By on February 6, 2013

There is a level of distracted driving that exists far above that enjoyed by the texting teen or harried housewife haranguing her husband via shattered-screen iPhone 4. It is the level where one’s mind is in the grip of an idea so compelling, so overwhelming, that the task of driving the car has to be handed off to the not-quite-conscious mind, the dream state of anxiety and anticipation and frustration that caused me to accidentally steer my thirty-seven-thousand-tired-mile rental Altima to Lexington (via Route 75) when I had every intention of traveling to Louisville (via Route 71). Every three minutes and twenty-seven seconds, my right hand reached out to my iPod and reset it to play The Stylistics again. Fifty times, maybe, I listened to the song, driving in the wrong direction, animated by the single thought:

I will see her tonight.

Betcha, by golly, wow.

Seven months ago, I said my final goodbyes to the female hurricane I know as Drama McHourglass. On a fluffy bed high above some city we performed the old rituals of seduction and resistance then dressed and shared a chaste embrace beyond the bedroom’s sliding doors. She had given me the choice: choose her and forsake all others, or let her go forever. My pragmatic mind chose the latter and I felt like Michael Henchard making his will as I whispered it to her among a iceberg field of big pillows strewn across the bed. To this, I put my name. Now be free.

Free she was. Free to date a remarkably handsome and significantly younger man in my absence, according to Facebook. They made quite the couple. In due deference to the aging-hipster reality distortion field surrounding their shared home of Franklin, TN, he painted and “made art” in a style best described in the old “original and good” damnation: the original parts were not good, the good parts were not original. I tracked the progress of his latest opening on his website, read his heartfelt but spasmodically misspelled professions of gratitude to Drama for rescuing his life as an artist and human being, and vividly imagined using a dull butter knife to skin his face in the most leisurely fashion imaginable. She called me regularly, usually at the worst possible times, saying things like “You destroyed my ability to love. I had to… degrade myself with him, to claim my body back for myself. From you.”

“What,” I sputtered, choking on my morning bagel, “do you mean by that?”

“You know what I mean by that,” she replied.

“No, I don’t. Take the two dolls and show the court what the bad man did to you.”

“More than you’ll ever do to me again.” The perils of dating intelligent women. They understand how to reach into your heart and squeeze each ventricle individually.

“I love you,” came my involuntary and desperate response.

“But not enough,” she replied, “to choose me.” I wanted to die. At least, I consoled myself, you’ll never have to see her again.

Naturally, a week later a client of mine mandated that I visit their facility all of, gosh, eleven miles from her house to fix a rather expensive and difficult problem. They were willing to spring for a rental car, and that’s how I found myself driving to Nashville in last year’s Altima by way of Lexington.

The Nissan Altima 2.5S is just the vehicle you need to dream-drive, for unconscious piloting, for the fugue state of independence. The exterior is perfectly forgettable, a slightly melted version of the previous Altima, yet another shadow of the original Skyline G35 displayed to the Plato’s Cave of the Nissan dealership and its slightly credit-challenged inhabitants. Higher-end Altimas have all sorts of awful-looking shiny-silver trim splattered across their dismal black interiors, but shorn of that costume jewelry the car has a sort of poverty-stricken pride in its appearance. It’s all the same grade of plastic, from radio knob to hooded center-vent cover, and it’s all bad, but it’s not so bad as to keep you awake.

The seats are short in the thigh, resistant to rental wear, unpleasant in the short encounter but serviceable for the 425-mile trudge. For some reason, my Altima had keyless entry as its possibly sole option. Unlike the “Kessy” systems in my cultivated Phaetons and sporty S5, the Altima requires a press of the rubber door button both to lock and unlock. It’s depressing and cheap-feeling to operate. There isn’t much surprise and delight in the 2.5S, unless one considers how surprising it is that there’s nothing at all delightful about a car that was originally marketed as the enthusiast alternative to the Camry.

Yet with a couple left-foot approaches to off-ramps as I escaped Columbus, Ohio and headed southward, some of the Nissan’s underlying character was able to peek through the dismal interior and Fiat-124-esque ergonomics. The car handles pretty well and BMW could do worse than to transfer the Altima’s basic steering feel to their latest barge of a Funfer. The trip computer reported a steady twenty-eight miles per gallon. Not bad for such a big car with such a tiny engine. I plugged in the iPod through the crackly 1/8th-inch input jack and slept to dream on the long featureless freeway.

