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I've had my new Subaru XV Crosstrek (known in Europe as the Impreza XV) for nearly 1000 miles now, and I'm really enjoying learning how get the most out of it. Today I learned something new.
The car surprises me with its agility and stability all the time, and even it's responsiveness is really amazing for such a tiny engine. That's mostly thanks to its new "Continuously Variable" Transmission, which is amazing to drive (there's a great little video of how it works here). Driving with the CVT feels a little like driving a car with a turbo charger, but with far less 'turbo-lag'. As you're accelerating, the engine seems to stay at the same pitch even as you go faster and faster. That's the part that feels like a turbo. It's not really turbo charged in this case, just feels like it. The CVT also really enhances the fuel economy because the engine is always running right in the sweet spot of its power band.
As a result of this, and also the very active AWD, this little car really feels like a sports car to drive -- especially on the more winding, dippy, country roads in Maine. One thing I found when I was letting it stretch a bit on some curvy back roads a week or so ago was that with Subaru's all wheel drive system and the CVT transmission being so interactive, you really never want to go for the brake. Instead you want to pull a bit harder and give it some gas, letting the stability management and all wheel drive clean up any mistakes you're making while it smoothly pulls you around almost any turn you'd ever even consider attempting.
You can see where this leads to a problem. On some of these roads where one curve ends with a dip down and another curve chaining right into yet another -- you can't just keep accelerating. At some point you're going to launch yourself into the woods. With a manual transmission, you'd down shift and get just what you want -- but with an automatic that's never been as practical. Well, Subaru, like most modern cars now gives you the option to manually shift your automatic transmission. I've had this feature before on cars but never found it terribly useful because you have to plan ahead and slide the gearshift into that special mode, and then you really have to keep up with diving in that mode and keep shifting when it isn't really a manual and you're really not used to driving your car that way. The manual shifting on the new Subaru is done with "flappy paddle" controls on the steering wheel. That seemed gimmicky at first. C'mon, this isn't a Ferrari after all, it's a 2.0 liter Subaru. The procedure is to slide the shift lever into manual mode, then start using the paddles to make the CVT transmission pretend to be in one of the six virtual gears. So far, that's just like every other modern automatic transmission I've driven -- except the flappy paddle part.
Here's where Subaru has done it one big step better...
Unlike all the other "manually controlled" automatic transmission cars I've ever driven, you DON'T have to be in manual mode to use the paddle shift controls. BRILLIANT! You can be cruising along, maybe going a little too quickly in your fully automatic transmission mode when you see a curve approaching. Instead of going for the brake, or worse trying to move the car into manual mode and then start shifting, you can just flick the paddle control on the right and "downshift" immediately. The Subaru will instantly behave as if you'd been driving in manual mode all along and will obey your paddle control commands. Even better, as soon as what you're telling it to do coincides with what the automatic transmission would be doing anyway, it just assumes you're done and goes back to managing the car as expected -- unless you decide to start shifting again. It's the closest thing to what we in the software world jokingly refer to as the DWIM (Do What I MEAN) interface.
This one little feature that Subaru's engineers thought to add is a perfect example of what makes this car so much fun to drive. It takes a little used feature that's fairly common, and makes it effortless and functional. It gives me the instant control I want when I do want to down shift for slowing down into a curve and preparing the engine for a burst of power as I come out, without sacrificing the easy day to day driving of the automatic or making plans far ahead just to use the feature.
I'm loving this car.
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