The humble CVT transmission has had its fair share of fans and haters. Some despise it for how unnatural it might feel compared to a more conventional transmission. Meanwhile, there are those that will stand stoically by it for the myriad of qualify-of-life benefits that CVTs bring. Few carmakers have sworn by sticking with CVT gearboxes as adamantly as Subaru, however. But might they now reconsider that position given the many complaints over Subaru CVT problems over the years?
Subaru has stuck with CVTs for decades now, and it does look like it’ll stay that way for a little bit longer. This might not bother some owners, as they feel that Subaru’s CVTs are a great match for their cars. But as more people have come to become a part of the Subaru owners club, the distaste is growing ever more concerning. Subaru’s CVTs have been plagued with problems here and there. From stalling on the highway, to violent shuddering as it changes gears, irritations are abounding.
On the bright side, at least Subarus CVT problems aren’t as bad as their rivals over at Nissan. The latter of the two has come under fire for how poorly their CVTs can be, with numerous class action lawsuits and recalls in very recent memory. So, should you be concerned over the state of your CVT-equipped Subaru? Is this a problem worth living with, and how could you fix those CVTs? Well, our Subaru CVT problems guide will hopefully answer all your most pressing concerns.
- How do CVTs work?
- Subaru’s CVTs
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Fixes and cost
All you need to know about how a CVT transmission works
Just before we take a closer look at Subaru CVT problems, it might be worthwhile to know more about how it all works. So, why bother with a CVT transmission in the first place? To start, a ‘continuously variable transmission’ – or “CVT“, for short – is one of the most popular transmission options today. It sits alongside the conventional automatic gearbox and the ever-decreasing popularity of three-pedaled manuals. CVTs are especially popular in more mainstream vehicles.
As far as operations go, CVTs work similarly to traditional automatics. CVTs change gears automatically, or you can manually (or sequentially) change gears with the gear lever or paddle shifters. Otherwise, CVTs won’t require any manual input other than changing the direction of travel, such as putting it in neutral or reverse. The key difference here is that CVTs do not have gears, unlike a traditional automatic transmission. Gears are used to regulate the power sent to the wheels.
Most vehicles today can have anywhere from just 1, all the way to 10 gears. Instead of using gears, CVTs use a system of two variable-width coned pulleys, joined by a belt or a chain in the middle. One pulley is connected to the engine, while the other is attached to the transmission. According to your input, the coned pulleys will move inwards and outwards. The configuration or placement of these coned pulleys will then decide which “gear” you’re in, and how much power to send to the wheels.
Subaru’s long history with CVTs
The history of a CVT-style of transmission dates back all the way to Leonardo da Vinci’s mad inventions in the 15th-century. But in the context of Subaru, their adoption of CVT transmissions started in 1989 with the Justy. Consequently, it also became the first production car in the US to have come with a CVT gearbox. And, it was also the first car in the world to mate a 4WD (4-wheel drive) powertrain with Subaru’s innovative ECVT (electronically-controlled CVT).
However, the Justy’s CVT proved to be so unreliable, that it forced Subaru to stop exporting CVT transmissions into the US market until the 5th-generation Legacy, which came along in 2009. The Legacy (called the Outback in some markets) featured a newly redesigned CVT. Known as Subaru’s ‘Lineartronic’ CVT, it remains in use their model line-up till today. It’s been fitted in Subaru’s staple cars, like the Impreza, Crosstrek, Forrester, and even the high-performance WRX cars.
Why is Subaru still sticking with the use of CVT gearboxes?
There are a few good reasons as to why Subaru has stuck with CVT gearboxes for this long. Much of Subaru’s staple models feature all-wheel-drive drivetrains. Plus, Subaru’s cars are also powered mostly by a similar innovative “boxer” engine design. Put together, and Subaru believes CVTs can better manage power from the boxer engine to the all-wheel-drive system in their cars. CVTs should also allow for the most amount of performance to be extracted from their boxer engines.
Optimally, the use of CVT transmissions will add smoothness and responsive acceleration, as well. Another key benefit of CVT transmissions is that they are more compact in design. This simplicity enables a much smaller packaging and saves on weight. Combined with the fact that CVTs could theoretically have an infinite number of gear ratios, this helps to improve fuel efficiency. In turn, it makes for Subaru’s CVTs to be a very compelling option for looking at the best runabout cars.
What are the pros and cons of CVT transmissions that you should be aware of?
As we mentioned earlier in our Subaru problems guide, a CVT gearbox technically can have an infinite number of gear ratios. When optimized best for road cars, however, they’ve been programmed to have set gearing ratios, just like a conventional “geared” automatic. When designed properly, CVTs can have a wealth of benefits to add to your driving and ownership experience. Here are some of the key advantages of why companies like Subaru are still using CVTs…
1. Better fuel efficiency
We learned earlier about why this is the case. The design of a CVT means that your car’s speed and power are always kept in their most optimal range. This consistent and smooth power delivery helps to save a lot on fuel, especially for urban driving or used for short trips. Other than that, the fairly small footprint of CVTs can save precious weight from your car. Overall, any car fitted with a CVT should be able to experience a noticeable reduction in fuel consumption compared to an automatic.
