Everyone knows about Subaru’s world-renowned symmetrical all-wheel drive and boxer engines. Along with Subaru’s safety, they’re the stars of the company’s advertisements. Subaru also has a third drivetrain technology that has proliferated throughout its lineup and goes hand in hand with its engine and AWD: Lineartronic CVT.
CVT is short for continuously variable transmission. Rather than using gears as in traditional automatic transmissions, Subaru’s CVT uses two fluctuating hydraulically actuated pulleys and a chain link. (Some other manufacturers use belts.) The chain link is connected to both the input shaft and the output shaft, and as the pulleys change, so do the drive ratios. Without set gear steps, the device benefits the driver with a smoother driving experience and improved fuel efficiency.
Doing away with the more complicated design may suggest that CVTs are less problematic, but that is not the case. While it's by no means a poor design, it presents its own list of possible issues. The Drive’s informational team has been digging through forums, recalls, and consumer complaints to get a sense of what issues you need to be aware of when buying or driving a Subaru with a CVT. Let’s dive into our findings.
The Drive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more.
How Reliable Are Subaru CVTs?
Whether or not Subaru's CVTs are reliable is something owners will debate all day long. While many feel it's a safety risk, countless people think they're rock solid. After all, Subaru couldn't be as popular as if it was selling bad products. However, throughout the past decade, hundreds of customers have complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about several problems relating to Subaru's CVTs. Although Subaru doesn't correlate the two, the company announced warranty extensions for several 2010-'18 CVT-equipped Subarus from five years/60,000 miles to 10 years/100,000 miles. The extended vehicle warranties apply to the Crosstrek, Legacy, Outback, Forester, Impreza, and WRX.
Common Subaru CVT Problems to Look Out for
If you notice these symptoms while driving your Subaru, the problem could be sourced to the CVT. Here are some of the most common Subaru CVT problems:
Several customers have mentioned that their vehicles came to jarring stops or stall during driving and won't restart.
A frustrated customer complained to the NHTSA with the note, “Transmission failure. It is a known issue with models with their original CVT transmission, but rather than issue a recall, they’re extending warranties and fixing as they break. This left me with no power on a state highway that had speed limits of 75 mph. … I was going about 70 mph in the center lane of a three-lane highway, when suddenly my car jerked and then wouldn’t accelerate.”
Another customer with a 2012 Legacy left a comment, "Wife was driving car with newborn son when she came to an abrupt stop because someone slammed on the brakes in front of her. So, she did, and the car stalled and stopped on her nearly avoiding being rear ended. On other occasions she would stop on a hill, and the car would shudder and come to a stop and die. This is a very dangerous safety concern for any of these vehicles equipped with this CVT transmission, especially when Subaru boasts about how this transmission is completely maintenance free for the life of the car. What a joke. Rectify the problem before somebody dies."
Shudders, Shakes, and Bumps
If a CVT belt or pulley is malfunctioning, it could create the sensation of the car shuddering or shaking.
2012 Outback: “Vehicle shudders and stalls when braking hard. It will not stall on a gradual stop but will stall in any situation when stopping quickly. … Resulting stall means loss of power brakes and steering. Have to shift into park and restart the vehicle.”
2016 Forester: "Broken transmission due to broken transmission belt at 43,000 miles. I was stopped at a red light. When the light turned green, I took my foot off the brake and put my foot on the accelerator. Immediately, there was a huge bang, and my car rocked back and forth. I thought I had been rear ended, but there was nobody behind me. My car begin to roll backwards. I tried to get the car into drive by turning the car off and on and utilized other techniques, but I was not able to drive my car. I called for a tow truck and had my car towed to the local Naples Devoe Subaru dealer.
"Eight days later, they confirmed my suspicions. My car had a broken transmission at 43,000 miles. This could've ended much differently had I been driving on the highway. I no longer believe my Subaru is a safe vehicle. Subaru has agreed to replace the transmission since the car is still under warranty. Unfortunately, they want to replace it with a remanufactured transmission rather than a new transmission, which carries a better warranty. Both Subaru of America and Devoe Subaru in Naples have been unresponsive, dismissive, disrespectful, and uninterested in fixing my car in a timely, professional manner. I will no longer own a Subaru. Thirty-plus years of owning cars with many of them exceeding 200,000 miles, and never have I been in a car that carried the risk of killing me. If my transmission belt had broken while I was driving 75 miles an hour on the highway, I might not be here writing this report. Get it together, Subaru. Not feeling the love!"
