Largely, the CVT (Continuous Variable Transmission) is used by automakers to help deliver improved fuel efficiency. With no actual gears to shift, the engine to which a CVT is attached can spend more time at lower revs during gentle driving; and revs stay fairly steady as the car accelerates, too.
Keeping engine revs steady is a good way to save fuel. However, as is the case with most technologies that share said goal; it's usually not a favourite amongst driving enthusiasts.
The main reason? A CVT doesn’t shift gears because it doesn’t have any.
Shifting gears is a big deal; it confirms your progress towards a certain velocity with brief pauses in power delivery as upshifts occur. The engine’s sound cuts as it stops pulling, momentarily, to enable said shifts. Revs climb, peak, fall, then climb and peak again.
If you’re a driving enthusiast, you imitated the sound of this process as a child. You didn’t imitate the sound of a CVT – which, at full throttle, typically cranks the engine’s revs towards redline and holds them there. (Kids do make a similar noise: The sort of escalating, discontented groan that precedes a crying fit.)
On a recent test drive of one 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL
, yours truly saw how this type of gearless gearbox can actually be a bit of a performance weapon.
Nissan is a pioneer in CVT technology, and they’ve got this one nailed. For 2013, engineers tweaked the XTronic CVT to spread out the available “minimum” and “maximum” gear ratios and make internal modifications to reduce friction, increase performance and improve fuel efficiency.
Hammer it in the new Altima, with the big V6, and it all comes together.
|Photo: Sébastien D'Amour
That momentary pause while a normal automatic thinks and gears down? Non-existent. Jam the throttle, and you get a forward rush of power right away.
Without having to choose between, say, six gear and rev combinations for any given speed, the CVT is able to instantly “whip up” any gear ratio it likes to put instant, acceleration right at the tip of your toes.
In SPORT mode, this CVT even preselects and engages several progressive ratios, simulating the feel of a really quick-shifting automatic. There are paddle shifters for lightning-fast browsing of these pretend gears, if you like. And, since the Altima’s V6 sounds lovely, the entire process is that much more rewarding -- and free of pre-tantrum-toddler noises when you bury your foot.
Even left in DRIVE, a throttle poke sends revs to about 80% of redline, at which point a pretend gear ratio is “locked in,” making it feel like an automatic kicking down. All of this pretend shifting, by the way, happens without actual gear cogs shuffling around, which means it’s liquid smooth and very refined.
Drivers should really appreciate the easy, all-the-time access to maximum power when darting through traffic, merging or passing. I also appreciated an overall test mileage of 9.5L/100km.
If you’re a driving enthusiast and can’t find a manual sports sedan, be sure to give this one a try.