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First Drive: New CVT For 2013 Nissan Altima

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For most new-car shoppers, continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs) make a lot of sense. They’re smooth and fuel-efficient; they help get the most acceleration out of engines; and they allow low-rpm cruising. Compared to conventional automatics, they’re also less expensive. But they’re not always so reassuring to those who like to drive enthusiastically.

Nissan has installed more CVTs into its vehicles than any other automaker; and now it’s in the process of giving them their most significant redesign since the automaker began introducing them across most of its model line nearly a decade ago.

The first of these new CVT units has already made its debut in the U.S., in the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan. That all-new global CVT for engines under 2.0 liters—which we may soon see in the Juke and Cube—is amazingly compact yet has a super-wide ratio span of 7.3:1, thanks to the incorporation of a special ‘subtransmission’—an additional pulley, essentially, that gives more flexibility like the crank ratios on a classic ten-speed bike.

2013 Altima getting all-new version

Next up to get a new-generation CVT is the completely redesigned 2013 Nissan Altima; it will debut in North America with a different new CVT design built for engine capacities from 2.0 to 3.5 liters. The new CVT has 40 percent less friction than the current unit, and it covers a class-leading ratio span of 7:1—made possible with a different belt shape, along with an only slightly increased pulley distance.

While we don’t have any additional information on the new Altima—you’ll probably have to wait until next spring for that—we got to drive the new Altima’s transmission installed in a mule (a current-generation Nissan Altima) with the existing 270-horsepower VQ 3.5-liter V-6.

More responsive and 'linear'

What we observed in a limited test course, at Nissan’s R&D center at Oppama, Japan, is that Nissan has worked to even further eliminate some of the rubber-band responsiveness that makes some setups with CVT feel less appealing. Tip into the throttle gently, or even moderately, and the CVT keeps locked to its ratio for a moment, taking advantage of the V-6’s plentiful torque and giving more reassuring, confident power delivery. Mash the throttle down, however, and it lets the revs rise quickly to run the engine into the strong 5,000-rpm-plus area of its powerband.

The bottom line, for shoppers who are thinking about waiting until next year for the redesigned Altima, is that it looks like there will be some significant gains in fuel-efficiency and drivability. If this quick drive of this next-gen CVT was any indication, this system that will go into the Altima, Sentra, Rogue, and other compact and mid-size products is much more delightful than that somewhat more sluggish new unit that goes in the Versa Sedan.

Expect gas mileage gains, too. Nissan expects that they might improve by as much as ten percent—which could put a base 2013 Nissan Altima with the CVT well over the 35-mpg mark.

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