During our little sojourn in Queensland, we had the pleasure of sampling a new Nissan X-Trail SUV, which by all measures from both The Boss and I, is a comfortable, rugged and easy to live with car. The features are ample for everyday use and everything is laid out logically with big stonking, well labelled buttons.
The biggest surprise to me was the way the car drove with its continuously variable transmission. It’s not a traditional gearbox with discrete gear ratios, although it can also be driven like it does through the use of the sport shift option. It was smooth and there was no fuss, no shunting or loud noises when gears changed and allowed us to enjoy the scenery. Now, I had driven with a CVT before, that of a Camry Hybrid. Unfortunately, given the terrible nature of any Toyota (apart from the new Subaru er…GT86), I decided to reserve judgment on CVTs until I’d experienced one in a real car. The result? Surprisingly good. Here’s why.
If you’re unfamiliar with mechanical systems, a gearbox in a car operates similarly to a series of pulleys. You use the different combinations of gears to gain mechanical advantage – most useful when accelerating. This also limited the maximum speed for each gear ratio. Traditionally, this meant that manual and automatic gearboxes needed a mechanical adjustment everytime you wanted to go faster. In this type of transmission, the gearbox can continuously adjust the mechanical advantage ratio for the speed you’re driving at. This means an ultimately smoother drive experience and overall better fuel economy.
For those of us that are used to the shunting of the car as the gears are swapped around, it’s not something that would be missed. Ultimately, the measure of a good modern automatic gearbox is how smooth the gearshifts are and the measure of a good manual driver is how smoothly the throttle and clutch is balanced on shifts. But having a CVT in your car does alienate you somewhat from driving. It is literally a point and squirt experience, which is fine if you’re not really into cars but are simply interested in getting to your destination.