By the time I realized oh, God damn it, I’m in Lexington and need to go the other way, the Altima and I had come to be friends. It’s quieter than an Accord of similar vintage, for sure. Some cars are tiring to drive and this isn’t. All good points. Then I saw an iffy merge situation ahead of me; the traffic runs at 85mph down south of Lexington and some grandmother in a Sienna was about to enter the freeway in a manner designed to make that speed impossible for everyone around. Time to floor it and ditch the situation.

Eff me if the Altima didn’t pick up and scoot into triple digits with alacrity. It took me a minute of staring at the tach, which was perfectly fixed at the car’s horsepower peak while said car continued to accelerate, to remember: oh yeah, this has a CVT. The hated and dreaded transmission. The soul-sucking appliance twister that one of my favorite online auto writers, Damon Lavrinc, likened to herpes in an article last year.

No, this isn’t herpes. Herpes is bad news, and the CVT is good news. Over the thousand-plus miles to come in my time with Mr. 2.5S, I tried to put the CVT into all sorts of bad conditions. I Morse-code-pumped the accelerator on steep grades. I brake-torqued it from lights. I would lull it into low-rev complacency then jam the throttle into the cheap-carpet firewall like John Bonham kick-drumming a warning of a levee’s imminent collapse. Sometimes I would hit both pedals at the same time for no reason.

Still. Through all that. Couldn’t ruffle it. The CVT just kept working, kept delivering the most power available and ruthlessly optimizing for economy. I tried the manual-shift mode briefly then laughed at myself for even bothering to do it. Why bother, when the CVT knows best? It doesn’t jerk the driver around, it doesn’t punish him the way the Malibu’s stupid six-speed loves to do with unhappy low-speed shifts and inappropriate grade-logic gear choice. It simply works. While I can understand the reasons why a driver might want a manual transmission instead, I don’t see why somebody would get all excited about, say, Toyota’s Camry automatic over this stepless, efficient choice. It does the right thing far more often than any of its geared competitors can.

If only I could claim the same virtue. That evening, Drama came to my hotel room earlier than she said she would. I saw her peeking through the peephole in reverse and I let her hide outside the door while I played Natalie Merchant’s “My Skin” on a Martin 000-15M. When I was good and ready, I played her game and opened the door so she could surprise me in the act of being needy. She trembled in my arms, cried on the threshold, and collapsed on the bed. Her ensemble was stolen equally from the stylebooks of librarians and burlesque dancers and it showed way too much of her spectacular legs.

We lay next to each other and dreamed wide awake, staring empty-eyed at the blank ceiling. “Do you love him?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

I caught the next question in my throat, because I was afraid the answer would be that she loved him more, but I was terrified of the possibility that it wouldn’t. I wanted alternately to scream with joy because she was with me and throw up from the sheer misery of knowing she’d be back in bed with that half-assed painter before the sun rose. My mind and heart thrashed. I prayed for a continuously variable emotion, a placid face to meet the faces that I would meet, a flat torque curve of affect to hide the cowardice and sickness in my heart, a toroidal transmission between the high-rpm beat in my chest and the places where our bodies met beneath the sheets.

Our eyes met and she said, “You’re as over me… as you’re ever going to be. I need to leave. It’s three in the morning.” Indeed it was. And though we saw each other again in the nights and days that followed, by the time I pointed the Nissan back towards Louisville I mostly loved her at a distance, isolated by the mechanism I’d placed between me and her, the relentless rationality that denies love and says this: move forward, engage drive, smooth from the light, empty of revs and dreaming in the space between here and home.

“How’d you like the car?” the rental agent inquired.

“Honestly,” I lied, “I don’t remember the trip.”

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30 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Continuously Variable Emotion....”


  • avatar
    Halftruth

    At least the car gave you a good ride ;) .

  • avatar
    mikeg216

    Take two dolls and show the court what the bad man did to you. Lols you sure do know how to make the ladies swoon Mr baruth!

