Since its birth, the Subaru XV has always been a non-conformist. True to its maker’s ethos, the first iteration of the upstart crossover offered owners ruggedness, dependability and drivability, some of the standout characteristics that have long defined the brand’s off-roading models.

A maverick in the high-stakes volume game, the XV struck middle ground with more finesse than its arch-rival Mitsubishi ASX could ever hope to match, and it did so by combining superior ride and handling qualities with a rather appealing sticker price as well.

The second-generation model, launched here in November last year, aims to assume the mantle of success, this time shifting focus from the CR-V to the HR-V and Mazda CX-3. With an asking price of RM119k for the 2.0i and RM126k for the 2.0i-P, Subaru has once again nailed the value proposition, only this time the XV is almost entirely new despite sporting a familiar outlook.

On the outside, the new XV takes on an evolutionary styling. Simple, but to great effect. It’s unmistakably a Subaru – the C-shaped LED daytime running lights give it away, donning a more chiselled and tough front fascia that’s complemented by a more stylistically proportionate rear section. If anything, the XV looks exactly like a shrunken down version of the Outback, if not a mere Impreza hatch on stilts.

While many may find the new design to be safe and boring, I find it to be a refreshing sight from the usual suspects. However, what really matters with the new XV goes beyond skin deep. Underneath all that surface metal is an all-new platform – unimaginatively called Subaru Global Platform (SGP) – that promises improvements in all areas to do with ride, driving dynamics and safety. So yes, it’s quite a big deal.

Thanks to a new framework layout, torsional rigidity is up by 70%, the bulk of which comes from reinforcing joints, as well as the inclusion of new cross sections. Although stiffer, Subaru says the SGP is more efficient in managing inertia in the event of a collision. Other benefits include reduced NVH and increased suspension rigidity. More on this later.

Now, despite having a brand new platform to build the XV, its footprint remains largely unchanged. It’s 20 mm wider (1,800 mm) and 15 mm longer (4,465 mm) overall, but height stays at 1,615 mm, as is its 220 mm ground clearance. Thanks to SGP, the new XV’s centre of gravity is reduced by five mm.

That makes it bigger than a B-segment SUV, but still smaller than a C-segment crossover like the CX-5. Wheelbase, however, has been stretched by 30 mm to 2,665 mm, resulting in shorter overhangs for a suitably shapely look. It boasts an approach angle of 18 degrees and departure angle of 29 degrees.

The XV is a perfect exemplification of inner beauty, because for the first time, it feels like Subaru has actually put painstaking thought and effort to construct the cabin. There’s a newfound sense of vibrancy and quality stemming from the interplay of colours and trim materials. Owners of the older model will notice the resemblance in dashboard layout (which I wholeheartedly agree), but the new car wears an undeniably impressive build throughout – in terms of perceived quality, it’s better than that on the CX-3.

For example, the contoured steering wheel – with buttons and switches so very ergonomically positioned – doesn’t just fit snugly in the hands, it’s nice to look at as well, and the whole thing is wrapped in leather (the cheaper 2.0i gets a PU steering) and sewn together with bright orange contrast stitching. This striking theme permeates throughout the cabin and is standard on both 2.0i and 2.0i-P. Nice.

The centre dash is home to two separate displays. The top unit is a class-exclusive 6.3-inch Multi-Function Display, operable through a set of three buttons at the seven o’clock position on the steering wheel. It provides detailed data such as trip meter and pitch angle, including external temperature reading, climate control, day, date and time functions. It’s brilliant.

What’s not so brilliant is the eight-inch Panasonic touchscreen infotainment display unit. It’s dreadful to use and feels cheap, and the bad-looking user interface doesn’t help one bit. All it has going for is the fact that it’s usable. By the way, other markets get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, not us. In what is otherwise a perfect cabin, the head unit is the one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Leather seats are not an option this time around – instead, there’s two-toned fabric upholstery with faux leather trimmings that adorn the thigh bolsters of the front seats. Only the driver’s seat is electrically adjustable (with lumbar inflators). Thanks to the longer wheelbase, rear passengers now benefit from increased legroom, and anyone under 180 cm should feel decently comfortable in the back seat. However, there are still no air-con vents for rear occupants.

Like the older model, the new XV scores poorly in the practicality department. Boot space is puny at 345 litres – that’s significantly smaller than the HR-V’s 437 litre space, and the boot floor is raised high in order to fit the full-sized spare tyre underneath. The rear bench folds in a 60:40 split configuration should you need more space, but it won’t fold completely flat. Here, the HR-V, with its Ultra Seats, remains the undisputed leader.

