Subaru is one of those eclectic brands that enjoys an almost fanatical following, and yet finds itself outside the motoring mainstream. It’s as highly regarded for its STI-badged performance machines as it is for its utilitarian but effective all-terrainers, while all-wheel drive and boxer engines are inherent to the brand’s appeal. So where exactly does the XV fit in? DEON SCHOEMAN drives it to find out.
There’s a certain quirkiness to the Subaru brand that has been both an asset and a liability. On the positive front, its idiosyncrasies have endowed the marque with an individuality all too rare in the context of mainstream Japanese production models.
But one could also argue that such individuality, created in part by an unwavering commitment to boxer engine designs and all-wheel drive across the majority of its model ranges, has intimidated more buyers than it has attracted. And it’s exactly that specialised approach that, ironically, sets Subaru apart from the mass-market norm.
For petrolheads, Subaru is synonymous with the snorting, belching – and indecently fast – Impreza STI, a car that in its many iterations has assembled an impressive array of international motorsport successes.
Often finished in a trademark electric blue hue, the STI enjoyed its finest hours being whipped around the stages of the World Rally Championship. But it also remains a favourite among the go-faster brigade, and it’s considered a formidable performance car with giant-killing talents.
By comparison, the Forester is the epitome of the pragmatic and practical sports utility vehicle – a functional wagon with a no-frills styling approach that was honest and angular at first, but that has become softer and less aesthetically challenged over successive generations.
Between them, these two divergent models represent the bulk of Subaru’s presence on South Africa’s roads, leaving the likes of the larger Legacy sedan and Outback estate, as well as the sporty BRZ coupé, to occupy specialised niches, with low volumes to match.
Enter the Subaru XV, nominally a compact SUV that, to some extent, occupies a similar space to the Forester. But instead of the Forester’s pragmatism, the XV exudes a sleeker, slicker aesthetic. Its lines are streamlined, its execution more approachable than the sterner Forester.
The arrival of the XV may have raised some eyebrows among Subaru supporters. Hardcore fans could even have considered it a sell-out. But the reality is that the XV is Subaru’s attempt to broaden the appeal of the brand to embrace the so-called lifestyle sector, and in doing so to coax a bigger audience into experiencing the marque’s core values.
The XV, therefore, is not a “soft” Subaru – at least not as far as its maker is concerned. It retains the core technologies that the brand has become famous for. And, if Subaru is to be believed, it may even shine as brightly as the Forester when the going gets tough.
In aesthetic terms, the XV is attractive enough. The profile is sleek, the nose extended, and the rear pert. The shape is easy on the eye, if somewhat generic, and therefore particularly reliant on the trademark grille, with its prominent chrome crossbar and large Subaru logo, to confirm its brand identity.
A large lower air intake in contrasting black, and a rear apron that suggests some scuff resistance, adds some visual aggression, as does the black detailing of the wheel arches, the lower sills and the rear corner lights. Roof rails and an integrated roof spoiler are confirmation of the XV’s compact SUV intentions.
The interior is a highlight, acknowledging just how important cockpit execution really is. Even this so-called entry-level model’s execution is smart and upmarket, and for many, the cloth seats offered here will be preferable, and more comfortable, than the dearer ‘S’-model’s leather.
The view from the driver’s seat is generous, thanks to the raised seating position and ample glass in all directions, but the steeply raked windscreen is more passenger car than off-roader. Well-positioned controls and switchgear ensure intuitive ergonomics, adding to the overall feel-good factor.
While there’s lots of space for both front and rear occupants, the boot is perhaps the only real disappointment. The cargo floor has had to be raised to make space for a full-sized spare (a must for any vehicle with all-terrain intentions), which robs the luggage compartment of loading space.
The 310 litres that remains is hardly sufficient for a family vehicle, suggesting that a small trailer may have to be added to the budget for any holiday trips. On the upside folding down the split rear bench seat allows extended cargo carrying capacity, with Subaru claiming 771 litres with the rear seats folded down.
A handsome exterior and comfortable interior don’t necessarily equate to anything more than a nicely kitted out family vehicle. Indeed, it’s easy to consider the XV as little more than a soft-roader with more urban than all-terrain skills.
Wrong: for all its city slicker looks, the XV can tackle the rough stuff with greater aplomb than most vehicles in its class – not surprising, I suppose, given its Forester heritage. The 225mm ground clearance is the first indication of this, together with the presence of Subaru’s much-vaunted symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
The system splits the power delivery equally between the front and rear wheels under normal driving conditions, but can increase that split to the front or rear, depending on where the traction is needed most.
Thus, the XV can tackle rougher stuff than expected, although one should always consider that without a low-range transfer case, the truly hard-core 4×4 stuff remains out of bounds. That said, the XV eats gravel roads for breakfast, and with some circumspection and technique, you’ll be surprised about the level of terrain it can cope with.
The lack of low range apart, it’s those sexy 17-inch wheels and low-profile road tyres that limit the XV’s all-terrain talents – but then, I suppose the benefits they offer on normal tar roads provide a compelling counterpoint.
Day-to-day, the XV feels more like an estate car than an SUV. The road manners are composed, the ride is smooth and compliant, and there’s an agility to the way it steers and turns that comes as a pleasant surprise.
Add the raised seating position, and parking the XV is a cinch, even though the extended bonnet is longer than you’d think.
Under the bonnet, a two-litre direct-injection petrol engine with four horizontally opposed cylinders provides a decent 110kW of urge, linked to 196Nm of maximum torque. While willing, the engine needs some welly, especially at Reef altitudes, to deliver its full potential.
Critical is the choice of transmission: the XV is offered with either a six-speed manual gearbox, or Subaru’s so-called Lineartronic constantly variable transmission. Take it from me – the CVT is not the best choice.
Yes, it offers the convenience of clutchless operation, and there’s even a virtual manual mode that allows an illusion of shifting between actual gears using shift paddles. But the dreaded rubber-band effect remains startlingly obvious, creating the impression of a constantly slipping clutch. Besides, the effective gearing always feels too tall, robbing the engine of any edge it might have had.
The six-speed manual at least puts the driver in charge of the urge on offer, and always makes for the sharper, nippier driving experience. Interestingly, Subaru claims identical 10.7sec 0-100km/h sprint times for the manual and CVT versions – but in practice, it’s the manual that feels the livelier, and definitely the more pleasurable, machine.
At just under 7.9 litres/100km, claimed fuel consumption is impressive, and our test vehicle came close to living up to that promise, with an average in the low 8l/100km bracket. The open-road stat will be even better, allowing a potential range of 850km or better from the 60-litre fuel tank.
There’s a lot to like about the Subaru XV. It’s handsome, well equipped and unexpectedly talented in the all-terrain context. This so-called base model is also keenly priced, while the Subaru reputation for well-engineered vehicles also suggests longevity.
The CVT gearbox is the only real let-down, especially since the manual model is R15k cheaper. The rest of the XV package proves that finding just the right compromise between sleek styling, on-road ride quality, interior comfort, and all-terrain prowess is not as challenging as some other contenders in this segment might intimate.
The Subaru XV is that rare beast: a sexy SUV that does most things right, and manages to reflect fair value too. DM
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