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The Subaru XV is a no-nonsense crossover that doesn't quite make enough sense on the road to trouble the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and the Seat Ateca

Although it may be a little late to market with the Subaru XV, the manufacturer has been making crossovers since before they were fashionable. Its original, the Legacy Outback, came along in 1995 and proved to be a big commercial success for the company.

Now in its fourth generation, the Legacy has 220mm of ground clearance, exactly the same as the XV’s. The Impreza-based Forester, launched in 1997, is a closer relation of the XV, although its estate-only body style gives it more of a utilitarian flavour.

Subaru muscles in to Qashqai territory with its rough and tough 4x4 XV

And so the Subaru XV is a crossover for people who don’t like crossovers. Although Subaru’s UK distributor, IM Group, would be delighted to replicate the market success of Nissan’s niche-defining Nissan Qashqai.

The XV, however, is a car that’s almost the mirror image of the Nissan: a proper compact off-roader with full-time four-wheel drive and some serious ground clearance, but one that looks like a fairly ordinary hatchback from the wheel arches up. The next generation XV doesn't lose these rugged charms thankfully, but does include Subaru's Global Platform, which has been developed to improve ride, handling, steering and refinement, revised powertrains and the inclusion of a hybrid variant.

It’s remarkable that it has taken so long for a manufacturer so heavily invested in all-wheel drive to come up with a car like the XV when bigger and less outdoorsy brands considered it a no-brainer in the early part of the previous decade.

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But does the idea of an extra-rugged, all-paw hatchback on stilts make sense in the real world? Is the Subaru XV a vehicle concept with enough mass-market appeal?

Or is this another of the bit-part players that we’ve grown used to from the Japanese brand over the years?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Subaru XV rear

With the XV, Subaru has brought true all-wheel-drive credibility to the Nissan Qashqai segment by turning crossover convention upside down. The received wisdom is that customers here don’t really need four driven wheels.

They want a roomy cabin and a raised seating position, wrapped in a package with some of the visual presence and desirability of an SUV. The XV takes an entirely different approach: it’s for those who don’t want a car that looks like a larger SUV but who do have a need for the off-road capability that such a car might provide.

There’s no spare wheel as standard, which could prove problematic for an off-roader

So the XV is aimed at people who will be happy with an enlarged but fairly typical five-door hatchback body style but are interested in the traction and ground clearance to tackle snow and mud, field and green lane without the slightest worry.

Sharing a platform, many components and a viscous coupling-based full-time four-wheel drive system with the Impreza hatchback, the XV has a longer wheelbase than the regular hatch as well as a more generous ride height. It also has narrower, lower sills and wider door openings for easier entry, and a lower boot floor for greater practicality.

Chunky bumpers, updated in the 2016 mid-life refresh, and plastic extensions for the wheel arches and sills are the main external identifiers.. Subaru has reinforced the Impreza’s underbody for the XV with off-road performance and better crash safety in mind, in particular adding stiffness to the body sides and at the base of the A-pillars. New diagonal cross-members under the floor add strength in the event of an offset rear-end collision.

At the same time, it has beefed up the Impreza’s MacPherson strut front and double wishbone rear suspension with stiffer mounts, high-response dampers and various new braces.

Rebound springs are fitted to counteract the body roll that a long-travel chassis unavoidably brings.

The 2018 iteration of the XV will be the first of a wealth of Subarus built on the new SGP platform, including the next generation Impreza. The architecture has been designed to improve the brand's appeal to potential buyers by refining Subaru's rugged, agricultural edge.

INTERIOR

Subaru XV interior

‘Luxurious’ is a term that requires qualification when you read it in a Subaru brochure. Although it’s easier to accept in a car with a more obvious workaday appeal, the XV’s cabin reinforces the impression that the Japanese manufacturer still has much to do to match European material quality standards.

Getting into the XV requires no stooping. With seat frames taken from the Legacy, the car’s squabs are a little higher above the cabin floor than they would be in an Impreza, which makes for a slightly more upright but still fairly recumbent, hatchback-like driving position.

