Finally, A CVT That Doesn't Suck



Continuously variable transmissions have been the bane of our enthusiast existence since... well... forever. An endless, droning tone coupled with the dreaded "rubber band" effect has relegated the gearboxes to rolling appliances and miserable fuel misers – save for one particular sedan.

It's not just an improvement, this is the best driving CVT yet.

When Nissan debuted the new Maxima and revived the "Four-Door Sports Car" name, we wanted to love it. Then we saw one glaring omission on the spec sheet: a manual gearbox. Nissan wouldn't offer the Maxima with a stick, and to add insult to injury, the reborn 4DSC would only be available with a CVT. That bitter taste in the back of our throats – disappointment.

But then we drove it. And it wasn't THAT bad. The six faux ratios were a bit of a joke, but they worked, and everything from the seating position to the chassis tuning were better than nearly anything in the segment.

Last week I had the chance to sample the Maxima again, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Thirty hours after dropping off the Maxima at the airport I was behind the wheel of an Altima prototype with the automaker's all-new CVT. Nissan claims it boosts fuel economy another 10 percent while offering a dramatically refined driving experience. I can't speak to the new tranny's decreased fuel consumption, but I can say this: It's not just an improvement, this is the best driving CVT yet.
Now calling something "the best CVT" is like saying herpes is the best VD. Faint praise, for sure. But hear me out.

Nissan developed a thinner pulley axle and a new aluminum belt that's meticulously machined and stronger than the outgoing version, reducing flex. That, coupled with a more compact oil pump, means less pressure between the pulleys and belt, making for a more stout setup. All in, the gear ratio range is an impressive 7.0 for engines displacing anything above two liters, and when equipped with Nissan's Adaptive Shift Control, engineers can program more than 1,000 different shift patterns to span the spectrum from city driving to sport. One engineer told us that the new CVT will continue to incorporate the faux ratios of previous vehicles, but at launch, this gearbox is likely to sport eight and, "if the market demands it, we could even do 10." No, we have no idea why you'd want that, but when it comes to the average car buyer, sometimes it's all about the specs.



Fitted to an Altima and taking a few runs around Nissan's GranDrive test track in Oppama, Japan, the CVT's mannerisms were far closer – actually, nearly indiscernible – from a traditional torque-converter automatic. Laying into the throttle on the front straight, the revs climb smoothly all the way to 6,000 rpm before pausing slightly and running near the redline some 400 rpm later.

There were no fake ratios to run through, as this particular prototype wasn't fitted with a sport shift gear stalk or paddle shifters, but they weren't particularly missed. The only time I would've enjoyed some manual control was going through a right-left-right-left combination with an elevation change, but even then, the transmission held the revs consistently with steady-state throttle, responding quickly and predictably when easing on or off the gas. The programming is smooth and precise, and that awful aural sensation is gone as well.



Nissan took care to reduce the amount of noise, vibration and harshness entering the cabin, and their efforts are particularly noticeable when cruising at a low RPM. Whereas before, the engine would spin at 1,400 RPM and sound like a Dyson was mounted on the other side of the footwell, the new gearbox spins the engine just below 1,000 rpm and there's barely any noise intrusion. I'm talking hybrid-like quiet.

