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5 Ways To Best Use The New Subaru Forester Paddles And One You Should Avoid

Does the 2020 Subaru Forester have steering wheel paddle shifters? Yes, and here are five ways to utilize them to the fullest and what to avoid.


The 2020 Subaru Forester and other Subaru models come standard with steering wheel paddle shifters, but they are rarely used to their fullest. Steering wheel paddles are usually found on sports cars to take advantage of the car’s performance so the driver can shift the automatic transmission like a manual. You can do the same thing with the Forester, Crosstrek, Outback, and Ascent paddles.

Subaru SUVs aren’t sports cars but the steering wheel paddles serve a specific purpose beyond getting the car to go fast. Subaru uses a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) automatic in all its SUVs and the paddles enhance the transmission’s performance. Here are five ways to use them and also have fun at the same time.

2020 Subaru Forester

If you don’t ever use the paddles located behind either side of the steering wheel you will be fine, but you can improve performance and save wear on your car if they are used properly. Without getting too technical, the Subaru CVT simulates a manual with 8 programmed speeds that holds the CVT pulleys in a fixed position. The paddles will get the most of the “simulated” gears.

You can use the steering wheel paddles in Drive and Manual modes

1. You can use the manual mode by moving the gear shift from “D” (Drive) lever to “M" (Manual) and use the paddle shifters. You will see what gear you are in by the indicator on the dash.

This allows you to shift the transmission manually by downshifting, using the left paddle (-minus), or upshift by using the right paddle (+plus). When in “M” mode the transmission will stay in the gear you choose longer until you hit the paddle up or down.

2020 Subaru Forester

2. The best time to use the paddles in “M” mode is when descending a steep road or trail. You can keep the car in the gear you want and it will slow the vehicle without riding the brakes.

3. If you are off-pavement you can shift to Manual mode and hold the car in first or second gear for better control.

4. It’s also useful to use the paddles in “M” when you are in snow or icy conditions. Downshift the same way you do on a hill descent and it will keep the vehicle at a safe speed allowing better control of the car.

5. If you leave the gear shifter in “D” (automatic), you can also use the paddles and shift up or down, but the transmission will automatically go back to Drive if you don’t touch the paddles or when you step on the brake.

If you are driving the vehicle in the city, you can leave the transmission in Drive and you don’t need the paddle shifters unless you are passing a slower vehicle on the highway, or joining traffic on a short ramp.

In Drive mode, downshift with the left paddle right before passing someone to give you the extra power to get by them, or anytime you need to get up to speed quickly.

What to avoid with the paddles

Avoid downshifting in place of braking when approaching a traffic light, stop sign or other frequent stops. Subaru says downshifting "is only recommended in situations where the engine braking would be needed, such as when descending a grade. Normally, a driver would have no need to engine brake when just coming to a stop at a light or stop sign. Since the transmission is not designed to handle this, it would accelerate wear on the CVT." 

The 2020 Subaru Forester, Crosstrek, Outback, and Ascent SUVs all have steering wheel paddles and they can enhance the performance of the vehicle’s CVT automatic transmission. You can make use of the SUVs capabilities and have more fun as you drive.

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Denis Flierl has invested over 30 years in the automotive industry in a variety of roles. All of his reports are archived on our Subaru page. Follow Denis on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Subaru Report. Check back tomorrow for more Subaru news and updates at Torque News!

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Photo credit: Subaru, Competition Subaru


HW (not verified)    July 16, 2020 - 10:18AM

"The 2020 Subaru Forester and other Subaru models come standard with steering wheel paddle shifters,,,,"

Unfortunately, not true for Forester. Paddle shifters can be had only if you get higher priced Sport or Touring models. Paddle shifters have never been available on lower trim Foresters.

jg (not verified)    July 22, 2020 - 3:36PM

[this reads best if you're playing the "paddle shifter drinking game"]

I have been lobbying Subaru to add paddle shifters to the Forester since 2014 when I got my first Outback (with paddle shifters). The Forester was right-sized for my wife, but the drivability was just "off" with the single "Low Range gearing" so I couldn't commit to getting one (she got a Crosstrek, with paddle shifters, instead) and we finally got a 2017 XT, primarily because of the paddle shifters. They make a huge difference in mountainous terrain and using the engine braking instead of just the brakes also keeps the brakes from wearing down and coating the wheels with brake dust -- like most of the cars around here. I also use them practically every time I am slowing down at an intersection, just as I have in other cars I've owned with manual transmissions.

When the poor mileage and black soot-coated back end got to be too much on the XT we upgraded to the 2019 Forester Touring specifically to get a naturally aspirated engine and all the bells and whistles, including paddle shifters. The availability of paddle shifters was also one the major factors in my son buy a 2020 Forester Sport yesterday.

Diane Salerno (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 12:01PM

Thanks for the explanation. Got very little on the subject from sales when buying. Thinking I really need a class on all the awesome features of my Ascent Touring!

David C. Murra… (not verified)    October 22, 2021 - 9:41AM

We live on the side of the Poas volcano in Costa Rica where the grades are very steep. Without paddle shifters to use to downshift while going to town, our brakes would wear out in no time. It's a vertical drop of about 1,000 feet. I loved the paddle shifters in our 2017 Forester Sport and wouldn't have bought our 2020 (also a Forester Sport) had it not had the paddle shifters.