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