Combine all this refinement with the fact that CVTs are finally on par with the cost of a traditional six-speed automatic, and Nissan won't have a problem bringing even more CVTs to market beyond the 1.7 million it sold in 2010. And if what I drove in Japan makes it unscathed to production, CVT might not be the world's worst acronym anymore.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 58 Comments
      Tagbert
      • 3 Years Ago
      "if the market demands it, we could even do 10." I'd like it better if it went to 11
      Sarah Connor
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have a 2009 Maxima with the CVT. Here's my take on the CVT: There are two drive modes in the Max: D (Drive) and Ds (Sport). The first one has no shifts. Sport mode has pretend-shifts. As shipped from the factory, D mode had an aggressive MPG bias that made the engine reluctant to rev. The Max's transmission program is also extremely sensitive to the speed at which you press the throttle. The result was that if you slowly rolled onto the gas in Drive, you could have the pedal nearly to the floor and the engine would still be under 3000 RPM. There's a TSB to address this that moves D mode closer to Sport, which has no qualms about jumping to near-redline at part throttle. Sport mode itself is useless because the faux shifts slow the car down. You can always go faster by just flooring the pedal in Drive. There are three quirks with the CVT in this car: 1. At 1300 RPM or so, the CVT makes the interior resonate. Anything prone to rattling (sunglasses, whatever) will if it's not battoned down. The TSB above mitigates this somewhat. 2. There's a torque-limiter on the CVT until 40 MPH. You can't spin the tires on the Max unless it's wet and the TCS is off. If you floor it from a stop, it accelerates quickly from 0 to 40 MPH, and then flies from 40 to 80. C&D has it quicker than the G37 in highway passing. I tested that car before I bought the Max. My experience matches C&D's. 3. From roughly 90 MPH on, acceleration drops dramatically. This is an artifact of the CVT. I don't know why, if it's programming or outright inefficiency, but you lose much more than the power rating of the car would indicate. In real-world travel, it doesn't matter, but this is definitely not a transmission for people who want to track the car. All that said, this current-gen CVT is immensely satisfying in day to day driving. It's definitely sporty enough for the road and the closest you'll get to having a thrust pedal. Conventional automatics feel very old-fashioned in comparison.
        Robdaemon
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Sarah Connor
        I have a 2008 Maxima with the CVT. I have to disagree on one point - that car can spin the tires pretty easily. Now, I do totally agree with the point that it's acceleration is much more rapid above 40 mph, but, from a stop, it has more than enough torque to spin the tires.
        Lars
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Sarah Connor
        Great comment. I happen to favor Nissans (and Hondas; and cars), and this is just the real-world field report we can use. A question. In sport (Ds) mode, why did they choose to mimic the shifts of a multiple-gear box? What I mean is, why not just change the shift program to hold higher revolutions longer? It's not like the driver doesn't know it's a CVT. Is it only Nissan (/Renault) who does this? "...if you slowly rolled onto the gas in Drive, you could have the pedal nearly to the floor and the engine would still be under 3000 RPM." Now that's interesting. "At 1300 RPM or so, the CVT makes the interior resonate. Anything prone to rattling (sunglasses, whatever) will if it's not battoned down. The TSB above mitigates this somewhat." Hmm. I think that's something I could live with in a Versa(-class) or Sentra(-class car). It seems a little out of place in the classes of Altima, Maxima, or certainly any Infiniti. "From roughly 90 MPH on, acceleration drops dramatically. This is an artifact of the CVT." Another physical/technical compromise which I could totally accommodate, especially in a Sentra or Versa. Sort of explains why carmakers generally put this technology in cars which prioritize daily driving. "All that said, this current-gen CVT is immensely satisfying in day to day driving. It's definitely sporty enough for the road and the closest you'll get to having a thrust pedal. Conventional automatics feel very old-fashioned in comparison." Super useful feedback. Thanks again. Can't wait to see all the new tin at this winter's Washington DC auto show.
          Sarah Connor
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Lars
          > why not just change the shift program to hold higher revolutions longer? The Maxima has a sporting heritage. Spoting enthusiasts like manuals, manuals have gears. Ergo, enthusiasts prefer a CVT with gears. Or so Nissan logic would seem to flow. The fastest standing-start acceleration (minus .1 or .2 seconds) involves Ds for the initial rev pop, with a switch back to Drive as soon as the tach crests 5K. Obviously it'd be vastly more efficient not to have to do this. > Now that's interesting. My comment was unclear, the 'speed' I'm talking about is quickly you press the pedal. It's probably the single largest factor in how the transmission chooses a profile. Pedal position is a distant second-- I've seen 5500 RPM at 1/3 throttle and 2500 RPM at 2/3. Particularly with the original non-TSB programming, you have to be aggressive to get the car to move. > It seems a little out of place in the classes of Altima, Maxima, or certainly any Infiniti. The resonance is such a low frequency that there's little noise associated with it, just a pressure and a rumble, and then only below 20 MPH. But I agree, this is not befitting a car with the Max's price. I still love the transmission overall, particularly after the TSB. The original plan was to buy a G, but that car's 7-speed proved so indecisive (and noticeably slower on the highway, though I was driving a car with ten miles on the clock), I couldn't deal with it.