  • avatar
    Vipul Singh

    “It is the level where one’s mind is in the grip of an idea so compelling, so overwhelming, that the task of driving the car has to be handed off to the not-quite-conscious mind”

    Wow! That really struck a chord with me. Reminded me of a time when I drove for 45 minutes on a dual carriageway (in India, no less!), engrossed in a deep conversation with my friend (and co-passenger). I kid you not, I do not remember anything about those 45 minutes, except the topic of conversation. All this while, I was dodging dangerous drivers, trucks coming the wrong way in a desprate bid to overtake another truck with a relative speed of 0.1 Km/hr between them.

    Once the conversation was over, it was as though I came out of a trance or something….

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Only Jack can rip your heart out and make you appreciate the engineering behind a CVT and why it is a good version of an automatic transmission at the same time.

    It makes me feel sad for Jack and sorry for those silly 9 speed automatics that will soon be coming our way because Americans have an irrational hatred of CVT.

    • 0 avatar
      cognoscenti

      @PrincipalDan: The hatred is not irrational. Look at the long-term reliability of every single vehicle with a CVT prior to Nissan, regardless of manufacturer. For Nissan, the jury is still out.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        That is up for debate. Steve Lang as the resident used car guy has said Fords large car CVT (in the FiveHundred and platform mates) seems to just need religious 75,000-80,000 mile servicing. GM had issues with the CVT in the Saturn VUE but then it’s GM, I’d never jump into a new technology bed with them until they have had a chance to work it out. The biggest CVT dud that was a shocker was Honda when they tried it in the Civic and other small cars a few years back. I wouldn’t exactly call that massive fail. Nissan’s units are JATCO and the supplier does seem committed to continuously improving the technology.

      • 0 avatar
        Hoser

        My Five Hundred CVT has had no issues outside of a 50 RPM “flutter” that was taken care of with a reflash under warranty.

        From my memory of the forums at the time, there seemed to be more problems with the 6spd Aisin than the CVT, but maybe that was just because they were more common. Most catastrophic CVT failures seemed to happen early and under warranty.

  • avatar

    Wife wants a new Outback but I’ve been wary of its CVT..,maybe time for further study, as they say…

    • 0 avatar
      grzydj

      The second gen CVT in the 2013 Subaru’s are quite good.

    • 0 avatar
      PhilMills

      I have a 2012 2.5 Premium with the CVT.
      I recommend it strongly as long as you get whatever trim level provides the flappy paddles on the wheel.

      We got about 32MPG on a 5K mile road trip from Colorado to SanFran and up to Portland and back, including a nice long stretch up the 1/101 through the redwoods. That gave it a “win” for economy for the amount of room you get and it was WAY more willing to have fun on the twisty curves than I’d have expected (you just need to use more foot than usual).

      We live in Colorado, so I’m a big manual-shift proponent for dealing with downhill stretches and weather. If you get the flappy paddles, holding speed down the 6% grades on I-70 (or holding 15mph stuck behind a minivan full of tourists on Trail Ridge) is cake. No brakes needed, just tap a paddle down a couple of steps.

      My only other suggestions: add the STi swaybar to the rear (it’s soft) and leave more stopping room because the brakes aren’t the strongest.

  • avatar
    espressoBMW

    Great use of a Bonham reference!

  • avatar
    NN

    Great writing. These Altima’s will finally bring the CVT out into the mainstream and let the jury decide on long term reliability on the technology after a few more years of real world experience. Early small volume use of CVT technology from Subaru, Saturn, Honda, Audi, Ford, and even Nissan’s first uses in the Murano were supposedly plagued with expensive transmission failures, which gave the CVT a terrible reputation. AFAIK they can’t be rebuilt and only replaced. If your automatic in your Ford goes bad you can get it rebuilt for $1500, but if your CVT goes bad it’s $6k-$8k for a new one. If these Altima’s regularly make it to high mileage on this transmission then Nissan will have gotten it right. I’d certainly consider the new Quest for my next family vehicle, but still fear CVT long term
    reliability.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    Wow, thanks Jack, I have an open mind to Nissans and the CVT now. It’s ironic that my (new to me) 2011 Furd Taurus (with 25K miles) is in the shop with transmission problems. I was pleased to get a call from them acknowleging that they “felt” it too and it would need to go up on the rack. Short story – when trying to start off from a stop, driving normal-like, it goes, 1st, 2nd, blahhhhhhhhhh, 5th? give ger more gas and she takes off,start off like you’re in a hurry – damn thing runs fine. This situation is NOT good for your MPG!

