Pathfinder back on track
‘Return to rugged’ sees iconic SUV ditch CVT for an automatic transmission
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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a refreshing change for a vehicle that, ironically enough, had lost its way.
The big news for this generation of the company’s iconic SUV is the end of the continuously variable transmission (CVT), replaced instead with an actual nine-speed automatic transmission, a move that makes sense in so many ways.
What’s the difference between the two, you ask?
Many drivers of vehicles with CVTs probably don’t even know they have one. CVTs are good for improved fuel economy because the continuously variable nature of their gear-ratio selections means the engine is almost always operating at peak efficiency. Automatic transmissions (and manual transmissions, as well) have the engine cycle through a range of engine speeds for each gear, and the engine speed for each gear is locked to a proportion of vehicle speed. In other words, a vehicle speed of 20 km/h in second gear will always relate to the same engine speed.
CVTs, on the other hand, will change gear ratios continuously to meet demands. That same vehicle speed under acceleration requires a different gear ratio than for cruising for peak engine efficiency. (I use “gear ratio” loosely, since there are no gears.) Under acceleration, engine speeds will often stay constant while the transmission varies the transfer of power to increase vehicle speed.
OK, so what’s the problem?
To accomplish their infinite gear ratio ability, CVTs use a steel serpentine band that loops around two sets of pulleys, one on the input shaft from the motor and one on the output shaft to the wheels. Each pulley is a set of two sides that come together to increase the band’s radius around it and move apart to decrease it. By varying that radius on each shaft, the transmission selects the “gear” ratio.
As you can imagine, this means that the interface between belt and pulley must be smooth, and the belt has to be under enough tension to grip the pulleys and transfer power, but not under so much tension the pulleys can’t move in and out.
It’s all proving relatively reliable — if not fun to drive — on light-duty, smaller vehicles such as the Versa. But add 857 kg of curb weight, and 2,722 kg of towing capacity — plus meeting the demand for off-roading, which all add strain to a transmission — and you have a slightly different set of criteria for choosing transmissions.
“With the new Pathfinder’s focus on ruggedness, towing ability and off-road performance, the timing aligned well for a new nine-speed automatic,” a Nissan spokeswoman wrote in an email.
That the man chiefly responsible for Nissan’s push into CVTs, former chairman Carlos Ghosn, left the company in a cloud of controversy in 2018 may also have contributed to the timing. I digress…
(The exception to all this are the continuously variable transmissions on Toyota hybrids and the Ford Maverick hybrid, which use planetary gearsets (or epicyclic transmissions), in which actual gears are always engaged.)
Pathfinder’s newfound emphasis on off-road ruggedness is also a refreshing return to the its roots. It’s arguably not as off-roadable as, say, any of the models from its beginnnings in 1985 through to about 2005, which all appear to have had greater ground clearance, so to a certain extent, it remains a soft-roader. (By comparison, the 1985 Pathfinder had 8.3 inches of ground clearance to the current model’s 7.1. (The Rock Creek edition has 7.7 inches.).)
It seems Nissan, which in addition to those early Pathfinders also marketed the emminently off-roadable XTerra, has left that market to the likes of Jeep and Ford.
Still, with a maximum towing capacity of 2,721kg (6,000 lb.) — depending on configuration — the Pathfinder will get your small travel trailer, or a pair of snowmobiles or ATVs, to where you need to go. Need to tow more but stay within the Nissan family? Armada is for you (8,500 lb).
Pathfinder’s off-road chops come from a terrain control switch that chooses from among seven drive modes — sand, mud and ruts, snow, highway, eco, sport and towing. The control alters a variety of vehicle parameters to accomplish each mode — allowing for more wheelspin for sand, or changing the shift patterns of the transmisson for towing, for instance.
The styling incorporates Nissan’s signature V-shaped grille and a black bar near the top of the C-pillar provides the appearance of a floating roof. It’s one of the more attractive of recent Pathfinder designs. The rear tailgate, however, carries perhaps too strong a resemblance to that of a minivan. It does, however, allow for easy access for cargo.
Wherever you take your Pathfinder, you’ll likely enjoy the ride. It’s comfortable for passengers, engaging enough for the driver and has a variety of stowage considerations, including underfloor storage in the cargo bay for stuff you want to keep out of sight.
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter
Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.