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Why Subaru’s CVT Is The Most Misunderstood Feature On New Forester And Crosstrek

Why does Subaru use a CVT automatic transmission in the 2021 Forester and Crosstrek? See why it’s one of the most misunderstood and the best drivetrain feature.


We know we’ll get a negative response from this report. Still, the Subaru Lineartronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) automatic gearbox is one of the best features on the 2021 Forester, Crosstrek, Outback, and Ascent SUVs. It’s probably the most misunderstood part of the drivetrain and despised by most automotive “experts.” But when used correctly, it’s a feature that ramps up driver engagement.

The CVT automatic transmission is criticized most because they are high revving, noisy, and slow to accelerate once the car is moving. In most cars, this is true. Subaru pairs the Boxer engine with the CVT automatic for its fuel-saving capabilities. The CVT uses a step-less gear ratio that allows the engine to run in its optimal power range, no matter what speed you maintain, for improved fuel economy and performance. But Subaru adds two misunderstood features.

2021 Subaru Forester, 2021 Subaru Crosstrek

But Subaru adds a manual mode function with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow the driver to select seven or eight preset ratios depending on the model. Most automotive journalists don’t take the time to understand, and most importantly, use the system correctly to maximize the Lineartronic CVT’s abilities.

They leave the transmission in automatic mode, eliminating the need to shift and let the Lineartronic CVT adjust to match acceleration. But they let one of the best attributes of the Forester, Crosstrek, and Outback go unused.

The 2021 Subaru Forester Sport, Limited, and Touring models use a Lineartronic CVT with Adaptive Control and a 7-speed manual mode with steering wheel paddle shifters. All 2021 Subaru Outback trims come with Lineartronic CVT with Adaptive Control and an 8-speed manual mode with paddles.

The 2021 Crosstrek Sport and Limited get the automaker’s newest Lineartronic CVT with Adaptive Control, Incline Start Assist, and 8-speed manual mode with paddle shifters.

2021 Subaru Forester, 2021 Subaru Crosstrek

In 7-or 8-Speed Manual Mode, paddle shifters are mounted near the top of the steering wheel for easy “fingertip control,” giving the driver the ability to select the gear ratio that suits the driving situation. The result is a sharper and sportier driving experience. But many automotive journalists are either too lazy or fail to learn how to use the paddles correctly.

They let the transmission sort everything out on its own by default and then complain because it doesn’t “shift” like a conventional automatic transmission. But Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT manual mode combined with the steering wheel paddles are a unique feature for drivers who take the time to understand how it works.

The CVT, manual mode, and paddles work in concert and are an excellent option to have in a performance context. The driver can “downshift” with the left paddle and bump the shifter on the center console left to lock it into manual mode. The two features give the informed driver a high level of engagement and control over the transmission’s behavior, as you’ll find in more expensive sports cars.

The Subaru Lineartronic CVT automatic gearbox is one of the best features on the 2021 Subaru Forester, Crosstrek, Outback, and Ascent SUVs when appropriately used.

You Might Also Like: 5 Ways To Best Use The New Subaru Forester and Crosstrek Paddles And One You Should Avoid

Denis Flierl has invested over 30 years in the automotive industry in a consulting role working with every major car brand. He is an accredited member of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press. Check out Subaru Report where he covers all of the Japanese automaker's models. More stories can be found on the Torque News Subaru page. Follow Denis on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Photo credit: Subaru


morphd (not verified)    November 11, 2020 - 5:28PM

I'm a life long manual transmission user but a few years ago rented a Subaru Legacy for a vacation trip up the Olympic Peninsula. I discovered the paddle shifters after a bit and used them extensively going through the mountains. It was one of the best driving experiences I've had in a rental car. While I prefer a manual (as in my 2018 Forester), the eventual (forced) transition to a CVT probably won't be as bad as I once feared.

Shorm (not verified)    November 11, 2020 - 11:58PM

In reply to by morphd (not verified)

meh I have a 2018 Legacy and the CVT sucks. The paddle shifters are pointless and do nothing but pinch your fingers when you're gripping the wheel. Car is so slow off the line and the engine groans.

boudica (not verified)    April 22, 2023 - 10:07AM

In reply to by morphd (not verified)

Flappy paddles is as useless on a CVT as engine noise is pumped into the cabin of an EV....THE POINT of a CVT is that it will always be in the optimal rpm for torque and acceleration. It is a belt driven transmission that will not last as long as a regular transmission/dct/manual transmission...and cost thousands to just replace the whole thing...dealerships wont rebuild the transmission...DONT BUY CVT VECHICLES

Kenneth Lake (not verified)    November 11, 2020 - 10:06PM

I had never driven an automatic until I bought the crosstrek in 2013. The CVT is an excellent transmission. It is always in exactly the right gear for the throttle position selected. Yes, that means that it revs high, the optimum number for the conditions. Auto writers seem to hate them but I don't have any idea why. I really enjoyed the paddle shifters.
I have since purchased a car with a normal automatic, 9 speed, and the crosstrek was much better. Smoother, better gas mileage, and I really miss the paddle shifters.