  • avatar
    JuniperBug

    While I don’t know the relation, if any, to the Altima’s transmission, I recall being similarly impressed by the CVT in the Versa I test drove around 2009. Indoctrinated by the anti-hype, I was expecting to hate it, but came away thinking that it was perfectly fine for the entry-level economy car that it was installed in. Granted, I did give the sales guy a bit of a pucker trying to pass someone on the left before taking our exit, but that misjudgement in passing ability had more to do with my daily driver at the time matching the Versa’s 125 hp at less than a quarter the weight. As far as I’m concerned, CVTs make more sense than 6-8 speed automatics.

  • avatar
    Bill Steege

    ““How’d you like the car?” the rental agent inquired.”

    They asked me the same thing when I returned our rental Altima after a roadtrip from San Antonio to Denver and back.

    I told her “the car was alright, for transportation. But I wouldn’t buy one for myself or my wife.” She seemed to have heard that before, nodding in agreement.

    Biggest hurdle for me was the CVT. It worked great. Smooth. But I always felt that the engine was running too fast and halfway expected that the CVT would shift up one more setting to bring engine speed in line with road speed.

    But that could have just been the CVT adjusting for the long climb up I-25 into the Rockies because on the way back I coasted much of the way down until we hit the flatlands again.

    Given a choice, I’d take a manual transmission over a CVT. If given a choice between only automatics, I’d take a step-hydraulic transmission over a CVT.

    The interior was roomy enough for two people and all their gear for a weeklong roadtrip, and the ride was comfortable although the steering wheel felt numb with no feedback from the road.

    I drove the Altima from San Antonio to Denver to Grand Junction to Albuquerque and back to San Antonio over the span of 7 full days. The gas mileage was good although I didn’t keep track of it but the quality of gas we got along the way was only fair to middlin’.

    Whenever the gas tank got low, I filled it up with Regular Unleaded, and got snacks to fill us up too. Used all sorts of different Regular Unleaded gas, from E15 to E10 to gas free of ethanol.

    Best gas we got was at the Amoco station Grand Junction. It made the little engine feel giddy with get up and go. It was remarkable! It was E10.

    Worse gas we got was at a truckstop on I-25. Pretty sure it was E10 as well but it took a lot of gas pedal just to get the car to move, and that was going downhill. Other than that, the trip was uneventful.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I have a 2010 Altima and have had them as rentals. I live in western PA where we have hills. Sometimes, say climbing a steep hill, the CVT and I have a disagreement about what I need ratio-wise. I will, for instance, toe in a bit more power. This causes too many revs, which makes me ease off. This causes me to lose more speed than I want. It’s a slight problem, but it can be the CVT equivalent of hunting for gears.

    Also, pulling out of an intersection quickly takes a bit more planning because the powertrain just isn’t as responsive as a normal auto, probably in deference to the CVT for longevity.

    But having driven rental Altimas in flat areas, the CVT makes perfect sense. Very little drama, no shifting obviously. And as Jack mentioned, decent mileage for a large car. 100% city driving with the hills I manage 19mpg. In the flat lands, 23 mpg with the same basic powertrain.

    I have grown to appreciate the CVT more. In 90% of the driving I do, it’s fine. On the highway, it certainly drops the revs down to about 2000 rpm at 70mph. The grade logic on downhill runs is superb, only the general boominess of the 2.5 at 3000 rpm or above ruins it. Manual mode with a CVT is the closest you can get to a manual feel in an “automatic” Passing is a breeze, it must be really easy to go stupid fast in the V6 models.

    I’m actually interested in getting a ’13 Altima as a rental, just to see what Nissan did to improve the car and powertrain. No, it’s not an exciting car, but it has it’s virtues. I had an 06 Accord and the Altima is definitely quieter and more comfortable, if not quite as mechanically refined as that car was.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      “Also, pulling out of an intersection quickly takes a bit more planning because the powertrain just isn’t as responsive as a normal auto, probably in deference to the CVT for longevity.”

