UTV Transmission Guide: CVT vs DCT vs Manual

The popularity of UTVs has increased exponentially over the last decade and the market has seen a corresponding increase in offerings from the manufacturers. You have pure-sport UTVs, recreational/trail UTVs, and a number of utility machines.

There are even a few youth side-by-sides out there. There are different trim levels and engine options and quite a few special edition models. Transmissions, though, have been mostly limited to CVT designs.

There’s nothing wrong with a good, reliable CVT style transmission, but some people simply want other options. Recently, there have been some new additions in the transmission category, with Honda and Yamaha investing more in the side-by-side market. Yamaha’s manual clutch sequential shift transmission and Honda’s DCT transmission has given potential owners more to think about.

Each transmission has pros and cons and there are devout fans of each. Personal preference will play a role in which transmission suits you best, but riding style and terrain may also be factor. Keep reading for a guide detailing the various UTV transmission types and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

The Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT, is easily the most popular and most common type of transmission in the UTV world. This automatic transmission has a relatively simple design and does a great job of maintaining the correct gear ratio for optimal performance. Yamaha, Polaris, Can-Am, Kawasaki, Arctic Cat and most of the smaller manufacturers use CVT style transmissions extensively.

The CVT works through two pulleys. One is the primary, or drive, pulley and the other is the secondary, or driven, pulley. Each pulley has sheaves, with the primary pulley having the outer sheave move in and out. Since the sheave is tapered, as it moves inward, it forces the belt higher in the primary, which results in higher belt speeds.

The secondary pulley also has moveable sheaves, but there’s a spring to keep them pushed together. As the belt rises in the primary, it also forces the sheaves apart in the secondary. This effectively increases the speed of the secondary pulley, which increases the speed of the vehicle. All of this is the result of centrifugal force acting on weights mounted in the primary pulley.

As the primary spins, those weights are forced outward, acting as a wedge that pushes the moveable sheave inward. That inward force puts pressure on the belt to maintain enough friction to prevent the belt from simply slipping between the sheaves. This is most likely an oversimplification of a complex piece of hardware, but hopefully, you get the general idea.

Manufacturers are constantly working to improve these transmissions, so there are differences between the various UTVs out there, but the overall design philosophy has remained the same. 20 years ago, CVTs were known to break drive belts on a regular basis and there was always that annoying lag in throttle response as the primary spooled up to engage the belt.

The lag in belt engagement has been mostly eliminated and they certainly don’t break belts as often as they used to. That’s saying something, considering we are in a world where you can buy a turbo-charged UTV with nearly 200hp. They do still break belts on occasion, but with proper maintenance and correct use of high and low range, it’s not a huge concern. In fact, Yamaha is so confident in their CVTs and drive belts that they are advertising a 10 year warranty on the belts.

Still, the possibility of a broken belt is the primary insult hurled regularly against CVTs. If the belt breaks and you don’t have a back up, you’re stranded. If you put too much strain on the vehicle, you can smoke the belt, which will result in the belt slipping more than it should. That requires not only a new belt, but you also have to deglaze the sheaves or you’ll have the same problem with a brand new belt.

See our guide on getting the most out of your CVT belt.

There is also the risk of getting water in the transmission. If the belt gets wet, it will start slipping and you’ll be going nowhere fast. Most of this, though, can be easily avoided.

With proper care, a CVT will be reliable and it will keep your machine at the optimal engine RPM. Replacing belts are pretty easy these days and the simple design means that if something breaks, it won’t cost and arm and a leg to fix it. That simple design, coupled with remarkable performance, is the reason that this is the most common UTV transmission on the market.

Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT)

If the CVT was the simplest UTV transmission, the Dual Clutch Transmission, or DCT, may very well be the most complex. Honda was never shy about its aversion to CVT style transmissions in ATVs and that didn’t change when they started introducing new side-by-sides. Honda decided to draw upon its experience in the automotive industry and with its motorcycle division to develop a DCT transmission for its ATVs and UTVs.

The Dual Clutch Transmission works by having two separate clutches control even and odd number gears. One clutch operates the even number gears, while the other clutch operates the odd number gears. By utilizing two separate clutches, one can be engaging while the other is disengaging, resulting in quick, crisp shifts between gears.

Since this transmission is essentially a manual transmission that shifts itself, there are some advantages over the more common CVT style transmission. One notable advantage is that it gives the UTV owner the ability to shift gears on their own if they desire.

Honda utilizes paddle shifters for this feature and it’s something that will really appeal to riders who have always owned manual transmission ATVs or dirt bikes. There are physical gears and clutches, so there’s no chance of a belt slipping or breaking during a ride. There’s also no chance that you’ll have any sort of delay or lag while the belt engages. The DCT transmission is a sealed entity, so it is protected from water intrusion that can be a problem for CVT transmissions.

