Walk blindfolded into a Nissan dealership and you'll soon bump into a vehicle with a CVT.
Twelve models come with this new type of transmission. No other brand has so thoroughly embraced the technology. Honda sells four vehicles with such a setup; Toyota has one.
So it's with a bit of irony that, after a week of testing the all-new Rogue crossover, our biggest headache came from — yes, the CVT. For all the development Nissan has put into the gearbox, it apparently still can't figure out how to build one that drives well. It's a big weakness in an otherwise well-done sport-utility, starting at $23,359.
CVT stands for continuously variable transmission, meant primarily to boost fuel economy. It's a type of automatic gearbox that uses essentially one gear to always keep the engine at its most efficient speed.
Nissan has led the charge into these transmissions, deciding in about 2000 to go whole hog into this setup, said Carla Bailo, senior vice president for research and development of Nissan Americas. It was then that the automaker was working on the original 2003 Murano crossover, the first Nissan sold in the U.S. with a CVT.
"The main impetus is CVTs really allow us to hit our fuel economy targets," Bailo said. "We determined that this is the right technology for us."
Our main complaint with the Rogue's CVT was how it handled accelerating (on-ramps, stop signs, car chases). The transmission forced the engine to rev louder and longer than you'd expect from a traditional automatic with fixed gears. The intrusion into the cabin was enough to drown out the stereo or conversation with fellow passengers.
It didn't help that the Rogue felt underpowered in these situations. On paper, it's not.
The 2014 model uses the same engine as its predecessor, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 170 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers are on par with the rest of the compact crossover segment, which includes the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4, Mazda CX-5, Jeep Cherokee, Ford Escape and Chevy Equinox.
But stomp on the Roque's gas pedal and it all but ignores you and continues to drone on at its current pace. And despite strong EPA ratings — 25 miles per gallon city, 32 highway for our loaded all-wheel-drive tester — we found the engine-transmission combo to be no more efficient than the Rogue's peers. We averaged 24.4 mpg in mostly highway miles.
The Rogue's CVT also has an unfortunate habit that brought criticism to early CVTs: the rubber-band effect. This gives the vehicle the feeling that it's constantly fighting against a rubber band, whether you're accelerating or coasting. The motor drones on, leaving you yearning for an old-fashioned shift.
This was despite Nissan taking steps to minimize this effect, based on customer feedback from earlier CVT models. The Rogue's transmission is the first the automaker has built with updated software to mimic the shifts in a conventional automatic.
Whether these annoyances scare off potential Rogue buyers remains to be seen. The type of transmission and its driving dynamics mean much less to many buyers than efficiency, style and comfort, said David Petrovski, a principal powertrain analyst at IHS Automotive.
"This day and age, if you want fuel economy, you're going to have to accept some new sorts of feelings inside the car," Petrovski said. "People fall in love with how a vehicle looks, how it's laid out in the cabin and the features the car has."
This means that the Rogue could continue to be one of Nissan's most popular vehicles, because the rest of this crossover is thoughtfully executed.
Sitting slightly wider and higher than the outgoing model, the 2014 iteration rests in the Goldilocks "just-right" area of size. It's small enough to squeeze into tidy parking spaces on the street. But with no hump in the middle of the back-seat floor, and an extra 11.4 cubic feet of interior space, this Rogue is plenty big inside for five tall adults and all their gear.
You can even order it with compact third-row seating on the base S and mid-level SV model. It's a $940 option, although this feature wasn't available on our loaded $32,395 SL AWD tester.
But our Rogue did have nearly every other available option. This includes a panoramic moon roof, LED headlights, forward-collision and lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, touch-screen navigation system, bird's-eye camera for parking and leather seats.
What's more, the Rogue's insides were a nice place to spend some time when the engine wasn't yelling at you. The panels are commendably bolted together, the seats are comfortable and, overall, this Nissan feels refined.
The quality of the interior is matched by the design of the exterior. Tasteful bits of chrome and the LED headlights highlight a handsomely sculpted body that looks more upscale than many competitors. The Rogue manages to look assertive without being overtly masculine, which should serve Nissan well since many buyers in this segment are female.
But the Rogue's many niceties may not be enough to overcome the failures of the transmission. Honda's CR-V, Ford's Escape and Mazda's CX-5 are all at the top of their game right now. With a robust fleet of competitors, all lacking such an Achilles' heel, Nissan can't afford such a fundamental weakness.
2014 Nissan Rogue SL AWD
Times' take: A potential segment leader — if not for the transmission
Highs: Handsome styling, perfect size, useful space
Lows: Transmission, transmission, transmission
Vehicle type: 4-door compact crossover SUV
Base price: $23,350
Price as tested: $32,395
Powertrain: 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder, all-wheel drive
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission
Torque: 175 pound-feet
0-60: 8.9 seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine
EPA fuel economy rating: 25 mpg city, 32 mpg highway
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