      pkchari
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, the *theoretical* limits of CVTs and IVTs are provably superior to that of manuals, but that is a different thing from saying that the practical advantage is clearly apparent. The twin-cone variator that is pretty much the standard design for CVTs has some strengths, all right -- particularly in regards to the fact that it can achieve a very wide range of gear ratios in a relatively small package... but it is weak to mechanical stresses, which is why it is not so easy to achieve the same thing on drivetrains which offer particularly high torque. It's only recently with current advances in material and belt design that we're even able to hook these things up to mainstream family sedan-level V6 engines. The toroidal CVT design that Nissan and Subaru have also used in the past is more than capable of handling very high torque loads and is mechanically a more robust design, but does not have the advantage of being able to produce a wide range of gear ratios. Anderson-style parallel cone designs can theoretically give you both advantages, but their biggest weakness is that they are prone to produce a lot of heat and make a lot of noise ... granted, you can forgo the floating sprocket bars, but that makes it less feasible for compact packaging (you can't ever use it for FF layouts, which is fine with me, of course), and you will probably need some sort of belt tensioner to ensure solid delivery of power (else you will get a lot of slippage and lose the torque-multiplying effect). Of course, there are certain things that simply have to go away entirely if you're going to achieve some of those limits -- main one is the torque converter. It just plain has to go. The very fact that Nissan speaks of rapid and early lockup in their new torque converter only shows that they are ultimately seeking to make the torque converter behave a little bit more like a clutch... For crying out loud, just put an actual clutch in there! Even if it's an electronically-actuated one (like the Smart has) it's fine. You've got this ballast that just adds weight and drivetrain drag to the system. Also, while I accept that this is a permanent pipe dream -- why is it so difficult to just have a manual CVT? I don't mean a CVT with series of fake ratios... I mean, just let the driver slide continuously through the achievable range of ratios to pick whatever he wants. Anderson and Torotrak do it in their prototypes. That's a CVT I wouldn't particularly mind.
      barkeep
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, this is a learning process for Nissan. CVTs may not be loved by most, but at the very least, Nissan is improving on this to make the idea of the CVT a lot better. AB is right to say that the engine does sound like a Dyson running behind the other end of the foot well at 1400 RPM. The QR powered 4 cylinder Altima sounds a bit more worse than it's VQ counterpart around that RPM range. :/
      peakarach1
      • 3 Years Ago
      Good job Nissan!
      Brandon
      • 3 Years Ago
      New and improved is fine and dandy, but when will we actually see it in a car?
      Sukairain
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well tell me a sporty version of this new CVT is going into the Infiniti JX35. Sounds like there is still some hope for a decent family mover.
      김형준
      • 3 Years Ago
      Great!!but..
      over9000
      • 3 Years Ago
      meh, it's a CVT. Give us a 6 speed manual or GTFO.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @over9000
        [blocked]
          throwback
          • 3 Years Ago
          Sad but true. I read somewhere that automatics will soon be outselling manuals in Europe also.
          Lars
          • 3 Years Ago
          throwback- +1. And we've all heard the news that Audi will offer only automatics on their European market A4 and S4, or such.
          Lars
          • 3 Years Ago
          Nicely said, Sea Urchin. So true.
      • 3 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        jgabs69
        • 3 Years Ago
        very true. No real sports car would use a soulless CVT. They need to bring back a 6MT option. And lastly ditch the CVT for a conventional AT. The RWD is a good idea although that would overlap with the Infiniti G37 sedan.
        Greg
        • 3 Years Ago
        I would say that the Infiniti G37 Sedan is the real '(4DSC) 4 Door Sports Car'. Rear wheel drive/All wheel drive, 7 speed automatic or 6 speed manual. The G37 is the closest Nissan vehicle to be considered the '4 Door Sports Car.'
      • 3 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      John Howington
      • 3 Years Ago
      glad to see another good CVT transmission out there. I jumped in with a Subaru Outback CVT and it also is excellent.
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