Am I the only one who enjoys a CVT (continuously variable transmission) from time to time? The Subaru Forester and Nissan Maxima both use one, and they are two spectacular cars that I regularly recommend to buyers, but what seems to irk people the most is when you slap one of these eco-minded rubberband slushboxes onto what they consider a sports car, say a Subaru WRX.
Blasphemy? Tragedy? Call it what you will. Despised by enthusiasts, the CVT checkbox on the options sheet is a bane of the WRX’s existence, or so they say. To find out what the big deal was about, I went and tested the WRX Sport-Tech loaded with the CVT and suffice to say, it’s not as bad as people think.
What is a CVT? Well it is a transmission that does not use any “real gears”, rather just an intricate system of belts, chains, and pulleys that allow for an infinite number of “gears”, or what we call ratios. This enables the CVT to tailor the ratio towards any given situation depending on steering input and speed.
Pushing the gas pedal will result in a quick rise in RPMs without interruption to the redline, where it will sort of just, stay there. This keeps the engine at its optimal power range, producing maximum power at all times – a huge advantage over a traditional torque converter automatic.
It doesn’t audibly respond like an automatic either, whereby the revs consistently drone on at a single octave instead of rising and falling. On the plus side, a CVT has fewer moving parts, so that means less wear and tear. One of the biggest benefits however is that it is generally more fuel-efficient than an automatic.
But hey, if you’re looking for a four-door sedan and appreciate the perks of a sports suspension, full-time all-wheel drive, 268-hp, but live in an area where your commute is bogged down by 24/7 traffic, or maybe you’re sharing the car with a spouse or child that do not know how to drive stick (not many millennials seem to know these days), then the WRX with its CVT option might tickle your fancy.
Subaru’s CVT ($1,300 extra) or what they call their Sport Lineartronic, can mimic six or eight preset “gears” depending on the mode selected and when manually shifting via the paddles. This emulates shift points like a traditional automatic and while it does a fairly convincing job of it to non-enthusiasts, hardcore Subie drivers will nevertheless feel its counterfeit trickery.
But opting for the CVT does not just change the transmission, but also the type of all-wheel drive system that goes into the WRX. Manual-equipped WRXs use a center-locking differential to manage an equal 50:50 split of torque front to rear. CVT models on the other hand use electronically controlled clutches to keep torque distribution at 45:55, front to rear, for a more rear-biased setup from the get go. And due to the extra weight from the latter, the springs on the CVT models are stiffened just a pinch.
All of this is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre flat-four engine, or what Subaru calls a BOXER engine, that delivers 268 hp and 258 lb-ft with the assistance of direct injection. It’s a fantastic motor with large reserves of power, but it drones a lot and the turbo lag is more than noticeable when you push the gas pedal in anything but the most aggressive Sport# setting. This can be conveniently selected via the buttons mounted on the steering wheel for an instant change of driving behaviour.
Sport# is what you want to be in, all the time. The steering tightens, the throttle response becomes needle-prickling quick, and the CVT will hold the revs longer at its peak to juice out every ounce of power. Oddly enough, the CVT feels faster than the manual because you aren’t being bogged down by clutching in and swapping gears, and instead holds the power at its apex before kicking down.
The CVT does not sound as good as the manual revving through its real gears of course, and the CVT drones like no tomorrow, but there’s no denying that it’s brisk and actually fun on back roads. It makes for a great beginner’s car for someone who isn’t comfortable multi-tasking with their left foot and right hand.
Steering remains well weighted and faithful to road feedback. It needs a quicker steering rack though if the WRX wants to feel sportier and more reactive not just to throttle input, but to the steering. Right now my arms are getting quite the work out on challenging serpentine roads, requiring a near-180 degree rotation just to get the car turning 90 degrees.
As expected, the WRX’s suspension is performance-tuned so don’t expect it to be comfortable. It’s not stiff per say, but it follows the road very well and contours to every undulation, a welcome notification of its undivided grip and focus. It’s not adjustable electronically, so be prepared to apologize to your passengers every time they decide to carpool with you.
For 2017, the WRX does not see many changes, just a revised manual transmission for improved shift feel, power windows for both driver and front passenger, a different fabric roofliner, and upgraded tech features including Sirius XM Travel Link, Siri Eyes Free, and Mirrorlink compatibility. Subaru’s sporty sedan still retains its functional hood scoop, 18-inch alloy wheels, and quad exhausts that make it appear like a wingless STI.
I am not sure why Subarus have always been criticized for their sub-par interiors, but I think it’s actually quite lovely in here, and by lovely I mean focused and expected from its segment and price point. The materials used aren’t high quality, but they do feel solid and durable. The thin windows and door panels do little to insulate the cabin from outside noise, but it does what Subaru does best, and that is to offer outstanding outward visibility with thin A-pillars and wide glass.
The WRX offers three trims levels: Base, Sport, and Sport-Tech, the latter of which was on our tester. The base model is almost as good as it gets, with a smaller 6.2-inch display with Bluetooth, Sirius XM, heated front seats and a rear view camera.
The mid-level Sport is where I would find my money going. It adds on a power adjustable driver’s seat, lip spoiler, sunroof, auto LED headlights and fog lights. Sport-Tech goes a little overboard with features like bigger 18-inch wheels, a larger 7-inch display, leather-trimmed upholstery, and push-button start with keyless entry, but the only reason why you would probably opt for Sport-Tech is for the 9-speaker Harmon Kardon system to replace the unpleasant base audio.
There certainly is a market for the CVT, or else Subaru would have never introduced it a few years back. Based on sales alone, CVT uptake is close to 20%, which isn’t bad. Yes, a dual-clutch automatic or even a standard automatic would make it feel more engaging and add to the rally-like experience of driving a Subaru, but it doesn’t strip the WRX of the essence that it was built upon.
If you are looking for a sporty four-door sedan with rally heritage, all-wheel drive, superb handling and a proven engine, but can’t be hassled with the trouble of shifting your own gears, then you’ll be glad to know that you aren’t sacrificing much by opting for the CVT. It’s a great transmission, one that has unfortunately been bogged down by bad reputation.