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2015 Subaru Forester - Embracing CVT

March 21, 2016

 

To escape the smog of Salt Lake City during “Inversion Season” (winter time), I decided to go for a drive and try to formulate my first review article for Everyday Driver. Because all the best roads were covered with snow, I wanted to do it with something that isn't necessarily a go-to choice as a sports car, or even a fun daily driver. Inspired by my surroundings, I found the perfect candidate; the 2015 Subaru Forester XT.

 

The Forester has the same power-to-weight ratio as my 2005 Outback XT. Both have 250 hp and weigh roughly 3600 lbs. But, while my old Subaru hits its peak torque of 250 ft. lbs. at 3500 rpm, the Forester finds  258 ft. lbs by 2000 rpm. This is a great thing, because this “torque table” of power keeps you from winding out the motor and prevents the drone that often plagues CVT equipped cars. All that power and torque comes via Subaru’s FA20 motor, the same one found in the 2015+ WRX and Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S twins. To add an additional 52hp and 107 ft lbs of torque, Subaru installed a twin-scroll turbocharged system, but then hobbled it with their CVT.

I should admit that I am in love the manual gearbox. Whenever I drive one, I enjoy the experience just a little bit more than I would otherwise. Even though modern dual clutch systems can be truly amazing, I’m often saddened to see the manual transmission slowly dying. But most alarming is to watch traditional automatics get replaced with Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs), all in the name of efficiency. I’ve never understood any benefits to this technology, so with the Forester I hoped to get to know the enemy a bit more.


Paul and Todd have told me that Subaru makes one of the best CVTs on the market, so I climbed into the Forester XT hoping for the best.  This “shiftable” CVT currently resides in the Forester XT, WRX, Crosstrek XV, Impreza, Legacy and Outback models. It’s taking over the entire Subaru line. In fact, the only current Subarus not offering the CVT are the BRZ and STI.

My previous exposure to CVT transmissions came in form of a rental Nissan Altima my friend's 2013 Honda Accord. Both of them convinced me that this setup is just dull. The engine drones, “manual mode” doesn’t feel like you’re changing gears at all, and you have to wind out the motor aggressively to get any speed that feels entertaining. In comparison, the Subaru was a revelation. Not only did I forget that I was driving a car with a CVT, but I actually started to enjoy myself. Transitions to each pre-programed “gear” were quick, concise, and felt like a well sorted traditional automatic.

 

Then there’s the “Sport” button. I’ve always been skeptical about car companies that implement a “Sport” button on cars like this, even if it’s easily accessible on the steering wheel. In the Forester, the “SI-Drive” allows more adjustment of ratios and shift speeds in addition to the more typical changes in throttle response and damping. The two steering wheel buttons reveal 4 different settings: Sport Intelligent and Sport # (that’s a sharp, not hashtag), and manual or automatic mode. Intelligent mode is more for driving around town, and Sport # turns the shifts sharper and more concise. It will even simulate downshifts under heavy braking. A real surprise.

As far as the handling is concerned, the Forester is a tall-ish car that weighs over 3,600 lbs. Combine this with stock suspension, all-season tires, and mid-winter driving conditions and it’s safe to say that I didn’t push the car to its full potential. Or even 80%. The steering was light around city driving, and felt confident in the canyons. However, it did feel a bit top heavy. Understeer threatened but never actually made an appearance, this could be a result of the conditions, but is more likely a truth of this car.  In its current configuration, the Forester is definitely not meant as a canyon carver. But, lower the car about 2”, put wider and stickier tires on, and you could really have something. Personally if I owned one (which who knows, that may end up happening), I would go the other way, adding knobby tires and a brush guard to encourage off-roading.

Prices for an entry level Forester XT start at $29,195 and can rise to an astounding $42,265 if you check every box. With $30k available for an AWD fun car I would buy a lightly used STI instead.

 

Considering it’s the middle of winter and the Forester came with a CVT, my expectations here were already low. I suspected Subaru went the route of their Japanese brethren and completely ignored the fun that makes a car entertaining. But at the end of the day, I still wanted more time in it. I had driven it up and down the canyon twice, and around the city in every possible low speed environment. Unexpectedly, I could see myself with a Forester as a daily and an older Honda S2000 as a fun track car/canyon carver. As far as getting the groceries is concerned, a Forester with a CVT transmission has definitely caught my attention and wouldn’t mind a used one in 2-3 years. I never thought I’d say that.

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