Thanks to some big launches in late 2023—namely the Polaris RZR Pro R and Can-Am Maverick R—we’re hearing more questions about UTV transmissions than ever before.
What’s a CVT? What’s a DCT? Is a DCT or a CVT better? There’s so much to learn!
We’re not surprised at all the buzz. Transmissions are one of the most important (and the most confusing) parts of any side-by-side.
In this article, we’re diving deep into the main types of transmissions you’ll find in side-by-sides today. Read on if you’re ready to learn the pros and cons of DCT vs. CVT transmissions and decide for yourself which UTV transmission is best.
Transmissions have a big impact on cost, performance, and reliability over the short and long term. If you’re in the market for a new side-by-side—or even a used one—you need to be informed about the types of transmissions you could find in a UTV.
There are three main types of UTV transmissions: DCT, CVT, and hydrostatic. DCT is short for Dual Clutch Transmission. CVT means Continuously Variable Transmission. And hydrostatic means… hydrostatic (haha). Each type of transmission has its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s break it down.
We’ll start with DCT transmissions.
When it comes to performance, DCTs are considered a leader in the automotive industry. You’ll find them in all kinds of high-end sports cars like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Audi, and more.
In many ways, DCTs perform exactly like an automatic transmission—at least to the uninitiated. In truth, they’re more like a manual transmission. They’re actually a kind of AMT, or Automated Manual Transmission.
DCTs use an electronic gearbox with two clutches. One clutch preloads the next gear before shifting. It’s basically a super-smart computer predicting what gear you’re going to use next and loading it up. Maximum efficiency, baby!
Thanks to the dual clutches, DCTs have virtually no lag in shifting. And most DCTs feature in-cab paddle shifters to manually control gear shifting, offering maximum control and improved performance over manual transmissions. It’s sort of a “best of both” situation.
They may have a lot of strengths, but there are a few things to consider. Firstly, they’re extremely complex, leading to costly and time-consuming repairs—if you ever need them.
DCTs have a reputation for reliability, at least in the automotive industry. But if you do need a repair, it can really break the bank (if you’re driving a new Bugatti, that’s probably relative).
While they might be well-known and loved in the automotive industry, DCTs are relatively new in side-by-sides. This may seem obvious, but there’s a big difference between high-performance street cars and UTVs. DCTs are relatively unproven in side-by-sides, and many are still wary of using them.
That being said, Honda has been using DCTs in the Talon and Pioneer for several years—and even longer in their motorcycles, bikes, and quads. And the newly released Can-Am Maverick R comes equipped with a DCT as well. The percentage of total side-by-sides on the trail rocking DCTs is growing!
It’s too early to tell for the Maverick R, but most Honda fans appreciate the DCT’s sporty feel and the belt-less operation. Speaking of belts, let’s move on to the CVT.
Ah yes, the CVT, by far the most common transmission type in UTVs today. They’re also called single-speed, stepless, or shiftless transmissions.
Polaris uses CVTs in the RZR and General, and they’re found in many of the other most popular side-by-sides—the Kawasaki Teryx, Can-Am Maverick, Yamaha Wolverine, CFMOTO ZForce, and many others.
CVTs are efficient, operate smoothly, and are easy to repair—even trailside! And since they’re so common, parts, accessories, and tools are easy to find and (generally) affordable. But how do they work?
CVTs use a pulley system to move seamlessly through an endless ratio of gears while you drive. On a very basic level, a CVT is made up of a system of cones at each pulley, all connected by a belt.
One pulley is connected to the wheels and the other is connected to the engine. The cones change size in response to the power needed, increasing or decreasing the belt’s diameter to change the gear ratios. In this way, the CVT shifts without really “shifting” at all.
The result? Consistent, seamless acceleration.
However, CVTs do have some drawbacks. Firstly, they can be somewhat annoying to maintain. You need to keep the interior of the transmission case clean and free of debris, which can be challenging for off-road riders. Mud, dirt, sand, and more can infiltrate the case and destroy your belt.
And that brings us to the biggest drawback of CVTs: the dang belts! Side-by-side owners go through so many drive belts that they’re basically a consumable item for riders who like to hit it hard.
While they’re not necessarily difficult to repair, the downtime spent fixing your CVT when you’d rather be tearing up the trail, dunes, or bog can be supremely frustrating—not to mention the time needed for the break-in period on your new belt.
There is, of course, one final UTV transmission: the hydrostatic transmission.
Hydrostatic transmissions use a hydraulic pump to create a (drumroll)… CVT! They’re commonly found in tractors, forklifts, and industrial machinery. You’ll also find them in the Polaris Brutus, Kubota RTV, and Bobcat UTV—the true workhorses of the UTV world.
Hydrostatic transmissions are extraordinarily efficient. Their internal hydraulics work thanks to Pascal’s law, which states that “pressure exerted at any point on a confined fluid is transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid in all directions.” That means a hydrostatic transmission gives you consistent, even force and controlled motion.
You won’t find a hydrostatic transmission in performance or recreation machines because they’re prone to wheel slippage, especially on slick terrain. They’re all about control and consistency, not explosive speed and performance—perfect for construction and agriculture, but underprepared for harsh trail conditions.
However, they are extremely durable and basically last forever if cared for properly—which is good because repairs can be extraordinarily costly.
So, what UTV transmission is best? You have to decide. It depends on what you want from your side-by-side. Speed, performance, ride quality, reliability, consistency, maneuverability, repairability—these are all important considerations, and you’re the only person who knows the right answer.
And, of course, if the Can-Am Maverick R performs and sells well, we’re likely to see more Can-Am side-by-sides featuring DCTs.
But that doesn’t mean CVTs will go away—with the CVT-driven Polaris RZR Pro R’s recent domination at the 2024 King of the Hammers, we doubt Polaris will abandon the CVT anytime soon.
If you want to learn more about how the Polaris RZR Pro R (CVT) and Can-Am Maverick R (DCT) stack up, we’ve covered that too.