The XV’s twin cupholders are massive. A regular-sized drinks can rattles around like a loose filling

Legroom is more generous than in most family hatchbacks, but headroom isn’t. We measured 40mm less headroom in the front row and 20mm less in a Hyundai i30 hatchback. Both the Peugeot 3008 and Nissan Qashqai are roomier passenger cars. In the same vein, the XV’s boot is no larger than that of many more ordinary family hatchbacks.

There is two trims to choose from - SE and SE Premium. Entry-level cars come with automatic headlights and wipers, 17in alloy wheels, roof rails, electric windows and heated wing mirrors fitted as standard on the outside. Inside there is dual-zone climate control, cruise control, heated front seats and Subaru's Starlink infotainment system complete with 7.0in touchscreen display, a reversing camera, Bluetooth and USB connectivity.

Upgrade to SE Premium and the XV gains sat nav, keyless entry and start, a leather upholstery, electrically adjustable driver's seat and a sunroof.

Heater and air-con controls are easy to use and there’s plenty of storage. The unconvincing mishmash of different types, shades and grains of plastic around the cabin won’t impress anyone giving up a good European hatch, though this was improved in the 2016 upgrade.

Neither will some of the ergonomics. The central multi-function display that’s standard on all SE models relays its trip computer information clearly. But you could drive for days without chancing across the seat heater switches, for example, which are hidden away behind the handbrake.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Subaru XV side profile

The XV comes with a choice of two engines, with the 145bhp diesel boxer engine being the best seller. The diesel certainly goes about its business in the XV with a vocal sense of purpose.

It’s quiet and smooth enough at routine cruising speeds, but under high loads you certainly know you’re driving a craggy, no-nonsense sort of vehicle. Subaru’s latest horizontally opposed 2.0-litre turbodiesel produces plenty of power and  torque, but it is the motor’s enthusiasm for revving through the mid-range that pleases the most.

It’s the first major revision of the 2.0-litre boxer diesel engine since its introduction in 2008

The gutsy powerplant suits the XV’s character well; like the car itself (or a working dog), it must be continually stretched if the brightest side of its temperament is to see the light of day

Working the diesel Subaru to 60mph in a hurry – completed in a highly respectable 8.9sec – is not the chore it would be in more than one of its big-name competitors. Use the amusingly clunky six-speed manual – which stoutly refuses to shift between ratios in one smooth motion – to keep the flat four on song and it delivers sturdy bouts of acceleration through the meat of the rev range.

Almost all contemporary small-capacity turbodiesels suffer from some low-rev lethargy, but below 2000rpm the Subaru engine too often allows turbo lag to transport it into an unco-operative sulk.

The 138bhp Volkswagen Tiguan we tested managed 30-50mph in fifth gear in 7.8sec; the XV took a truculent 12.4sec. There’s a bit of a dearth of energy, too, at the top end of the rev range, beyond 4000rpm. So flexibility remains a problem for Subaru’s diesel specialists.

While the 2.0-litre diesel is undoubtedly the engine of choice in the XV, a petrol is offered: a 148bhp 2.0-litre powerplant. Like the diesel, it’s a boxer, so the off-beat warble comes as standard.

The 2.0-litre petrol is a couple of thousand pounds cheaper than the diesel, but around a second slower to 62mph.

For 2018, Subaru has heavily revamped the XV with 80 percent of components being modified for the new XV over the current naturally aspirated engines. The chief difference is that the units are lighter than before meaning fuel economy is improved alongside power output and overall refinement.

RIDE & HANDLING

Subaru XV cornering

Without lavishing a disproportionate amount of time, money and resources on fettling the XV, Subaru was always going to leave this car’s dynamic manners open to compromise.

And although the car feels rugged enough to hustle down forest tracks and across grassy expanses for decades to come, there’s no escaping the fact that, on the road, it’s not a match for the classiest crossovers.

For all but the most demanding off-road use, the Subaru XV copes well.

Not that Subaru’s traditional customer base will mind. The brand hasn’t always embraced its agricultural fans, but its latest effort seems particularly well geared to the ‘problem in the lower field’ set.

