Nissan has been using continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in most of its vehicles since the early 2000s. In theory, CVTs are great because they provide a continuous, smooth transition of power for increased fuel economy.
But Nissan’s CVTs are also known for failing early on, which is why they’re the subject of many lawsuits. The transmissions are notorious for shuddering, making strange noises, overheating—and forcing the vehicle into a “limp” mode.
Some would argue that Nissan’s CVTs are the worst transmissions ever built.
What Makes the Nissan CVT transmission Different From a Traditional Automatic?
All internal combustion-powered cars need a transmission to manipulate rotational force from the engine and transfer that force to the drive wheels. Unlike a traditional automatic transmission, which relies on planetary gearsets to get the job done, Nissan’s CVT uses a steel belt and a set of adjustable pulleys.
Each of the pulleys changes its groove width to vary the transmission’s “gear” ratio. The secondary pulley turns a collection of final drive gears that connect to the axle shafts, which, in turn, connect to the drive wheels.
The video below demonstrates how the belt and pulley system works in a typical CVT:
Besides the belt and pulleys, Nissan’s CVT is similar to a traditional automatic transmission in many ways. For example, like a regular automatic, the unit has a torque converter that acts as a fluid coupling device between the engine and transmission. There’s also a planetary gearset that allows the driver to switch between forward and reverse.
Common Nissan CVT Transmission Problems
Nissan’s CVT transmissions can suffer from a variety of problems. The most common issues, however, are overheating, abnormal noises, and the infamous “judder”.
As the belt and pulleys inside a CVT begin to wear—a problem that happens early on with Nissan transmissions—the belt may begin to slip, causing a “judder” sensation. In a technical service bulletin (TSB), Nissan describes the phenomenon as being a “shake, shudder, single or multiple bumps or vibration”.
To address the concern, Nissan issued a software update for the transmission control module (TCM). The update allows the module to recognize the judder and set a corresponding diagnostic trouble code (DTC) in its memory.
There are two judder codes that can be set: P17F0 and P17F1. Nissan has issued a TSB that tells dealership technicians how to approach each of the two codes when there’s a judder. According to the document:
- P17F0: Technicians should replace the CVT assembly.
- P17F1: Technicians should inspect the CVT belt for wear to determine whether the valve body or the entire transmission requires replacement.
Many drivers also complain of abnormal noises coming from their Nissan’s CVT. The most common is a whining or grinding sound that coincides with vehicle speed. In most cases, either worn bearings or issues with the transmission’s belt system are to blame.
Overheating Resulting in “Limp” Mode
Nissan CVTs are known to overheat, especially after traveling at highway speeds for a long time or driving up a steep grade. When the transmission overheats, the vehicle often goes into a fail-safe or “limp” mode, resulting in a loss of power. Obviously, this is a potentially dangerous scenario that can put occupants at risk.
The belt and pulley system inside the transmission creates more heat than Nissan engineers anticipated—and the cooling system cannot keep up.
To address the overheating concern, Nissan released a TSB recommending the installation of an external transmission cooler. Dealership technicians often diagnose the overheat condition by using a scan tool to look at the CVT fluid temperature “counts” registered by the TCM.
But adding an external cooler doesn’t always fix the overheating problem. In many cases, the entire CVT assembly must be replaced to address the concern.
Did Nissan Extend the Warranty on Its CVT Transmission?
In 2010—after several class action lawsuits and countless customer complaints—Nissan agreed to extend the warranty on its CVTs found in select models built between 2003 and 2010. The extended warranty covered the units for up to 10-years/120,000-miles. Of course, all of those transmissions are now out of warranty.
A few years later, Nissan extended the warranty on select vehicles built between 2012 and 2017. The extension bumped the warranty up from 60 months/60,000 miles to 84 months/84,000 miles.
Also, there are plenty of class-action lawsuits in the works regarding Nissan CVT transmissions that are no longer under warranty. Owners hope to get some form of compensation through these proceedings.
Nissan Isn’t the Only Automaker to Use These Troublesome CVTs
It’s worth noting that Nissan’s CVTs are made by the brand’s spinoff company, Jatco. Over the years, Jatco has supplied transmissions to a wide variety of different automakers. As a result, the troublesome CVTs found in Nissan vehicles also appear in some other applications, such as the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass.