicator, step-shift the CVT from its lowest
ratio to its highest (six or seven
speeds), accelerating moderately after
each shift but never exceeding 35 mph.
Shift the transmission back down to 1st
gear and gently apply the brake until
the wheels come to a stop. Once the
wheels are stopped, place the transmission in Reverse, release the brake
and moderately depress the accelerator to a Reverse gear speed of 12 mph.

RPM

RPM

VSS

VSS

VE

VE

MAF

MAF

TP

TP

TAF

TAF

Fig. 3: 2006 Altima with 4-Speed Automatic Transmission

54

Fig. 2: 2006 Murano with CVT

Fig. 4: 2006 Murano with CVT

CVT DIAGNOSTICS
Start
Clutch
Drum

Once again, gently apply the brakes


until the wheels come to a stop. Return the selector lever to Drive and repeat these steps five more times.
When completed, place the selector
lever in Park and turn the engine off.
Now you can change the transmission
fluid. When youre done, repeat these
procedures before placing the vehicle
on the ground and doing a road test.
Understanding the internal differ-

ences among CVTs will aid diagnosis.


As previously stated, the Honda CVT
uses a start clutch in place of a torque
converter. The start clutch is located between the output secondary pulley and
the differential (photo 6). This means
that the forward clutch and the reverse
clutch are not pulsed on and off. When
they apply, they stay applied. The start
clutch is the clutch thats pulsed on and
off, disconnecting the torque flow to the

PH/PL
PH/PL Solenoid
Solenoid

Start
Start Clutch
Clutch
Control
Control Solenoid
Solenoid

Reverse
Reverse Inhibitor
Inhibitor
Solenoid
Solenoid
Wires
Wires Are
Are Cross
Cross Connected
Connected

Shift
Shift
Control
Solenoid
Shift Control
Control Solenoid
Solenoid
Reverse
Reverse Inhibitor
Inhibitor
Solenoid
Solenoid

Driven
Driven
Pulley
Pulley
Control
Control
Solenoid
Solenoid

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June 2007

Start
Start Clutch
Clutch
Control
Control Solenoid
Solenoid

Correct
Correct
Connection
Connection
Drive
Drive Pulley
Pulley Control
Control Solenoid
Solenoid

CVT DIAGNOSTICS
differential and rendering the transmission in a neutral state. This means that
when the clutch fails, it affects both forward and reverse operation.
Compare this to the Audi 01J unit.
The Audi transmission pulses the forward and reverse clutches on and off.
If the forward clutch fails, it affects
forward only, and reverse operation
remains good. Its worth mentioning
at this time that the TCM is inside
the transmission on the Audi CVT
(photo 7), so should you diagnose a
faulty TCM, youre not going to find

it under the hood, seat or dashboard.


Honda Civic CVTs have been on the
road since 1996, and have been showing up more frequently in shops to
have the start clutch replaced. After the
job is completed, stalling when the
transmission is placed in gear may occur. This is usually caused by cross-connecting the internal wiring harness for
the start clutch solenoid and the shift
control solenoid (photos 8 and 9).
From these examples, its obvious
that there are finer points in diagnosing specific model CVTs. A good start

Circle #26

58

June 2007

is to know which use a torque converter and which do not, and that relearn
procedures are imperative.
I believe well be seeing greater use
of continuously variable transmissions
on more and more vehicle models. The
challenge will be to stay informed about
their individual unique strategies. If we
do that, our chances for successful CVT
diagnosis will be enhanced.
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a free copy of this article.