Steve (not verified)    June 10, 2021 - 6:59PM

In reply to by Sad Review (not verified)

take it on board, read it, absorb it, try it then - what he's saying about getting the most from the CVT by driving using it properly is totally in line with my experience (and I had been a sceptic).
Many people are just too bigoted or too unimaginative/lazy drivers to put it to the test

steve (not verified)    June 10, 2021 - 6:27PM

In reply to by Jim Hertsch (not verified)

by "adaptive control" of the CVT mannerisms he means selecting I, S or S# modes. These change the car's response considerably especially when making use of the paddles

HW (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 9:54AM

All cars that use CVT should have paddle shifters or ability to select to select lower gear ratios, like conventional automatics, for better control on downhills. The braking mode on many CVTs is only good for lower speeds, at higher speeds, too much braking is added. If Subaru was really concerned about driving experience, the paddle shifters would be across the board, not just on higher trims.

jg (not verified)    November 16, 2020 - 1:25PM

In reply to by HW (not verified)

I think you're talking exclusively about the Forester as this is the only model still excluding paddle shifters on some of the trim levels (at least as far as I recall).

I believe Subaru's view of Forester customers has been that they are generally older (especially since the front section of the doors double as hand-holds for getting in and out) and the Forester buyers didn't want anything complicated. So unless customers were getting the performance version (XT) then any unnecessary complications were avoided.

I started leasing Subaru's in '14 and for the longest time I wouldn't get my wife a Forester because it only had a "Drive" and "Low" mode for the transmission (which drove me nuts, even if I was only using her car once in a while). She ended up with a couple Crosstreks instead until we finally had to upsize to a '17 XT (wanted a 2.5 but got the XT because it had paddle shifters and they are indispensable in the mountains).

So I think keeping it simple was what took them so long to bring any paddle shifters into the Forester lineup. I believe it was the Black Edition in '18 that was the first naturally aspirated engine with a CVT and paddle shifters, but much like the 2021 Crosstrek Sport it was very limited in the options you could get and I remember considering it for my son, but it was more of a dumping ground for their old technology than anything else.

So even though every other model has already had paddle shifters in every trim for years, the Forester is only now catching up, but Subaru is still "giving the customers what they want" with certain trims and I think more than anything the company is saving money for as long as possible by not including them.

Tony Apuzzo (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 11:21AM

My favorite characteristic of the CVT in my Outback 3.6r is when driving up long mountain grades like I-70 Eisenhower Tunnel approach in Colorado. Since the CVT can choose any gear ratio to maintain speed, it never lurches to downshift like automatic transmissions nor do you end up having to choose between 2 not-quite-right manual gears. This means that the engine doesn't rev too high or low and just smoothly drives up whatever grade.

Jonathan Burris (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 11:24AM

The use of the "manual" mode in snow and ice is necessary to keep the transmission in a lower gear to maintain traction and forward progress.

jg (not verified)    November 16, 2020 - 12:34PM

In reply to by Jonathan Burris (not verified)

I disagree. Turn off VDC and mash your foot down when you want to spin the wheels, or on the newer cars the Deep Mud/Snow setting lets the wheels spin a bit instead of cutting the throttle to maintain traction without wheel spin.

Doug (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 1:40PM

This article was a poorly written fluff piece. It's true that the Subaru CVT is a good transmission and it does work well, we've owned 3 of them; all the high torque versions from the WRX and 3.6R, but to say that automotive journalists don't understand how it works or have never seen paddles before is ludicrous. Calling manual mode a "feature" is even a stretch. Most automatics, whether they are traditional gears or CVTs allow you to switch to manual mode. It's a basic function of all these transmissions. The takeaway here is: don't hate on the CVT, it's just as good as other automatics. The way it was presented was like there was nothing else to write about today.

Tim Allbaugh (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 3:27PM

I don't even own a Crosstrek, but whenever I drive one I typically use the paddle shifters. Even in automatic mode, I feel like the CVT is plenty responsive and the drive-terrain is peppy for only 150+ hp in the 2016. Pretty impressive vehicle for the price. I might be buying one or a Lexus NX 200t. Mileage in the Crosstrek is tough to beat tho.

Jaron West (not verified)    November 12, 2020 - 5:10PM

Have a 2019 Forester Sport with about 23,000 miles on it. I've generally found the CVT to be enjoyable and can manage as high as 35mpg with a full (like evacuated my home FULL) car if I'm taking it real easy and sticking to about 70 on the freeway. More average is about 30mpg though with my mountain driving. I use my paddle shifters all the time to help keep me at a good engine braking level or for more spirited driving. I also found that sometimes coasting downhill more than 1 or 2 degrees will initiate some engine brake, but if you want to just coast and gain speed, toss it in manual mode and your highest gear to override that. I did notice though that my highest gear still isn't as high as the CVT can go in auto-mode (by about 200-300 RPMs). Maybe I am missing a weak point in the CVT, but couldn't it also be setup with an x-mode only range of gearing below "1st gear" in lieu of a transfer case?

jg (not verified)    November 16, 2020 - 12:51PM

I've had CVTs in '14, '16, and '18 Outbacks (also 6 other '14 and later Crosstreks and Foresters for my wife) and they have all been great. Most people that complain about them haven't driven them.