The DCT transmission is a great alternative to a typical CVT setup, but it’s not without its own faults. Being a sealed unit is great at keeping things out, but if something goes wrong, it’s also going to do a pretty good job of keeping you out as well.

Using two clutches means there’s always the chance that you could burn up a clutch during a ride. This was a problem with some of the early model Pioneer 1000s. Unlike a belt breaking in a CVT style transmission, there’s no easy fix out on the trail for a burnt clutch. The fact that the transmission has physical gears means that the UTVs ECU has to decide which gear you should be in.

Honda does a great job at programming the shift parameters, but there are still times when you may find that you’re in the wrong gear or it shifts up or down at an inopportune time. Many people compensate by using the manual feature, but not everyone is going to want to do that.

There are a lot of advantages to the DCT, but it’s not something that everyone will like. Some people swear by it and they have been very reliable, as you might expect from Honda. Others may not like the feeling of the transmission shifting gears, especially if they’re accustomed to CVTs. In the end, it’s a great alternative to the CVT style transmissions that dominate the market.

Fully Manual Transmission

Yamaha has been using CVT style transmissions for quite some time. In fact, they were one of the pioneers of this technology. They have one of the best CVT transmissions on the market and they’ve continued to improve those each year. When it came time to dive into the pure-sport UTV market, however, they decided to take a different route. The Yamaha YXZ 1000R became the first UTV with a manual clutch, 5 speed manual transmission.

This fully manual transmission uses a foot clutch, just like what you would find in a sports car. The 5 speed gear box is sequential shift, meaning the driver can shift to the next gear or to the previous gear, but they can’t skip gears. The sequential shift design allows for faster shifting and prevents the driver from accidentally shifting to the wrong gear.

It can be limiting in that sense, but it provides a fun and sporty feel to the UTV. For those that want a manual transmission with a manual clutch, this is the only option available in the sport segment. Like the DCT unit, the manual transmission is sealed and protected from the elements. Also like the DCT, this makes it more difficult to repair or modify, if needed.

The Mahindra Roxor also uses a 5 speed manual transmission with a foot clutch. It’s not a sequential shift transmission, like the Yamaha, but more of a traditional automotive style manual. The Roxor, though technically a UTV, is very similar to an older Jeep and even uses a small turbo diesel engine. So, fast shifting is not a priority here.

A fully manual transmission with a manual clutch is not for everyone. There are people that simply have never driven a manual transmission and others that don’t want to have to deal with a clutch. Some may have physical limitations, such as a bad knee or ankle, that would limit their ability to drive a manual clutch vehicle. Yamaha realized there were many that wanted a manual transmission, but not necessarily the manual clutch.

Yamaha decided to release their Sport Shift model of the YXZ for those that didn’t want the manual clutch. The Sport Shift version of the YXZ users a computer controlled hydraulic clutch that allows drivers to bang through the gears with no need to worry about using a clutch.

They incorporated paddle shifters on the steering column for shifting duties. It has all of the benefits of the fully manual transmission, but can be driven by anyone and makes it much easier to navigate slow, rough, technical trails. These are all reliable transmissions, but deciding on a manual transmission comes down to personal preference and intended use. 

Other Options

While the above transmissions are the most common on the market, there are a few other options as well. Honda’s Pioneer 700 UTVs use an automotive style 3 speed automatic transmission with a hydraulic torque converter. It’s a proven design, but with only 3 speeds, it can sometimes have trouble selecting the appropriate gear. This will likely be replaced with a DCT style transmission when Honda decides to update this model, as they seem to be going all-in on the DCT.

The Polaris Brutus and Kubota UTVs use hydrostatic transmissions. These are meant for work applications and more closely resemble what you mind find in a small tractor than the more common UTV transmissions. These are only going to appeal to those are doing serious work and have no desire to use the machine for recreation.

To Shift or Not to Shift?

Personal preference will play a large part in which transmission type will best suit you. Some people want the added control that a manual shift, manual clutch transmission provides, while others may prefer to have the option to shift when they want to and let the transmission take care of shifting duties the rest of the time.

Others will prefer the CVT style that always keeps you in the right gear ratio for optimal power. No matter your preference, all are equally capable and relatively reliable.

Driving skill may also be a factor. New drivers would be better served with automatic and either DCT or CVT style transmissions would be a great option. Loyalty to a particular brand can also be a deciding factor.

It’s really great to see manufacturers offering such a variety of options, even with something like a transmission. No matter which transmission type you choose or what you already have, the important thing is getting outdoors and enjoying the sport.