I went into our recent winter trip to Maryland expecting (hoping) that a unique driving experience awaited me. I was prepared to put our borrowed 2017 Nissan Pathfinder through its paces up and down snow and ice-covered mountains. I anticipated my car control skills and this latest version of Nissan’s popular crossover to both be properly tested.
Of course, without the onslaught of snow we planned for, that test was no longer part of our itinerary. However, I was far from disappointed. In fact, I was gifted a totally unexpected driving experience by way of one of the 2017 Pathfinder’s more interesting features – its CVT transmission.
The “CVT” denotes a continuously variable transmission – and yes, saying “CVT transmission” is akin to “ATM machine,” or “PIN number,” or telling your child to get their damn shoes on for the last time – needlessly repetitive, and ultimately futile. For this reason, I’ll refer to it moving forward simply as the CVT.
What Makes The 2017 Nissan Pathfinder’s CVT So Special?
I won’t get into the technical engineering behind a CVT (mostly because I can’t), but I can tell you that a CVT is an automatic transmission which constantly changes its gear ratios while in operation. When it comes to mass-market consumer vehicles, the intention behind a CVT is twofold – to provide optimum torque and engine efficiency, as well as a seamless driving experience.
You don’t feel up-shifts or downshifts while driving a CVT. The tachometer doesn’t rise and fall multiple times as you gather up speed.
Sounds like a neat, if not exactly necessary concept, right? Well, CVTs aren’t without their quirks. When accelerating at speed – say to pass someone on the highway – friends with CVT-equipped vehicles have told me the sensation can be a bit unsettling. This is because the transmission works to keep the engine where it makes peak torque, which aides acceleration. Rather than feeling a downshift and watching the revs climb and fall in succession as you blast down the road, a car with a CVT like the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder will have the revs “hang” around a certain part of the rev range.
So, while you’re accelerating forward, the normal ebbing and flowing engine notes you might expect aren’t there…instead, you have a constant, monotone racket.
I was quite curious what it would be like to experience this phenomenon for myself.
On top of that, I was unsure how the lack of traditional gearing would play with changes in elevation. I didn’t believe I’d be able to control whether I wanted to keep a lower gear while going downhill, or easily downshift for more power when climbing upward.
Fortunately, it didn’t take too long behind the wheel before I had some interesting answers.
The 2017 Pathfinder’s CVT Was Unabashedly Normal
The first thing that stuck out was how normal and non-quirky the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder’s CVT acted. Save for a slight “slipping clutch” feeling for the first couple dozen feet, accelerating from a stoplight was smoother than about any other automatic car I’ve driven, thanks to a lack of up-shifts.
On the highway, the revs remained constant at a low RPM. If I dipped into the throttle to make a pass, they would almost immediately jump up to around 4,000 RPM before returning back to normal as I eased off the pedal. It didn’t feel like a traditional downshift. In fact, it operated more like an on/off switch activated by my right foot.
It was passing power on demand.
However, it wasn’t until we began moving vertically that the 2017 Pathfinder’s CVT truly floored me. The engine was never out of its comfort zone. There was no hunting for the right gear, or lapse in momentum where any other automatic would shift.
Going uphill, it never once stuttered or lugged. If I wanted to charge upward at a more brisk pace, I leaned on the pedal a bit more. If I wanted to meander downhill, I lifted. When coasting down, it was never in too low of a gear, nor high enough to gain momentum too quickly.
The Pathfinder always seemed to know whether its front bumper was pointed toward the sky or ground, and handled all elevation changes with aplomb.
I often had to remind myself that the CVT was there, and that I’d never driven one before. It’s hard to describe how drama-free operation was – once I put the car into drive, I simply never again thought about it again.
To CVT, Or Not To CVT?
So, the moment of truth – would I insist that my family’s next vehicle be equipped with a CVT? Probably not. I still prefer to maintain some control over my car’s powertrain. However, I would no longer immediately disregard one that was so equipped.
I can understand and respect the merits of a CVT – particularly in the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder. Anything that makes the operation of such a large vehicle easier to wield is a worthwhile pursuit. Being able to modulate speed with only the gas pedal over unfamiliar terrain could even be considered a safety feature to an extent.
I’m mostly just excited that a new car (or crossover) can still surprise me. I normally hold my nose up to features that take a lot of the guesswork out of driving – I still consider it a dying skill. But I’m not too proud to admit that the 2017 Pathfinder has opened my mind a little.
Just don’t come at me with that autonomous vehicle crapola. You may take my gears, but you’ll never take my steering wheel.