Most Japanese brands are looked to as the pinnacle of reliability. While Toyota remains king (rightfully so in my opinion) and Honda in a close second, Nissan isn’t clearly in third place.
Throughout the 90’s and early 2000s, Nissan was at the forefront of performance and quality. Its sister brand Infiniti was considered the Japanese BMW amongst us car guys (ok maybe it was just me, calling it that). I used to own a white 2006 Infiniti G35 coupe, and it was rock solid. The same can not be said, however, about my 2014 Nissan NV200 Van.
So where did it all go wrong? Two words Jatco CVT.
Table of Contents
- Brief History On The Nissan CVT
- 1. They Don’t Drive Like Traditional Automatic Transmission Cars
- 2. They Aren’t That Efficient
- 3. The CVTs Tend To Overheat
- 4. Excessive Maintenance
- 5. The CVT Will Probably Fail Anyway
- 6. You Can Not Rebuild A Nissan CVT
- In Sum
Brief History On The Nissan CVT
In the early 2000s Nissan went through a cost-cutting objective in order to increase profits by utilizing parts across platforms. In a bid for better fuel efficiency numbers, Nissan switched to a continuously variable transmission across most of its lineup including vehicles with large 3.5l V6s.
Unlike a traditional transmission that revs the engine through progressive gears in order to accelerate, Nissan CVTs use a belt and pulley system.
According to Nissan itself “The CVT is an automatic transmission that uses two pulleys with a steel belt running between them. To continuously vary its gear ratios, the CVT simultaneously adjusts the diameter of the “drive pulley” that transmits torque from the engine and the “driven pulley” that transfers torque to the wheels.”
Sounds good but in actuality it was horrible. So bad in fact that there was a class action lawsuit against Nissan for these CVTs. If you’re looking at Nissan with a CVT, especially if it’s used, it’s imperative you understand these 6 things before you make your decision.
1. They Don’t Drive Like Traditional Automatic Transmission Cars
If you’re used to a standard torque converter automatic car you can feel how much throttle input you need to achieve a specific speed. This is because standard automatic cars take you through a rev range while shifting. Revs go up while Speed goes up.
Not the case in a Nissan CVT. I don’t know if there’s a way to drive these things normally. The initial depressing of the accelerator gives you nothing so naturally, you depress further, and then all of a sudden the car launches itself forward.
This “rubber band” effect is so evident it can actually be dangerous. In slow-moving traffic when you need subtle taps of the accelerator the rubberband effect makes it impossible to keep pace.
You’re always either riding the bumper of the car ahead of you or leaving giant gaps trying to catch up, whereby everyone proceeds to cut in front.
In dense areas like NYC, it is downright exhausting to keep pace in slow traffic.
2. They Aren’t That Efficient
The “rubber band” effect is a quirk of the transmissions, and to live with them you will adapt ways to drive them. One of the ways you’ll discover is mashing the accelerator. Honestly, this is crude but, this is the only way I’ve found to keep pace with traffic and force the car to accelerate properly.
If your constantly mashing the accelerator to keep pace with traffic, you’ll end up with terrible fuel economy. Nissan claims that CVTs are more efficient because the rev range of the engine is in its sweet spot all the time but in actuality, it won’t work out for you that way.
Unless you drive with no other cars on the road you’ll end up with worse fuel economy from constant accelerator dumping and excessive wear on your brakes from trying to stop the sudden surges when it does decide to shift. It is one of the most un-intuitive things I have ever experienced.
The Result? my 23 mpg rated NV200 gets about 18 mpg real world.
Looking for a cheap economical car? Check out this list of best cars under $5k
3. The CVTs Tend To Overheat
Pre-2014 Nissan cars with the Jatco CVTs overheated if you did any sort of extended highway driving or continuous hard acceleration. So if you’re looking at any vehicle before that model year, expect to have overheating issues unless an aftermarket oil cooler was installed.
In 2014 Nissan added oil coolers to its transmissions in an effort to reduce the number of catastrophic failures it had on its hands. The transmission fluid was updated as well leading some to believe that the fluid was in fact inferior and incapable of cooling the transmission, to begin with.
The oil cooler does help keep temperatures more constant but these transmissions still suffer overheating issues if they’re not maintained regularly.
