Why The 2015 Nissan Murano's 'Gearless' CVT Feels Like It's Shifting

December 8, 2014
Step into the 2015 Nissan Muranoand just drive, and you might not notice anything unusual about the driving experience. It feels especially refined, comfortable, and confident in its driving manners—and the way it shifts, it can feel a lot like any other vehicle with an automatic transmission.

Only it doesn’t have a typical automatic transmission. As part of a so-called D-step strategy, Nissan is giving all of its ‘shiftless’ continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) units the feel that they’re shifting between gears.

ALSO SEE: 2015 Nissan Murano: First Drive

And it’s the 2015 Murano that has the most ‘aggressive’ deployment of that strategy yet, as a company spokesperson put it.

Why? Call it driver-seat comfort food; gears are simply more satisfying, and they more closely correspond to the sounds and sensations of vehicle speed and acceleration that we're used to. 

In the Murano, if you press lightly on the accelerator, the transmission finesses the ratios steadily, keeping the engine below 2,000 rpm mostly, in its low-rev efficiency sweet spot. But if you press more than helfway on the accelerator, up to about 95 percent, the transmission chooses particular ratios along the way, and maintains them for a few seconds at a time during acceleration—much like a conventional automatic transmission would.

Hangs on to different steps, depending on the conditions

These ratios aren’t necessarily the same as those that you might access through manual control, and they’re different depending on driving conditions—like hills, how many people you have in the vehicle, and how much you have your right foot into it.

CVTs cost far less to build and source than automatic transmissions, but they’ve faced an uphill battle in consumer perception, however, as during moderate to brisk acceleration they tend to introduce a ‘drone,’ or ‘motorboating’ sensation, in which the engine is held in a particularly useful, albeit noisy, rev range so as to get the best possible acceleration.

Not all automakers have had such persistence with CVTs. Ford used them in the past decade, then abandoned them due to various issues. However the technology has come a long way in recent years, with better durability, and more importantly, control strategies like this that improve the experience.

READ: $2 Gas Is Back! Is That Good?

More automakers using them—with steps added

2014 Honda Civic EX CVT - Driven

2014 Honda Civic EX CVT - Driven

But your next car is most definitely more likely to have a CVT. Top-selling models like the Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla have gained CVTs for their mainstream versions, and Honda and Subaru in particular have also been following strategies that momentarily ‘hang’ on ‘gears’ or aim for a more linear feel. Subaru’s latest Lineartonic CVT, in the Outback, for instance, sticks to stepped ratios all the time.

In the Murano, which uses an improved, second-generation version of Nissan’s ‘high-torque’ CVT (as in the Pathfinder), you have a choice of seven set ratios if you click the shift knob over to the manual gate. Between that, the D-step strategy, and the smooth, infinitely variable operation when you drive gently, we can finally say that Nissan’s unit has hit its sweet spot.

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