2. Responsive and smooth power delivery
CVTs are claimed to be more responsive – as far as mainstream cars go, anyway – compared to a conventional automatic gearbox. This benefit is once again afforded thanks to the gear-less (and technically a single-speed) design of a CVT. Without any gears, you won’t need to suffer from “shift shock”. This is what happens every time there is a momentary loss of power while your transmission is actively switching gears.
Without shift-shock, your CVT-equipped Subaru should at least feel snappier while accelerating. Another process that a CVT helps to iron out is the need for the transmission to “hunt” for gears. This describes the feeling of your transmission trying to find and select the appropriate gear. A side effect of all this is that your Subaru changes “gears” more smoothly and effortlessly with CVTs, by being able to seamlessly maintain that power delivery.
3. Less moving parts
Since it doesn’t need any gears, CVTs are made to be more compact and have fewer moving parts compared to a regular automatic. This simplicity in its engineering means that there are theoretically fewer things that could go wrong. This is since there’s less friction – therefore, less heat and vibrations – between all of a CVTs internal components. The result is a decrease in the wear and tear being put on the transmission. However, this isn’t the case given how many Subaru CVT problems there are.
The downsides of having a CVT
But for all its wonders, there are some disadvantages owed to fitting a CVT in a car. Enthusiasts, especially, have continually scoffed at carmakers’ – like Subarus – insistence in putting CVTs in their cars. Subjectively, the smooth gearing can be off-putting to enthusiasts that pride in tactility and engagement. CVTs can be perceived as more boring or devoid of any interaction. Aside from the fun-factor though, there are a few other notable flaws with CVT transmissions…
Something that can be noticed in Subarus as well, is that cars equipped with CVT transmission might run louder than those fitted with traditional automatics. Although it maintains power delivery smoothly, CVTs tend to keep the engine running at higher RPMs. This won’t actually result in increased strain or fuel consumption, however. Yet, you might be able to notice a bit more of that boxer engine “roaring” in the background while you’re driving along.
2. More expensive to repair
Despite being simpler in design compared to a conventional automatic gearbox, CVTs have proven to be more costly to repair. As a fairly new and unconventional piece of tech, there aren’t as many spare parts for CVTs. Add to that, there are fewer technicians who are qualified enough to work on them. Moreover, the way they’ve been designed means that there’s more work needed to repair – although often completely replace – a CVT. Altogether, they can be more expensive to work on if things go south.
What are the symptoms of Subaru CVT problems that you need to look out for?
So far, we’ve learned that Subaru CVT problems are more prevalent than with some other carmakers. Although Subaru’s CVT gearboxes aren’t nearly as unreliable as those built by Nissan or Jeep, they are a step behind the leaders in the field. Brands such as Honda and Toyota have made some of the best and most bulletproof CVTs in the market today. But in general, a CVT will undergo an immense amount of strain, and it may necessitate major servicing or repairs eventually.
If you own a Subaru or are thinking of buying one, there are thankfully a few clear symptoms to look out for to spot if your CVT is about to fail. These should give you a sign of whenever your CVT is showing signs of premature failure and is in need of a check-up. For our Subaru CVT problems guide, here are some of the best tell-tale signs of a faulty CVT. We’ve especially focused more on the symptoms experienced by Subaru owners in particular…
1. Stalling or sluggish acceleration
Some Subaru owners with faulty CVTs have reported that their cars would stall completely while driving. There are also times when the car refused to accelerate beyond a particular speed. Alternatively, you might notice that your car is slow and sluggish when accelerating, or it might even hesitate for a while before any throttle input is registered. Otherwise, their Subarus would proactively enter its ‘limp-home’ mode that severely restricts speed.
2. Shuddering and vibrations
Another clear symptom of something wrong with your Subaru’s CVT transmission is sudden and sometimes violent shuddering. Some owners have reported this happening while under hard braking or even while going uphill. These vibrations can be pointed towards several causes. In Subarus, it may be possible that the belt or pulley within the CVT might be faulty. Otherwise, the mounts and bearings within the transmission may have worn down, thus resulting in all the shaking.
As with conventional transmissions, CVT transmissions require their own specialized transmission fluid to aid in lubrication. Several owners of Subarus have noted that transmission fluid would leak from their CVTs. This has been narrowed down to worn-out seals and sealants used in their Subaru CVTs. Otherwise, overheating could also cause some parts to prematurely wear down. If you see a pinkish or reddish puddle underneath your Subaru, then it should mean that your CVT is leaking.
4. Odd noises
We learned earlier on that cars equipped with CVTs can naturally run a bit louder compared to regular automatics. It is attributed to engines tending to stay in higher RPMs, as is how a CVT’s been programmed. But pay attention to any odd and unpleasant noises, as it could also point out if your CVT is facing its imminent doom. In the case of Subaru CVT problems, this might be noticed with a loud whining or rattling sound while you’re driving.
Is there any warranty coverage for Subaru CVT problems?
