In a move that some are calling controversial, Subaru Canada has begun arming their sales staff with semi-automatic pistols. Should you walk into your local dealership and enquire about the new WRX, expect to be forced at gunpoint to sign on the dotted line for one fitted with the company’s Sport Lineartronic automatic transmissions – a CVT.
Oh wait, that’s ridiculous.
And yet, judging by the hue and cry from the enthusiast community, Subaru’s decision to saddle up their rally rocket with an entirely optional continuously variable transmission is utter heresy. Why, they might as well have done away with the hood scoop, or changed the name of “World Rally Blue” to “Periwinkle,” or made the thing into a compact crossover. The DNA of Dubya-Ar-Ex doesn’t appear to have room for a funny rubber-band transmission. Buy the stick-shift, or turn in your man-card.
What nonsense. While your humble author will personally give up the keys to his manual-transmission-equipped car when a crowbar is applied to his cold, dead hands, the existence of a WRX with a CVT is good for the car, the brand, the Subaru enthusiast community, and even grassroots motorsport. Because here’s the thing everybody forgets about rubber bands: if they’re strong enough, you can make a slingshot out of one. Subaru just did.
So what’s a Sport Lineartronic CVT, you ask? That’s just the proprietary marketing mumbo-jumbo Subaru’s come up with their belt-driven transmission, which uses a metal drivebelt connecting two hydraulically variable pulleys. Think of it like the front and rear sprockets on a mountain bike, except with a theoretically infinite range of gears between the top and bottom ratios.
CVT technology has been around since the ’60s, and previously showed up in Subarus like the Justy. Equipped with an electrically controlled version of the CVT, the Justy is not really fit to be driven by anyone, and should you come across one please set it on fire and push it off the nearest available cliff, just to be on the safe side.
The version now found in the WRX is, thankfully, considerably more advanced. It’s very similar to the CVT used in the turbocharged variant of the current Forester, albeit with slightly different programming, and does a pretty good job of emulating the staged shifts of a normal automatic transmission. There are three modes of responsiveness, with I-for-intelligent providing maximum fuel economy, S-for-sport holding the middle ground, and S#-for-even-sportier maximizing responsiveness and opening up access to eight set ratios through the steering wheel–mounted paddle shifters. The automatic option also means you get a slightly different all-wheel-drive system that’s a bit more advanced. Dubbed Variable Torque Distribution AWD, it uses an electrically controlled centre differential to shunt the power fore and aft, as compared to the manual car’s viscous coupling.
2015 Subaru WRX CVT engine bay, dashboard. Click image to enlarge
The car that’s wrapped around this divisive gearbox is a considerable improvement over the old model, but also a bit rougher around the edges than something like the new VW GTI. The exterior design is a bit homogenous, aside from the hood scoop, even with those fender-flares. The WRX looks a bit like a Civic, a bit like a Fusion, and with the four exhaust pipes out back, a bit like a 2008 Nissan Maxima. It’s nowhere near as good looking as the concept version was, but we never really expected it to be. [Speak for yourself… I was crushed. –Ed.]