If your vehicle pauses or hesitates when you press the gas, the CVT could be malfunctioning.
2015 Outback: One owner of a 2015 Subaru Outback filed a complaint with the NHTSA saying, “Intermittently, the car does not respond when the accelerator is depressed. I am told by the dealership that this is a common problem with the CVT transmission. This is a major safety issue, as I have almost been hit on several occasions when turning left or merging into traffic. If the accelerator is depressed more and more, the car finally lurches forward and the brakes have to be slammed on.”
2015 Crosstrek: "I was driving on the interstate going 75 mph, passing another vehicle, when the car rapidly lost speed and revved to 5500 rpm. The vehicle continued to lose speed and would not respond when I pressed down on the accelerator. I had to quickly pull to the left shoulder. Luckily, the car behind me was paying attention and was able to slow down and not hit us. I turned the car off, and luckily the vehicle did restart. My fuel light had just turned on minutes before this, but I still had 60 miles to go before empty. I was planning on exiting to refuel before this happened. I still do not know what caused this to occur. I left a message with the dealership, and I am awaiting a return phone call to have the vehicle assessed.”
Several complaints about fluid seeping out of the CVT housing resulted in Subaru issuing technical service bulletins related to CVT clamps and CVT seals. According to the investigation, the likely source of the seepage is the sealant used on the CVT’s oil pump chain cover and the input shaft oil seal.
2013 Crosstrek: "Slow starting when turning over from stop/park/cold/hot. Excessive oil use after each 3,000 miles. No light warning for low oil displays. Engine bogs or almost stalls when giving gas. Usually when air conditioning is running. This started to occur after I had the valve spring recall taken care of.
"All ignition coils replaced. The ignition coils caused excessive stalling downhill to uphill at various speeds, yet it usually occurred when applying gas from slow to medium speed when applying gas. My thought was that it was due to the recall but evidently had no relation, as per Subaru dealer on Maui.
"Rear wheel bearing repeatedly replaced. Three times in one and a half years. Start with winding noise then gets worse very quickly, within one to two months. Feels very unsafe. Driving at slower speed OK. At the range of 45-60 mph, noise is very predominate, thus requiring me to drive at slower speeds than required. I bought this car used. In the course of less than two years, I have had all these issues."
Common Subaru CVT Repair Costs
If the vehicle is within 10 years old, most of these problems should be covered under Subaru’s extended warranty. If you’re out of coverage or you’ve put a bunch of miles on your Subaru, some of the minor repairs cost roughly $1,000-$2,500. If your CVT has tanked, a new unit costs roughly $7,000-$8,000, while used CVT replacements cost about $1,000-$3,000. Those repairs can make a dent in any budget, so you will need to make sure that you are covered. If you are not sure what would be the best choice for your Subaru, you can check out our in-depth guide about extended warranties. It will give you some great tips on what to look for and what to avoid when selecting a warranty. We have also reviewed a lot of popular individual providers and their plans, so you can get an informative review that you can trust.
FAQs on Subaru CVTs
You've got questions.The Autance has answers.
Q. How long do Subaru CVTs last?
A. Several complaints suggest a Subaru CVT could have problems within 10 years of ownership.
Q. Will Subaru get rid of CVTs?
A. Not likely. If anything, the company will continue to improve its CVT construction and design and expand upon its application to new models.
Q. Should I buy a Subaru with a CVT?
A. Choosing to buy a vehicle with a CVT is a point of preference. If you don’t expect any sort of enthusiasm or excitement out of your vehicle, a CVT will be great for fuel mileage and many prefer the absence of jerky gear shifts felt from traditional automatics or manual transmissions. However, history, and the above complaints, have shown select 2010-2018 Subarus are prone to CVT problems.
Q. How often should Subaru CVT oil be changed?
A. According to the 2020 Subaru Outback owner’s manual, “It is unnecessary to check the continuously variable transmission fluid level. However, if necessary, consult your Subaru dealer for inspection.” In other words, it's a good idea to inspect or have the unit inspected regularly to avoid any surprises.
The Drive has put together additional resources you can use to educate yourself on Subaru’s CVT Problems: