More than two years later than initially planned, the transmission manufacturing facility owned jointly by Ford Motor Co. and ZF Friedrichshafen AG in Batavia, OH, is supplying its first continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Production at Batavia currently is ramping up for the CFT 23 CVT, which will be shipped from Batavia to Ford's Focus plant in Saarlouis, Germany, for use in the '04 C-Max, a bulked-up 5-door peoplemover now hitting the European market.

Sometime next year, Batavia will ship a larger CVT, the CFT 30, for Ford's first installation in American-made vehicles: the upcoming Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle cross/utility. Freestyle's competitor, the Nissan Murano, already comes standard with a CVT.

The production news follows years of delay. Ford sold ZF a 51% share of the Batavia transmission plant in 1998 with the agreement the two companies jointly would develop, produce and distribute CVTs. Ford remains a partner with 49% of the joint venture.

Ford and ZF have denied any manufacturing or quality glitches as Batavia has tooled up for CVT production over the last four years. But Batavia was supposed to ship its first CVT by 2001.

“A product which isn't ready cannot be sold,” a ZF insider tells Ward's. The supplier specializes in transmissions and drivelines.

At last month's Frankfurt Motor Show, a top ZF executive insists the CVT launch at Batavia is on time. “It's a completely new production facility in the Batavia plant,” says Michael Paul, ZF's executive vice president-passenger car transmissions.

“We have the latest technology with all the quality-assurance technologies which are available today, with a lot of training of the employees,” he adds. “This is going very well.”

Still, Ford and ZF have scaled back significantly their initial projection that Batavia would produce 1 million CVTs by 2005. If the transmission does well, Batavia in the future could be dedicated solely to CVT production, phasing out the 4-speed automatics currently produced at the plant for Ford and Mazda Motor Corp. vehicles.

CVTs convey engine power to the drive axles through belts or chains that ride between cone-shaped discs. A conventional automatic transmission changes among its four or five fixed gears with predetermined ratios.

A CVT doesn't have gears or a clutch. Instead, intelligent electronic controls, typically working in tandem with a torque converter, choose from an infinite number of gear ratios within a given ratio “spread,” which usually also is broader than the ratio spread available in conventional automatic transmissions. The CVT's absence of fixed gear ratios allows it to keep the engine operating at its optimum power/torque ranges in relation to the driver's load demand.

The driver never senses the shifting of gears. For driving enthusiasts who need more interaction with the powertrain, a sequential shifting mode is available with the CVT that will be mated to Focus C-Max's 1.6L common-rail turbodiesel engine.

ZF maintains acceleration is faster and considerably smoother with a CVT than with a conventional 4- or 5-speed fixed-gear-set automatic transmission. The other primary benefits of a CVT: better fuel efficiency and reduced noise and emissions. CVTs and conventional automatic transmissions, Paul says, generally weigh and cost about the same.

Paul says fuel economy with a CVT is about the same as a manual transmission and runs 8% to 9% better than a 4-speed automatic and 4% to 5% better than a 5-speed automatic.

The difference between the CFT 23 and CFT 30 is size. The first can be mated with diesel engines not larger than 1.6L in displacement and gasoline engines not larger than 2.3L. Maximum torque for the CFT 23 is 169 lb.-ft. (230 Nm), according to Paul.

The maximum torque for the CFT 30, which can accommodate up to a 3L engine, is 221 lb.-ft. (300 Nm).

Paul declines to say how many CFT 23 and CFT 30 units will come out of Batavia in the first two years of production. He says, however, that about 15% of new cars in Europe are equipped with automatics, a percentage that is dwarfed in North America.

CVT technology, for the time being, is limited to torque ranges below 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm), ruling them out for many of today's luxury vehicles with larger engines. However, ZF is working on concepts that would handle higher-torque engines, Paul says.

The arrival of CVTs makes for an interesting convergence of new transmission technologies that are fighting for survival in a crowded automotive arena.

Among them: 6-speed conventional automatic transmissions, automatics with sophisticated manual controls and single- and dual-clutch automated manual transmissions. ZF also discusses the concept of a 7-speed automatic at the Frankfurt show.

“We will see all these concepts in parallel,” Paul says. “Finally, the end customer has to decide which concept does he like most.”