4. Excessive Maintenance
Nissan claims that service intervals should happen at around 60,000 miles for the CVTs. I’m here to tell you it’s more like 20,000 miles.
If you have a pre-2014 Nissan CVT without the oil cooler, you should be changing your transmission fluid at around 10,000 miles. Especially if you use Nissan Ns-2 (inferior IMHO) fluid. If your transmission has the oil cooler it most likely requires the updated Ns-3 fluid and you can get a bit more mileage out of it and push it to 20,000.
The belt and pulley system creates so much friction and debris that the fluid becomes dark really quickly. Don’t believe me? Check out this video by the Car Wizard where he shows a fluid change after only 20,000 miles.
Also, a major overlooked part of the CVT service is filter replacement. These transmissions have two filters, one external and one internal. Both filters need to be replaced at every service, and generally, you’ll find as I did, that people rarely do this leading ultimately to transmission failure.
Also if you’re wondering most Nissan CVTs take between 3-5 quarts for drain and refills but overall capacity is somewhere between 7-9 quarts. At around $26 per quart from the dealer, you can see how expensive maintenance can get with these things.
5. The CVT Will Probably Fail Anyway
Even the most looked after Nissans equipped with a CVT will ultimately fail. The reason is the inherent design flaw in its cooling management and power delivery.
Nissan put these transmissions in everything including its large crossovers all the way down to its economy cars. The bad reputation of these transmissions affected the resale value making Nissan cars considerably cheaper than their counterparts on the used market.
When you combine cheap residual value with excessive maintenance demands, you end up with cars that will not get serviced properly because for the majority of people the cost just isn’t worth the value of the cars.
Nissans with CVTs became throw-away vehicles. Drive it till it dies and move on. So if you end up with a used Nissan, chances are its transmission is on its way out. If you decide to service it later on in life you may actually speed up its death prematurely.
This is exactly what happened to my NV200. I bought it with High Mileage, 143,000 at the time. I knew the transmission had to be serviced and decided I was going to do it the right way.
I proceeded to service the transmission myself by replacing the fluid as well as both filters. After countless hours searching through forums I settled on Castrol CVT fluid because it was the best balance between cost and the reviews on how it performed in Nissan CVTs seemed stellar.
Immediately I noticed a difference in the way the vehicle accelerated and gained speed. The car was painfully slow before barely being able to get up to 60. Now it felt like a Lamborghini, I made it all the way to 70 and it didn’t feel like a struggle!
I thought that all the bad I heard about Nissan CVTs was just a lack of maintenance and proper fluid. Alas, that didn’t last too long.
About 2,000 miles later the car began a notable slipping when trying to maintain speed. I would watch the engine RPMs bounce as it struggled to maintain speed. Then it began bucking, eventually refusing to shift.
The transmission was toast. I think it was on its last legs anyway, from years of neglect and the last (possibly only?) service pushed it over the edge. A costly result as I would soon learn.
6. You Can Not Rebuild A Nissan CVT
For a transmission so readily used across so many vehicles, you would think there would be a rebuild kit or someone remanufacturing them for the public. Unfortunately, for me, no third-party or aftermarket solution is available.
The only option is a remanufactured unit from Nissan. You can pay to have a dealer install it or have a transmission shop do it as I did. $3,635 dollars later including labor; I had a newer version of the same crappy transmission.
I guess a used transmission could have been an option but the cost difference was negligible and no self-respecting transmission shop was willing to warranty a used Nissan/Jatco CVT. A used transmission was like a ticking time bomb anyway.
I was expecting a world of difference when I drove the new transmission for the first time having never actually driven one from new. Was it? Not really. It felt exactly how my old one did when I first did the service.
Result? Even at best these transmissions are pretty crap.
If your looking for a used car and a Nissan with a CVT happens to be on your list, I must urge you to strike it off. These cars were designed to be throw-away vehicles and it shows. They were so bad even Nissan has acknowledged it and is switching back to traditional automatics in its new cars (thank goodness).
Choose a traditional automatic, preferably a Toyota like my 2007 Camry and you’ll be much better off for it. For reference, my 2007 Camry has only had 1 transmission service in its entire life 120,000 miles, and never missed a beat even with multiple drivers.
Conclusion Nissan Jatco CVT = Trashmission.