At the heart of the XV is a 2.0 litre naturally-aspirated flat-four engine that makes 156 PS and 196 Nm of torque, which represents a six PS gain over the older port-injection unit. Subaru says the new aluminium engine is almost completely reworked (80% of it is new) and features direct-injection, allowing both power and torque to arrive sooner at 6,000 rpm and 4,000 rpm (both down by 200 rpm) respectively. It’s also a leaner burning unit – compression ratio is up from 10.5:1 to 12.5:1.

Performance-wise, the engine feels largely the same as before. It’s smooth and decent in power delivery, but its potential is marred by the Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, despite having seven “virtual gears” to play with. The HR-V’s smaller 1.8 litre engine zings with a tad more vigour, and I suspect the XV’s lack of pep can be attributed to the fact that it has to drive all four wheels.

Both the engine and transmission contribute to a 20 kg weight reduction, the latter now featuring a wider ratio to improve fuel efficiency and performance. The seven-step ratio that’s supposed to mimic a conventional automatic gearbox is barely a joy to use. No matter the effort, there’s just no running away from the fact that it’s still a CVT at the end of the day, but unless you’re especially particular about transmissions, this one will suit most buyers just fine.

What makes the XV even more unique is its driveline setup. The engine sits low and is centrally mounted, enabling the adjoining transmission and propeller shaft (that channels drive to the rear wheels) to be positioned along the very centre of the vehicle. Few cars in the world are as symmetrical as this, and it makes the XV an incredibly adept and balanced car to drive.

Our experience with the older model in Bali was proof that the XV handles very much like a sedan rather than an SUV, and the new one pretty much exhibits the same trait. This was evident during an all-out loop around the Melaka International Motorsport Circuit (MIMC) – driven with considerable civility, the XV remains poised and its balance unperturbed. The steering, which is slightly smaller in diameter, feels suitably better weighted as well.

The reason why the XV feels so agile and light on its feet (and this is despite weighing 1,558 kg – that’s close to the CR-V 4WD’s 1,595 kg mark!) is because there’s a yaw-control system (Active Torque Vectoring or ATV) at play, which uses brake pressure to help turn the vehicle – ATV helps combat understeer and is not active during braking. Suffice to say, traction is aplenty with the carmaker’s well-honed symmetrical all-wheel drive system in place.

Another trick it has up its sleeves is the X-Mode function it shares with the updated Forester. When activated, it essentially alters throttle response and braking behaviour – between 0 to 40 km/h – to provide maximum traction when going off-road. Also on is Hill Descent Control (maintains speed when travelling downhill with X-Mode activated), but this can only be used at speeds under 20 km/h.

The level of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is perceptibly lower than before. According to Subaru, engine noise is reduced by one decibel thanks to stiffer engine mounts, and there’s more usage of rubber seals around all four doors to better isolate external noise. Wind noise is also less intrusive at higher speeds, but tyre roar (the XV comes with Continental ContiMax MC5 as standard) remains awfully annoying.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all is the car’s ride quality. It is hands down the most comfortable car I’ve driven in its class, absorbing bumps and undulations with far more flair and grace than most of its B-segment SUV rivals. It employs a multi-link setup for the front and an independent double wishbone fixture for the rear – the latter is a decidedly more sophisticated system than the regular torsion beam setup.

For RM126k, you get a heck lot of car for the money, and then some. There’s full LED forward illumination (with active bending tech), steering-mounted paddle shifters, electric parking brake, cruise control and dual-zone climate control for convenience. The safety kit is also impressive, with seven airbags (standard on both variants!) and Vehicle Dynamics Control (with Enhanced Differential Control in X-Mode) to go with the usual raft of active safety features.

Overall, the Subaru XV is improved in nearly all aspects compared to the outgoing model, in some areas more (like ride and handling and interior build) than others. It’s technically versatile as well, offering individuals with a more adventurous spirit a value-for-money alternative as compared to its garden-variety competitors.

Objectively, it’s possibly the most well-rounded SUV for the money in its class, and if you can get past the badge stigma, this one will serve to impress. As the case with the older model, the new XV matures into newer pastures and continues to be the best mainstream offering Subaru has to offer in this part of the world.

Do I see myself owning one? Probably, if it wasn’t for the CVT, but it’s clear as day that the XV deserves to rank high in anyone’s shopping list if they happen to be looking at an SUV in this price segment.