Midi-SUVs are undergoing something of a renaissance. For the longest time, they were slightly over-glazed alternatives to MPVs. Practical, sensible and good for the rough logistics of moving stuff from A to B. but you definitely wouldn’t choose to go via ‘C’.
But now these mid-sized SUVs are moving more mainstream, as socially acceptable as a traditional car, and with far more kudos than mere, common sedans. Not that the fundamentals have changed: they’re still roomy and full of space to grow and stow your family and possessions. But they’re also in grave danger of being fashionable.
Check it out in a middle-class road near you: the large saloon tide is on the turn, and small to mid-size soft roaders are coming out to take their place. It seems people have finally cottoned on that – in a world of chronically overpriced cars, the practicality of an SUV boot is one of the few options that make any sort of financial sense.
Okay, so there were always some SUVs out there with prestige – Honda never lost the faith at the top end of the market. But for Subaru, with a brand new entry like the XV here, this is an unmarked and wholly unknown territory, especially in Malaysia. Can it kick it as a bona fide alternative to the market dominating CR-V? I find out in a press drive in Bali, Indonesia.
Subaru is never going to be accused of being a premium brand, at least not outside of Shinjuku. But, uniquely among the volume manufacturers, it has managed to make a decent success of the ‘large, stylish but not really executive’ segment with the Forester range. Which, appropriate to its mild success, has had its abilities filtered down to this young upstart.
Despite having a supreme leader in Toyota, a direct competitor to Honda, the Subaru XV takes a very different route to a common goal of making the ideal 150-ish horsepower 2.0 litre family SUV.
The CR-V uses the traditionally accepted route of an on-demand 4×4 drivetrain powered by a conventional inline-four engine mated to an automatic gearbox. Subaru on the other hand, has chosen to stick to its guns and offer a symmetrical permanent all-wheel drive system connected to a flat-four motor and a CVT transmission.
Dynamically they’re very different, but the closeness of the price tags (RM148,800 for the Honda CR-V, RM145,070 for the Subaru XV, both prices on-the-road with insurance), makes them competitors. The real question is whether the Subaru entry has the class to challenge the Honda in the want-in stakes.
As an aesthetic prospect, form follows function in the XV. Remembering of course, that the primary function of the XV treads the fine line of looking good while being able to shift stuff around. It makes a good hash of it, I’d say, looking far more promising in the metal than through pictures.
The Subaru XV is far more than a lifted-up conversion of a small hatchback, and the company is suitably disparaging about comments of it being a simple add-on variant of the latest Impreza. And fair-play to Subaru, for the XV gets unique SUV looks from the heavily bolstered bumper claddings and wheels. That’s a pretty large financial commitment for a company of Subaru’s modest size.
And it certainly looks decent enough; indeed, the consensus seemed to be that the proportions sit slightly easier on the eye than the slightly awkward hatchback, the dramatically increased ride height and plastic add-ons filling out the bottom of the car suitably.
Whereas the XV shies away from absolute beauty, up close it appears well hewn and purposeful. The standard 17-inch alloys for instance, manage to fill the arches far better than on its rivals. That’s got far more to do with the XV’s comparatively smaller overall size than design ingenuity, but what’s apparent to the public counts more than pedantic details.
It’s inside the new Subaru that it falls back from its premium aspirations, the very aspect that the CR-V is at its strongest. The materials are fine, and fit and finish is close to greatness, but it’s the fine details that betray Subaru’s apparent budget constraints. Some bits and pieces bear a close resemblance to the items the automaker used in the 90s, which are really jarring.
Dubious details aside though, the calm and reassuring soft-feel grey plastics are at least on par with the class best. The controls are all laid out super logically in the centre, with nicely tactile buttons and easy to comprehend displays.
The same goes for the seats. They are perfectly comfortable items and lumbar support is good despite their feature-less appearance. There’s more space inside than you’d imagine too, the roomy rear cabin especially being a nice surprise. It’s a nice enough place to be in, just that for pure showroom appeal, others with their more glitzy dashboards have got the XV beat.
The fact of the matter is, on first sight the XV doesn’t shout class of flair. Subaru people, even those in the design department, are charmingly up front about this. The company obsesses on the engineering detail while after-thoughting the visuals inside and out.
They also say that it’s changed slightly from the drab Subarus of old, and yes, compared to the outgoing Forester and last-gen Impreza, the XV is far cleaner and more authoritative in its design. But it’s no Kia Sportage outside, nor does it ever come close to the Mazda CX-5 inside.
