Report two: Attitude shift not a headache

Living with Lineartronic is easier than we thought.

Subaru is one of the original players in the sports utility sector. The latest Outback delivers old-school values with a new-age edge. We’ve scored a Lineartronic diesel in Premium form for long-term test.

Mileage on arrival: 3706.

Mileage now:  5515

TIME to talk transmissions, a touchy subject, I know, but also now an unavoidable thanks to Subaru’s now firmly unshakeable determination to let go of ‘traditional’ gearboxes – manual and torque convertor automatic – for one that replaces cogs with belts and pulleys.

Do we like this shift to Lineartronic, Fuji’s fancy pants descriptive for a constantly variable transmission type?

Hmmm. I’m warming, but it’s taking time. There’s an adage that goes thus; automatics tend to select the gear for the road conditions one has just been in, while manuals offer the experienced driver opportunity to select the ratio for the road that can be seen ahead.

So where does that leave CVTs? Well, exactly.

No argument, I’ve had a lot of trouble getting into gear with this approach. The theory about why they should be the best of all worlds is all well and good, but so many times the real-world execution has been lamentable. So many fail to meet expectation in execution and some simply don’t achieve any of the promises provided on the packaging.

In saying that – and without sounding like I’m out to schmooze because, assuredly, if I didn’t see merit I’d tell you – Subaru’s Lineatronic Transmission, which is simplified to SLT on the box, is okay. Not just okay for a CVT. Okay overall.

For one, it seems to take the fundamental of ‘gear shifting’ quite seriously. With exception of one occasional arising quirk that I’ll get back to, it’s responsive and assiduously avoids the high-rev flaring of so many other CVTs.

Also, it confirms what I’ve always thought about CVTs; namely, they work best when there’s a lot of low-down torque. I’m sure it’s the factor that allows this car to lope along in ultra-relaxed fashion at optimum revs on the open road.

So it’s a good marriage, but assuredly not one easily achieved. The reason why early CVTs were invariably hooked up to high-revving, small capacity petrol engines lacking in toiling muscle rather than luggers was not accident.

Makers found that feeding them too much torque too early was causing too much stress of the tranny; often belts would break. And you don’t want that. When a CVT self-destructs, I’m told, you might as well just chuck it away. The mess inside the casing is horrendous, by all account. Obviously they’ve found a fix; or, at least, Subaru has because our car is the second generation oiler Outback to have a CVT.

Forester has gone that way too; interestingly, with the first generation ‘box’ that this latest  Outback has now eschewed for the supposedly superior Gen 2.  I say ‘supposedly’ but I know it is better; the old Outback used to prevaricate terribly at the moment of initial acceleration .. a trait that, on a busy road junction (like the unavoidable one near my home) made life interesting. Actually, make that nerve-wracking. Anyway, the new SLT is much smoother and more reactive. (And yet, when I drove a diesel SLT Forester recently, it seemed a snappier drive. Maybe that’s a question of weight difference).

I’m not worried about the Outback being a bit relaxed overall. As I alluded in the first report, I’m quite accepting of this model being more about outdoorsy image than sporting dynamics.

And that’s not to say it’s dull. Diesels are not really made for full-throttle driving, but give this one a decent boot and the engine is willing while also being remarkably free-revving. You know, for a diesel, a smaller capacity one at that.

When the engine hits the redline, the SLT also knocks back the revs instantly, giving the impression of traditional gears at work. Not entirely necessary with a CVT, but a nice old-school touch that treads the line between efficiency and enthusiast appeal.

Other thoughts: Interior design has never been a Subaru strong point but it’s getting there and what helps the Premium is that it adds quite a bit of garnish: leather upholstery, power-adjustable and heated front seats with memory for the driver, touch screen with satellite navigation, keyless entry/start, rear air vents and power tailgate.

Gone from this generation Outback is the hitherto trademark Subaru storage compartment on top of the dash.  Instead you get a deep centre console, with a removable tray at the top part. It’s handy to have a wee sub-storage zone at elbow level and thus within easy reach, but the tray is imperfect: It looks as though it could slot in either direction, but in fact putting in its back-to-front doesn’t work. It fails to locate properly and more often than not simply falls out and gets in the way.  

 Irks? The middle second row seatbelt is mounted in the ceiling, which is not only inconvenient to reach but also a major hassle if you want to fit a cargo barrier or stack the back full of gear. Outbacks have had this design for years, and maybe it’s time Subaru changed it to a system that incorporates the belt into the seat.  Otherwise, room in the second row is very good.

I’m also getting used to the electric tailgate, operated by the remote fob, a switch near the driver or the door itself, because it is a bit slow to operate. Or maybe I’m rushing it.