August 9, 2022

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Comparing Nissan Transmissions: CVT vs Automatic

If you’re buying a new vehicle today, it’s probably got one of these two types of automatic transmission

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Automatic transmissions typically come in two forms. The first is the conventional automatic transmission, known as the ‘automatic’. The second is the Continuously Variable Transmission, dubbed the CVT.

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With either, drivers simply select ‘DRIVE’ from the gear selector and set off, operating the vehicle with two pedals and no second thought. The automatic and the CVT are two of the most popular types of transmission on the road today, and the vast majority of your new vehicle choices come with one or the other.

But what are the key similarities and differences between an automatic and CVT? How do they work? What do you need to know when it comes to deciding between the two?

Let’s take a closer look, using a few Nissan SUVs I’ve spent a few thousand kilometres testing.

2021 Nissan Rogue SV AWD
2021 Nissan Rogue SV AWD Photo by Justin Pritchard

The 2022 Nissan Rogue has a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) which aims to improve efficiency and smoothness by allowing its engine to work in the most optimal range for any given situation at any given moment. Where an automatic transmission has a fixed number of gears, a CVT does not. That’s why you’ll usually see a number associated with an automatic transmission (6-speed or 9-speed for instance), but not with a CVT. 

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Apply light throttle, and the CVT allows the engine to rev up slightly, keep its revs low and steady, and glide the vehicle up to speed without much change to the engine RPM. In the sort of light-footed, gentle driving that most drivers do most of the time, a CVT allows the engine to spend more time at low and virtually steady revs, to the benefit of smoothness, refinement and noise levels. With no gears to shift, the driveline is smoother, quieter, and more fuel efficient, more of the time.

Press harder into the throttle, and most CVTs do a little trick. Here, the Rogue’s CVT simulates the sensation of kicking down into a lower gear that drivers of automatic transmissions are familiar with. The CVT doesn’t need to do this, but in the rare moments where you’re applying heavy throttle, this built-in ability to execute ‘pretend’ gearshifts helps ensure the driver gets the experience they’re expecting.

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Mostly though, it’s just smooth and steady from the engine room.

Key in all of this low, steady engine revving? The CVT’s design.

To understand it, let’s compare it to the nine-speed automatic in the new Pathfinder. U nlike the Rogue’s CVT, the Pathfinder’s automatic has 9 set gears, which you can think of as 9 individual steps on a staircase. That’s nine individual, set-in-stone locations between upstairs and downstairs. Every time an automatic transmission shifts gears, it’s taking a step up or down that staircase. On the staircase, you can only move in complete steps, nothing smaller.

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If the  automatic transmission in a vehicle like the Pathfinder is like a staircase with 9 steps, the CVT transmission in a machine like the Rogue is more like a ramp. Instead of moving along a staircase with individual large steps, the ramp’s curved shape means you can move much more smoothly, unconstrained by the stepped shape. On the ramp, options are virtually limitless. You can take tiny little steps, great big ones, or even just smoothly shuffle your feet if you’re trying to be as steady as possible. This results in an ability to to move smoothly and seamlessly, often in small and nearly-invisible increments, between points on the ramp.

In this way, a stepped  automatic transmission delivers engine power across a number of steps, while a CVT delivers engine power on a smooth, quiet and more efficient wave.

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Does that make the CVT the best transmission for the job? That depends on the job, and the target shopper performing it.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum
2022 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum Photo by Stephanie Wallcraft

Of course, the latest automatic transmissions have numerous tricks up their sleeve to enhance smoothness, noise levels, mileage and performance, too — just like the CVT. Think of the two transmission types as two unique tools in a car designer’s arsenal that represent unique ways of achieving a similar goal. 

The last-generation Nissan Pathfinder ran a CVT transmission, which has been replaced by a 9-speed automatic for the latest new-for-2022 model.

On the switch to a stepped 9-speed automatic for the latest Pathfinder, Nissan says it was all about improved response: added driver confidence while merging or exiting a corner, stronger acceleration, and minimized engine speed variation on grades — that is, smoother, steadier, and more confident performance on steep grades, in various off-road settings, or otherwise while the vehicle is being worked hard.

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Reading between the lines, that means an automatic like this one is probably the better choice for the driver who plans to work their crossover a bit — a heavier-footed driver, someone who frequents challenging or hilly terrain, someone who frequently tows a trailer, or anyone who prioritizes strong and direct response to their throttle inputs during heavier use over all-out smoothness during gentle use.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder
2022 Nissan Pathfinder

With a CVT, the last-generation Pathfinder’s engine could rev more erratically when worked hard, especially in deep snow or while towing uphill. That’s more noise and less confidence in two important settings. The torque response from the engine at low revs with the last-generation Pathfinder  was relatively more sluggish, too. Translation? Pathfinder’s former CVT was a smooth performer in most situations, but left room for improvement in a few others. With the latest automatic transmission tech on board for 2022, it’s “problem solved” with a next-generation gearbox that improves the driving feel across a wider range of situations, enhances response, and provides more direct and eager access to the engine’s power at low speeds — all with virtually no penalty to fuel consumption.

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So, based on thousands of kilometres spent with various Nissan transmissions of late, I’d tell you that the CVT works great for the driver primarily concerned with smoothness, quiet, and efficiency, and that lighter-footed drivers mostly driving around town and on the highway will frequently see its best work.

I’d also tell you that with the 9-speed automatic, as the same holds true in the Pathfinder. In that same light-footed driving, it also keeps the engine very smooth and quiet. But when worked a bit harder, or used in a more challenging situation by a heavier-footed driver, the more direct, responsive and confidence-inspiring feel is easy to appreciate. That’s important if you’re the sort of shopper Nissan built the new Pathfinder for, and especially if you’re planning to use it as intended — to get out exploring.

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