Thankfully, if first impressions don’t excite much hope, the first few metres of driving impressions will, as you’ll feel good about how this rig is set up.
The horizontally-opposed flat-four 2.0 litre engine with its 150 hp and 196 Nm of torque doesn’t exactly set your heart on fire, and the acceleration on offer here is far from scintillating. The top-heavy power delivery, hefty kerb weight and tall CVT gear ratios don’t help either, and the XV feels surprisingly lumbering for an SUV.
It didn’t leave me wanting for a bigger engine though, although the thought of a turbocharged version did whet my appetite more than it should. It’s not a WRX, but it drives well. In part, this can be attributed to the great driver confidence it instils, of which more later, but it’s mostly a vindication of Subaru’s technical prowess.
The engine is so smooth that revving it doesn’t feel anywhere near as taxing as it does in other comparable rivals. Subaru is known for its manic blown engines perhaps more than anything else, but the ultra-smooth flat-four base is still a technical tour de force, and it works just as well on an SUV as it does elsewhere.
Which is excellent news, because in the XV, they’ve got it just right. Only the slight low-rev lethargy in the throttle response gives the game away. Well, that and the billowing thrum that’s not unlike the one heard in go-faster Subarus. Foot flat to the floor, the XV’s natural pace is fairly rapid if compared to, say, the CR-V’s languid power delivery.
Breaking further away from the conventional pack is the XV’s chassis set-up. It strays away from the class’ old-school way of shamelessly soft damping, wallowing out undulations and pitching good-naturedly around corners at squeaky angles. Which is not without its fun of course, in a ’70s cop show’ kind of way, but such an approach ultimately discourages press-on driving.
No, the XV has been tightened up considerably from the class norm. Low frequency oscillations often felt in similar vehicles over rough roads is now non-existent. Instead of floating over contours, the Subaru feels planted and willing to turn in and meet ‘n’ greet corners.
But the trade-off seems to be an entirely class-uncharacteristic high-frequency bumps, a constant niggling jittering, even over smooth road surfaces. It’s not particularly noticeable, concentrated somewhere between the buttocks and lower back, but once you have noticed it, it’s like a leaky tap: impossible to ignore.
Slight underdamping would be the prime suspect, maybe even the relative newness of my test car. But the 17-inch alloys might also be to blame, which would be a shame considering how good they look. Ride quality isn’t the XV’s best quality, though it is surely the most planted vehicle of its class I’ve encountered yet, and by a considerable margin.
Crests gets crushed, cambers filled, and corners taken with an impressive lack of drama thanks to the impeccable grip of the tyres. It’s not fun per se; there are no ragged-edge moments, and absolutely no throttle adjustability even at the limit. Safe and sound, then.
The control sets the scene for a fine performance in curves. All-wheel drive traction is there in spades, of course, but with it a feedback and delicious, subtle delicacy of control that delights. Simply put, no midi-SUV comes close to this kind of driver/car connection – the CX-5 edges the closest, but with a slightly aloof steering the gap is significant.
On the whole the Subaru XV is technically brilliant. It’s safe, dependable, well screwed together and practical. It’s not going to set your pulse racing like other Subarus will, but it’ll cheerfully adapt itself around different combinations of families and cargo. Apart from the imperfect ride and transmission, it’s the sort of car you could live with for some serious mileage.
It scored very highly on the objective front, in other words. But is it a car that you could imagine buying willingly over a similarly-priced Honda or even Mazda? That is a question only a buyer can answer. I for one would lean towards ‘yes’, though categorically I’d still prefer a CX-5 on my driveway.
Subaru is one of those manufacturers that does middle ground best. Full on Subarus – those fitted with 200 hp-plus high-output turbo engines – are chronically overpowered and sometimes unpleasant to drive. But it’s down in the mid-range that Subaru makes its bargains. This is the company’s best mainstream offering yet for a long, long time, but it does so without following the class conventions.
And that’s precisely the Subaru XV’s secret: its effective combination of disparate elements. It’s executive enough to be special, roomy enough to be practical, and Subaru enough to be different. That it provides a good steer is the biggest weapon in its artillery, but sadly that doesn’t feature in the XV’s ho-hum showroom appeal. It does to you and me, but not to those who’d put pen to paper and buy a car in this class.
So that’s it then. The XV is genuinely capable enough to play with the big boys. Had it arrived two years ago before Honda, Mazda, Kia and Hyundai all upped their SUV games significantly, it would have been fresh and contemporary too. As it didn’t, it isn’t, but it’s still worth considering if you want to be a little bit different.