The worst "feature" is the ridiculously annoying and power-sapping "fake shift" they added because of all the whining from people that don't realize how CVTs work. My '14 Outback was super-smooth and always had the optimum engine speed during hard acceleration, but the '16 had the fake shifts added and was beyond annoying until I figured out how to avoid them. I've been writing to Subaru ever since to lobby for it to be a software selectable option.

I found in both my '16 and '18 (both 3.6Rs) that if I keep the RPM below 3,000 when accelerating then the fake shifts don't happen and it is much less annoying while still pulling quite well.

Rick Jeffries (not verified)    November 30, 2020 - 2:41PM

In reply to by jg (not verified)

I agree, I have a 2018 Forester 2.5 and as long as I don't "floor it" and drive it "normally", it works just fine....only if I try to drive aggressively with lots of "flooring the pedal" then its OK...a 2.5 Forester was simply not designed to drive aggressively, so if people keep in perspective what the vehicle is designed for, they'll be OK with it I think...

Nickolas G Wimble (not verified)    March 4, 2021 - 4:29PM

In reply to by jg (not verified)

They work fine for you, because you are not keeping them long enough to feel the "burn" let us know how you love them after you try to put 2-300K on one.....Last car I owned with one, was on it's 3rd CVT before 150K.....current car has 320K on a conventional 5 speed auto......CVTs SUCK, which is why Mercedes, Lexus, and most premium brands don't use them....I would rather manual shift, than buy another CVT

Rick Jeffries (not verified)    November 30, 2020 - 2:38PM

I have a 2018 Forester...first vehicle I have owned with a CVT. The thing I have learned about driving my Forester is that the CVT works fine when you drive "normally" Accelerating at a models pace from a stop and general stop and go driving as well as the occasional passing maneuver all work well. If you like to drive a vehicle "hard and fast" with lots of "Jack-rabbit" full-throttle starts and lots of flooring the gas pedal, you are not going to like the CVT...this tranny is not designed for aggressive driving...if you drive normally and "conservatively" you will be just fine with a CVT.

David Carvalheira (not verified)    February 25, 2021 - 3:02PM

Eventually, downshifting with that paddles end up to ruin the transmission of the vehicle at 120k. Crosstrek 2014. Subaru actually on their startup manual for the 2014 advise people to use the paddles to downshift to help the brakes and eventually stop more efficiently. I also downshift to accelerate. So what that did for 120K miles? The car vibrates like we are having an earthquake inside, literally the CVT transmission is gone. The CVT transmission is not designed for this kind of driving, once in a while you can downshift, but only once in a while! Drive your CVT and waste and pay for the brakes and forget the paddles on your steering wheel!

J (not verified)    August 23, 2023 - 3:38AM

In reply to by David Carvalheira (not verified)

I really wanted those paddles, as a former stick driver, in mountain driving. But ended up buying a Foz with only D-L, and no paddles. My manual car prior did what manuals do for drivers who can manage a stick - brakes went ~90k before service. The motor didn't care about holding speed on downhills, and lasted well. And the gearbox was still 100% after 200k+miles. The CVT Subaru without manual paddles, though, is pretty darn good at predicting what you want it to do. I'm impressed. It's the only "modern" auto that I've come down big grades with, that held speed without some manual gear selection. It seems to note what speed you want, and downshift to what gets you that speed. It doesn't try to upshift aggressively like modern autos, but is very responsive, in an anticipatory way, toward what your desired speed is. You're relying a lot on programming to do what you could do with a stick, but Subaru has done a pretty amazing job of constructing that programming.

Nickolas G Wimble (not verified)    March 4, 2021 - 4:21PM

CVTs have horrible reliability records, on high mileage vehicles, if you are going to own a car for less than 100K, and NEVER pull a fishing boat, or drive in the mountains, they are fine....Car makers use them because they are CHEAP, and not current car has 320K miles on it (NO CVT) and shifts fine, previous car was on it's 3rd CVT before it hit 150K miles.....I will NEVER own another one !

Steve Kimsey (not verified)    June 20, 2021 - 2:52AM

In reply to by Steve (not verified)

Nick’s sample in one of many reliability complaints of Subaru’s CVT transmissions. Most of the complaints aren’t my car wouldn’t go into third gear also. They are complaints like the car jerked or banged, wouldn’t re-start, and it almost killed us. No thanks. I’ll be buying a Crosstrek with a manual.

Paul Gordon (not verified)    March 5, 2021 - 11:19AM

Minimal engagement with maximum performance That's what automatic transmissions offer without CVT limitations. CVT's as well as turbochargers, instead of adequate horsepower, unfortunately are here to stay as long as we continue to bow the knee to environmental extremism.