There’s a healthy amount of ground clearance (220mm – which is more than a Land Rover Freelander, while a Nissan Qashqai only gets 150mm) and the default 50/50 torque split is hardy enough to deal with the kind of ground that would be likely to foil a school-run 4x4.

That said, the XV lacks lockable individual axle diffs, a transfer box or hill descent control. If you disable the traction control, though, by turning off the VDC system you can maintain momentum by creating some wheelspin on very slippery surfaces. 

Subaru's four-wheel-drive system shuffles power quickly and effectively, and for all but the most demanding off-road use, the XV copes well.

The fact that the Subaru doesn’t supply the rolling comfort of its plusher peers is no surprise – its character is far too rufty-tufty for that – but even hardier bottoms will find its ride wilfully inconsistent.

Thanks to the engineers’ efforts underneath, the XV isn’t affected by lackadaisical roll at low speeds but vertical body control becomes quite approximate at high speeds. Meanwhile, the rolling chassis has a tendency to register minor imperfections in the road with the diligence of a Braille student.

Whereas those occasional intrusions are a reminder of the car’s fibrous contact with the road, the electronic power steering is an altogether less fluent interpreter. At best, it transmits a gluey impression of tyre loading. At worst, especially on small adjustments around the straight-ahead, it feels overly light and woolly.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Subaru XV

It is convenient for Subaru that the XV’s rugged character and off-road ability push it out of the standard crossover equation, because our preferred models in that class – the Kia Sportage and Skoda Yeti – are noticeably cheaper to buy and run, regardless of whether you go for the diesel or petrol-engined cars.

Pitched instead against compact SUVs like the Land Rover Discovery Sport and the new Volkswagen Tiguan, the diesel-engined Subaru’s high price looks more reasonable.

The semi-premium VW Tiguan crushes the Subaru and Jeep Compass on residuals – by about 20 per cent over three years

In fact, thanks to the 2.0-litre boxer engine’s comparatively low CO2 emissions of 141g/km (and considering the cruise control, dual-zone air conditioning and rear-view camera that are included with SE trim), it almost looks like a decent investment.

We even managed to better the 145bhp 2.0D XV’s 50.4mpg combined economy claim on our touring run, recording an admirable 51.3mpg, though the facelifted models improve on that front further, with the official figure now sitting at 52.3mpg. Our 39.6mpg all-round score is an indication that keeping the car in its economical comfort zone isn’t always easy, but it’s nevertheless a respectable result from such a tall car.

The depreciation forecast for the XV – often a thorn in Subaru’s side – no doubt makes for uncomfortable reading for wannabe owners. But crash performance is good; Euro NCAP claims this is the safest new car you can buy for child occupant protection.

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VERDICT

3 star Subaru XV

Subaru’s back-to-basics four-wheel drive authenticity gives the XV lots of appeal.

It’s far more the proper, old-fashioned, go-anywhere 4x4 shrunken down than the overgrown family five-door that the crossover class is used to.

The 1.6-litre petrol's emissions better those of the 2.0-litre diesel, but the diesel's the preferable choice

As one tester put it, it’d make a great car for rural midwifes and entrepreneurial veterinarians.

The plough-your-own-furrow charm doesn’t completely paper over some rather obvious cracks in the XV’s résumé, though.

This Subaru performs, handles and rides with too much compromise to appear as much more than a speck on the urban set’s horizon; rivals such as the Nissan Qashqai, Ford Kuga, Ateca or Mazda CX-5 offer much more competent overall packages, although admittedly at a premium in some cases.

Subaru's XV is also hindered by a price that could be more competitive for the more desirable models, disappointing cabin space and potentially fearsome depreciation. 

Tough and indefatigable, the XV will appeal to Subaru’s existing bucolic customer – but it’s too rough and ready to win success more broadly. Fear not though, as the 2018 iteration aims to take the XV to a whole new level with its improved architecture, more inticing interior and better refinement and on road characteristics. Only time will tell if it's enough to make those at the crossover helm look over their shoulders nervously or if the XV remains the bit-part player it is currently.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Subaru XV 2012-2017 First drives