If you’ve noticed any of those symptoms that we highlighted earlier, then you may be facing Subaru CVT problems. In that case, we highly recommend that you absolutely do not drive a car with a dodgy CVT. Continued use of your car while suffering from transmission blues will put added strain on the rest of your Subaru. This added stress will wear out the rest of your car even faster. The result would be needing to spend more time and money on repairs down the line.
Moreover, it can be extremely hazardous to drive a car with a faulty gearbox. It might promptly stall while you’re driving on the highway, for example. Or, you could be forced with driving a car that is significantly reduced in speed and can hesitate to get off the line. This only increases the risk of a terrible accident to happen. There is certainly some good news to be had here, however. Subaru had offered a warranty extension program for owners that have suffered CVT issues.
In total, it has been estimated that more than 1.5-million CVT-equipped Subarus in the US are covered under this warranty extension. Some owners have considered this to be a bit of bittersweet news, as it wasn’t a complete recall. Often, major concerns such as cars stalling would prompt the government to order carmakers to make a complete recall. Nonetheless, this new warranty extension should cover certain Subaru models made from 2010 to 2015.
What are the terms of the warranty coverage for Subaru CVT problems?
Initially, Subaru offered a 5-year or 60,000 miles (whichever comes first) warranty to cover for repairs or replacements with their CVT. Under this new warranty extension program, Subaru CVT problems will now be covered for an extended 10-year or 100,000 miles (whichever comes first). Subarus that already exceed those extended terms (either too high of mileage or older) can still be eligible for warranty repairs.
However, those owners will need to apply for all inspections and repairs before the end of the original one-year extension, which lasted until July 31st, 2018. From there, any Subaru that is covered under the warranty extension program will have to make repairs done prior to the 10-year or 100,000 miles coverage. Only then, will they be able to qualify for repairs or replacements of their CVTs under the new warranty rules.
This extended warranty will cover any repairs and replacements that will be needed to fix your Subaru’s CVT. It includes parts within the CVT such as the sensors, switches, torque converter, or the control valve body harness. However, it’s worth noting that Subaru’s new extended warranty doesn’t cover your CVT if it’s a remanufactured or refurbished model, or if your car is a rebuilt salvage vehicle, or if the CVT has been rebuilt by companies either other than Subaru.
So, it’s worth paying in mind those factors before deciding if your Subaru can be covered under their new warranty extension. The models and model years that are covered under this new warranty extension for Subaru CVT problems are:
- 2010-2015 – 2.5-litre Legacy
- 2010-2015 – 2.5-litre Outback
- 2015 – 3.6-litre Legacy
- 2015 – 3.6-litre Outback
- 2012-2015 – 2.0-litre Impreza
- 2014-2015 – 2.0-litre Crosstrek Hybrid
- 2013-2015 – 2.0-litre Crosstrek
- 2014-2015 – 2.5-litre Forrester
- 2014-2015 – 2.5-litre Forrester Turbo
- 2015 – WRX Turbo
What do you need to do to fix Subaru CVT problems and how much will it cost?
Should your Subaru qualify under the terms of the warranty extension, you can just call up your local dealership to arrange for an inspection, repair, and replacement as needed for your CVT. If you’re not sure, you can always call up your local dealership to ask if your Subaru is covered under the newly extended warranty. Especially if you’ve just bought a second-hand Subaru recently, it might be helpful to check and see if you can still claim the warranty.
But if you’re having Subaru CVT problems out of warranty, then you will unfortunately have to bear the cost of repairs yourself. We mentioned earlier that CVTs can be more time-consuming and costly to fix compared to regular automatics. The shortage of parts and qualified mechanics is one factor. There are also the added labor costs that you might have to consider. In some Subaru models, the entire engine will need to be removed just to get access to the CVT.
Should your Subaru’s CVT still be in a repairable state, then simple fixes could get it back and running. The average costs for repairs and replacing selected parts run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. However, if your Subaru’s CVT is utterly damaged beyond repair, then you have no choice but to completely replace the entire CVT. New transmission units can cost an eye-watering $7,000 to $8,000 on average, but you could find used or refurbished CVTs for less than half that.
Subaru CVT problems – Conclusion
In short, for all the joys and fun of owning a Subaru, you’ll still have to be mindful of some slight reliability niggles every now and then. As we’ve seen thus far, CVT problems are not cheap to fix. So, it’s nice to see Subaru pre-emptively offer their customers the convenience of a warranty extension to help look after the cost of repairing your gearbox. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck holding a very big and expensive bag.
Should your Subaru not qualify under the factory warranty extension, then you could consider checking any other third-party warranty providers out there. Although an added expense, at least they offer some peace of mind that you won’t need to mortgage your house just to fix your car’s gearbox. On another positive note, there are ways in which you can prevent Subaru CVT problems from ever appearing. Or at least, extend its lifespan just a bit longer.
For a start, drive more modestly. Watch your throttle inputs, and avoid any smoky or sprightly acceleration. If you’re used to punishing your car with off-road trekking or carrying a lot of load at once, then maybe consider toning it down a notch. Also, be sure to always stay on top of your regular service intervals, and make sure those transmission fluids are changed up. As they say, practice turns to habit, and sooner or later your Subaru’s CVT will be happier than ever to shift you along.