      This is the biggest complaint about the CVT. The delay when pulling away from the curb or at a traffic light is not what motorists want, and a lack of planning by a typical driver can be dangerous at an intersection. It’s probably set up to maximize fuel economy, not the longevity of the CVT, since jackrabbit starts kill economy, but there should be a way to restore a little acceleration from a stationary position, even if does use a little more fuel. If a CVT can be made to do that, people would be more receptive to them. If NHTSA sees the delay as an actual hazard, CVT makers may be forced to do it.

  • avatar
    brandeselitch

    Jack,
    I read about cars all day long, even surreptitiously at work (even though I know they are tracking it). I write about cars occasionally (www.velocetoday.com). I have to say that you are, in my opinion, one of the best automotive journalists out there today. Of course, you don’t have much competition in the print world, or even in the internet world, well except for Sanjeev and Ronnie. I didn’t think you could ever surpass your obituary of David E. Davis, but you sure did here. I even forwarded this to Wife #3 and my son too (not from the same wife). This piece belongs in the New Yorker.
    b.e.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for an incredible compliment, though I have to say it’s not entirely deserved. While I’m fairly confident in my abilities as a writer, at best I’m a journeyman. Jack’s an artist. He’ll use a throwaway line in a private email that leaves me smiling and shaking my head in amazement.

      Robert Hunter, the late lyricist for the Grateful Dead, once said that it was all just tricks with words. It’s a rare thing to see clever wordplay combined with underlying insight.

  • avatar

    Perhaps celibacy is underrated. Man, the bullshit that men and women put up with from each other in the quest for some intimacy and a little of the old in out in out is just mind boggling.

    Sometimes I think that the last thing a lover (or potential lover) wants to hear is the truth.

    If you want unconditional love, get a dog. Most humans are far too transactional to love unconditionally.

  • avatar
    DGA

    So this is what happens when you cross a romance novel and automotive journalism…terrible.

    I did like the review of Altima’s CVT though. Well written and I could not agree more, from having to drive one a few years back as a rental in Maui.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      This is TTACs Tame Racing Driver (except he speaks and writes.) I suggest you look up his byline around here.

      It’s been said that he owns two hoodies, one which is glitter gold and the other one that isn’t.

  • avatar
    korvetkeith

    So, all these women are Irish?

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I’ve been to four different rental agencies, rented eight cars in two years, reserved large, midsize and compact, and every one gave me a base Impala with somewhere between 25k and 30k. The last one had Canadian plates and a Metternich speedometer. They NEVER asked me if I like the car, only if there were any problems and did I fill the tank. The last time, I was hoping for the Mitsubishi they advertised!

  • avatar
    MrFixit1599

    We have 3 2006 Ford Escape hybrids as service vehicles, all of course with a maintenance free CVT. 1 has 210k, mine has 245k, and the 3rd has 310k. Never had a single issue with any of the CVT’s. Coolant pumps appears to be the biggest fault, had to have a few replaced of on a couple of them.

  • avatar
    silverbullet

    I had a 2002 Nissan Altima (Nissan First CVT in the Altima) it has reached 100,000 miles and the engine is still good!

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Momma

    Fresh from college I met a lovely girl who proved a great muse for my more base urges and it would seem she felt similarly about me. We were two fast friends who placed no ties upon one another and yet derived more benefits from our relationship than most starry-eyed lovers. Then one day during a tryst at the Motel 6 she informed me she was marrying the wealthy heir to a Christian radio network. I wished her well, despite my anathema for that industry. Turns out he was bad in the sack and our occasional summits resumed. Like all good things it had to come to an end. I arrived to my shop and a stricken-looking employee passed a scribbled note to me: “If you continue seeing my wife” it implored “there will be trouble”. Having better things to do than get murdered, I conceded.
    You would’ve loved her.
    Re. CVT’s, I’ve two Honda Insights: a manual 2000 and a 2001 with the CVT. The CVT has a greater range of ratios and always picks the right one. Unless it’s an uncompromising sports car I can live without a manual.
    I can also live without uncompromising women. A man needs some latitude.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Well written Jack ;

    I didn’t realize you’d dated my psycho-b*tch ex girlfriend Audrey .

    The sex _was_ amazing wasn’t it ? .

    I’m happy she stopped calling because that pull was so strong .

    -Nate


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