The automotive world is no stranger to innovation. One such innovation that has been the topic of much debate is the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Nissan’s implementation of the CVT, known as the Xtronic CVT, has been particularly contentious. Let’s delve deeper into what the Nissan CVT is and why it has garnered such a reputation.
Understanding the CVT
A CVT operates differently from traditional automatic transmissions. Instead of using a set number of gears, a CVT uses a steel belt and a set of adjustable pulleys. This system allows for a continuous, smooth transition of power, theoretically leading to increased fuel economy. The belt and pulleys adjust their groove width to vary the transmission’s “gear” ratio, providing a seamless driving experience.
Nissan’s CVT Journey
Nissan has been using CVTs in most of its vehicles since the early 2000s. While the technology promised smoother acceleration and better fuel efficiency, Nissan’s CVTs became infamous for their early failures, leading to numerous lawsuits.
An interesting observation that underscores this issue can be made at local u-pull junkyards.
"Go to one and look around. The areas with Honda, Toyota, VW, etc., will be full of 10-15 year old smashed cars. In stark contrast, the Nissan section will be populated with 10-year-old cars that don’t have a scratch on them, but with “transmission” written on the windshield in paint marker. For some, like a person who had a 6mt versa and wanted parts, this was a silver lining because most of these Nissans had no crash damage, making part acquisition easier.
The Downfall: Why Nissan’s CVT Became Infamous
The “Judder” Phenomenon: As the belt and pulleys inside the CVT wear, which happens prematurely in Nissan transmissions, the belt may begin to slip. This causes a “judder” sensation, described as a “shake, shudder, single or multiple bumps or vibration.” Nissan tried to address this by issuing a software update for the transmission control module (TCM) to recognize the judder and set a diagnostic trouble code. Depending on the code, technicians might replace the CVT assembly or inspect the CVT belt for wear.
Abnormal Noises: Many Nissan CVT owners report hearing abnormal noises, like whining or grinding, that coincide with vehicle speed. These noises often result from worn bearings or issues with the transmission’s belt system.
Overheating and “Limp” Mode: Nissan CVTs are notorious for overheating, especially after prolonged highway driving or ascending steep grades. When the transmission overheats, the vehicle often enters a fail-safe or “limp” mode, resulting in power loss. This overheating is attributed to the belt and pulley system generating more heat than anticipated, with the cooling system unable to cope. Nissan released a technical service bulletin recommending the installation of an external transmission cooler to address this. However, in many cases, replacing the entire CVT assembly was the only solution.
Extended Warranty: Due to the widespread issues, Nissan extended the warranty on its CVTs for select models built between 2003 and 2010, and later for vehicles manufactured between 2012 and 2017. Despite these extensions, many transmissions are now out of warranty, leading to ongoing class-action lawsuits.
Jatco’s Role: It’s worth noting that Nissan’s CVTs are produced by Jatco, a spinoff company of Nissan. Jatco has supplied transmissions to various automakers, meaning the problematic CVTs found in Nissan vehicles also appear in other brands, such as the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass.
While the CVT technology itself holds promise, Nissan’s early implementations were riddled with problems. It serves as a lesson that innovation requires thorough testing and quality assurance. Potential Nissan buyers should be aware of these issues and consider the model’s history before making a purchase.