CarTalk.com Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

CONTINUOUSLY VARIABLE TRANMISSIONS compared to traditional 4 SPEED AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS

The newer Subaru Outbacks have the continuously variable transmissions and the newer Foresters still have the traditional style automatic transmissions. I am considering buying an Outback or a Forester, comparing and contrasting them, both seem like good cars for me. The CVT in the Outbacks boasts better gas mileage and the 4-speed automatic transmission in the Foresters claims an evolved. tried and true transmission. I intend to have this car for a very long time. Both types of Subarus have winning features for me, both types of transmissions have good points. Since the continuously variable transmission has only been used for a few years in the Outbacks they do not as yet have a long track record to look at. Any thoughts/suggestions on the Outback’s CVT vs the Forester’s 4-speed auto trans?

I think you answered your own question. If the goal is long term use, then the regular transmission is a safer bet. I know CVT’s have come a long way and we know how to maintain them better, which mostly using the correct fluid, but I am not sure if many have made it to 250K miles yet. I, for now, rather the tests be done on someone elses’ dime.

Actually, there is a 3rd choice that the OP has overlooked.
If she is willing to opt for the superior 6-cylinder engine in the Outback, she would get a “conventional” 5-speed automatic transmission.

Yes, the 6-cylinder engine’s fuel economy is not as good as that of the 4-cylinder engine, but the 6 cylinder’s advantage in acceleration power when entering expressways is vastly different from that of the 4-cylinder engine. And, the interior noise level is far lower with the 6-cylinder engine, due to its ability to produce a very good amount of torque at low RPMs.

As to fuel economy, my 6-cylinder Outback consistently gets 22-23 mpg in local driving, and on highway trips I can wring 28-29 mpg out of it.

The problem I have with the CVT’s is they are NON serviceable. If they break you CAN’T rebuild it. You just replace it…at a significant cost.

The other problem I have with some CVTs is that they’re unpleasant to drive, with the engine revving up at the slightest hill. But I haven’t driven the Outback CVT, so you’ll want to test both of them for a good long drive to make sure it’s OK. A number of new CVTs (Honda Accord for example) are much better in this regard.

Automatic trannys are so highly refined now, with adequate gears + overdrive, that I don;t see any real advantage to a CVT. But IMHO the lack of long term empirical data and the costs associated are a disadvantage. I’d be inclined to avoid CVTs if possible. Perhaps 15 years from now I’ll feel differently.

My brother rented a Nisson Altima with CVT, it seemed great, but I don’t know about the long range outlook.

At the factory level, on the line, CVT’s are probably much cheaper to manufacture than a conventional automatic…A MUCH lower parts count. Unfortunately this does not carry over to replacing the transmission in the field…Ask the Service Dept. how much to replace the transmission should it fail. That way you KNOW what you are looking at…

My next door neighbor bought a new Altima with the CVT, she is on her third transmission, so far all under warranty.

One measure of the Subaru conventional AT reliability is the rarity of complaints on this forum, even though Subarus are, if anything, over-represented in general (thanks to head gaskets and awd questions).

I think you can find many CVT transmissions lasting just as long and with less maintenance then the regular autos. Just counting the number of moving parts alone gives a CVT a distinct advantage in simplicity.
BTW, IMO, it’s never CVT vs a regular transmision, it’s about execution regarless of he type. Subaru has a history of making reliable cars with reliable transmissions. I would guess that regardless of what type it is, that trend will continue.

If your CVT transmission breaks, it can’t be repaired. It would need to be replaced with a new or rebuilt CVT transmission.

If your four speed automatic transmission breaks, the technician might be able to fix it, but usually, the most cost effective thing to do is replace it with a new or rebuilt transmission, so it’s pretty unlikely you will notice an advantage with this transmission.

Over the life of the car, the CVT will save a significant amount of fuel, so I’d probably get the CVT. However, I’d feel better with a Honda CVT. They’ve been putting them in cars since at least 1996.

“I’d feel better with a Honda CVT. They’ve been putting them in cars since at least 1996.”

Subaru first put a CVT in the Justy in 1987. Fuji Heavy Industries has been making them for at least that long. Subaru just didn’t have CVTs in their US cars until recently.

I think Nissan and most others get their CVT from one place.

It is true that Jatco builds transmissions of all types for most Japanese car manufacturers, but the transmissions are built to the specifications of the various car manufacturers. Case in point is the drive belt in a CVT. Where some of the other manufacturers use a rubber belt, Subaru utilizes a very stout drive chain, which is at least 3 inches wide.

No doubt CVTs will last a long time if maintained as required. My hangup is that no one, not even Nissan, which puts them on a lot of their vehicles, knows how to repair or rebuild one. It’s the first “throw away” transmission. I believe it costs about $4000+ or so to get a new one. After your warranty runs out, any repair will set you back $4000!.

No doubt, some time in the future they will start rebuilding these on an assembly line basis, just like alternators and starter motors. Until that happens, I’m staying away from them.

Doc, you might be right, but I just don;t think there’s enough empirical data yet for me to feel comfortable about the long term reliabllity of CVTs. I’m definitely not an “early adapter”.

One of the first CVT tranmissions I heard about was in a Dutch auto,as far as lasting I would say if Subaru is using it,its probaly pretty good(as with anything a light right foot will do wonders for longetivity)-Kevin

CVT’s are improving, but IMO are not yet as good a standard automatics in terms of longevity. Some of the issue is that manufacturer’s claim no service is required on them (same is true of standard auto transmissions) and without fluid changes the transmissions fail. Also there are cases of shops putting the wrong fluid in a CVT which will kill it rapidly.

If you buy a CVT make sure it can have the fluid changed and that you do fluid changes at the dealer where they are sure to use the correct fluid. Having a quickie oil change place service a CVT transmission is just asking for trouble.

Eventually CVT transmissions should be equivalent or better than a conventional auto transmission, but it seems there are still bugs being worked out. Some cars and manufacturers are further along in the process than others.

Also, ‘conventional’ automatics are changing, too. That 4-speed in the Forester is on its way out, to be replaced by, probably, a 6-speed or a CVT. So for other cars the question is the reliability of a CVT vs. a new 6/7/8 speed design.