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Can the crossover stand out from the crowd not only off-road but on tarmac too?

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Never is it pleasurable to open road-test proceedings on a gloomy note, but this week’s subject, the Subaru XV, arrives with its maker flailing for relevancy.

Subaru’s UK market share was just over a tenth of a per cent in 2016, and somehow that fell last year. Consider that the reason you see so few of these star-spangled Japanese cars is that no single model can drag itself into four-figure sales, although business in the brand’s homeland and the USA is much more healthy.

Our test car was shod in 225-section Bridgestone all-season tyres on 18in wheels. It’s a solid-looking design, mirrored by the sizeable wheel-arch clearance and chunky black cladding.

Here, though, it seems the only way is up.

Identifying a route is the difficulty, and so at a time when the Subaru WRX STi, with its rally-soaked heritage, faces a shaky future – one that doesn’t involve UK sales at all – perhaps it’s time to reassess what the definitive Subaru of today actually is. It is a car that almost certainly features a hatchback because, aside from the two-seater Subaru BRZ, whose shape was engineered for the purposes of the near-identical Toyota GT86, every car Subaru now builds does.

Does it have four-wheel drive? Of course it does. Subaru’s Symmetrical All Wheel Drive (SAWD) system first saw action as an optional extra on the Leone Wagon of 1972 – a pioneering development in the world of affordable road cars – and is part of the brand’s genetic code. As to whether it should enjoy a raised ride height, you could argue it either way, but, given current tastes, it wouldn’t do any harm.

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The Subaru XV, introduced in 2012 and considerably but discreetly altered for 2018, ticks those boxes. 

DESIGN & STYLING

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium

Honing the design of the Subaru XV is a bit like asking your tailor to sew a more sculpted waist into an old mac. But though looking dandy isn’t perhaps this car’s biggest selling point, it is at least fairly handsome.

The windscreen is now more steeply raked and the rear section of the roofline has been lowered, Subaru claiming this has had no adverse effect on interior space. The front of the car is far less benign than it was, too, with chrome trim making way for black, and more severe angles almost everywhere you look. All in all, it’s a good effort.

In tune with the needs of its customer base, the XV gets proper roof rails, with plenty of clearance between roof and rail for ease of fastening items in place.

The greatest change is hidden from sight, however. After the Impreza, this is the second car to be built on the new and remarkably strong, billion-dollar Subaru Global Platform, which is said to be tremendously stiffer than that of the outgoing XV, with a 70% increase in torsional rigidity. It’s a platform to which either a 1.6- or 2.0-litre boxer engine is fitted, with Subaru’s SAWD driveline defaulting to a 60:40 front:rear torque split.

Tellingly, there are no diesel options coming to the UK, and it’s the larger petrol engine tested here, with conservative maximum outputs of 154bhp and 145lb ft delivered through a Lineartronic CVT gearbox touting seven supposed ‘speeds’.

It’s the viscous coupling-equipped, full-time four-wheel-drive SAWD driveline that’s so integral to the appeal of the XV, and in terms of specification it makes a muddy mockery of many soft-roader crossover rivals. Subaru’s X-Mode and Hill Descent Control manipulate power distribution using the engine, gearbox and brakes to maintain traction on steep, slippery surfaces.

The XV also comes with the latest iteration of Subaru’s EyeSight safety technology, which the firm says has been responsible for a 40% reduction in the accident rate of Subaru vehicles in Japan. The kit includes lane-keep assist and emergency braking.

INTERIOR

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium front seats

Despite the fact that the Subaru Subaru XV is purported to be all-new, you’d have a hard time identifying exactly what aspects of its cabin are in fact, well, new. It retains that same sense of hardiness that’s not only common to all Subaru models, but is a key appeal to the brand’s typically agricultural customer base, and aesthetically it’s all much the same as before. This means you get chunky switchgear that’s easy to operate on the move and which imbues the XV with a sense of sturdiness and dependability.

That the perceived material richness may not be as high as that from more mainstream rivals in the segment – think Seat Ateca – may be partly the result of Subaru’s pitching the XV as a rough-and-tough crossover with genuine off-road capabilities, as opposed to a town-friendly hatchback on stilts.

Taller passengers will have few complaints as far as leg room is concerned, but the low roofline may be a bit of a sore point, because it eats into head room.

However, that’s not to say the cabin is a dull place to sit. Contrasting orange stitching and leather upholstery go some way to lifting its overall ambience, and this is certainly a more upmarket-seeming car than what it replaces – although we’d hazard a guess that the mock carbonfibre detailing won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

Subaru has increased the second-generation XV’s touchscreen from 7.0in to 8.0in, while simultaneously introducing DAB radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility as standard across the range.

Graphically, the system is pretty basic – the XV’s wheelbase is actually 25mm longer than that of the full-size Subaru Forester SUV, so you won’t find you’re short on leg room in the back. The same can’t quite be said for head space; those of a loftier disposition will find they need to slouch to avoid having the tops of their noggins brushing against the roof.

Although the XV’s wheelbase may be comparable to that of the Forester, its 4465mm overall length is not, meaning seats-up boot space measures 385 litres as opposed to the larger car’s 505 litres. A T-Roc, by comparison, manages 445 litres, while an Ateca offers 510 litres.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium engine

The decision to relieve the Subaru XV of its diesel engine option, and to rely instead on a naturally aspirated petrol engine as the stronger of two combustive picks, has dramatically reduced the amount of accessible torque available in the car. And because that decision was taken at the same time as the one to limit the car’s transmission options to one – a CVT automatic of the sort that, experience teaches, absolutely relies on an engine with a hefty wad of torque in order to feel adequately responsive – a dramatic shift in performance character has been affected on the XV, and it isn’t a very welcome one.

Back in 2012, we road tested the original XV 2.0d and found it a likeably stout and workmanlike car with an engine that didn’t mind knuckling down, but the new version is one-dimensional. On the road, it’s regrettably slow – assessed both subjectively from the driver’s seat and objectively when you consider the relative performance of the other cars the money can buy.

Leave the CVT in ‘drive’ and it seems to meter out torque in strange 500rpm lumps as you seek a fine accelerator response. Even if you want to drive the XV gently, it’s not easy or rewarding to do.

It should not, for example, take a near-£30,000 car such as this more than ten seconds to hit 60mph, when a Volkswagen T-Roc of a similar price can do it in less than seven and a like-for-like diesel needs about eight-and-a-half.

But it’s the way the XV’s engine and gearbox combine on part-throttle that’s actually a much bigger problem than that disappointing outright performance level. Subaru’s CVT isn’t, mercifully, the kind to spin to stratospheric revs with every little dig for forward impetus, but somehow it still makes it as if you’re driving the XV through two inches of treacle all the time and it is perpetually sapping your momentum and blighting the car’s responsiveness.

Choose Manual mode instead and you can conjure a slightly closer, more satisfactory sense of control over the car’s rate of acceleration and your own conservation of momentum, but it’s nothing like as good as a paddleshift manual mode on a torque-converter auto, let alone that of a twin-clutch transmission.

Does the CVT at least produce commendable fuel economy from that 2.0-litre engine? Not really, or at least, not by wider crossover class standards. On a disciplined 60-70mph motorway cruise, we couldn’t even get the XV to return 40mpg, while the unsympathetic pasting you’re obliged to give the accelerator in order to get the car moving along moderately briskly causes your economy return to sink perilously close to a number beginning with a ‘two’.

RIDE & HANDLING

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium on the road

As one tester remarked, the Subaru XV has “a good fifty-yard handshake”. With weighty, well-paced steering and a low-speed ride that quickly shows off a modicum of tautness and dynamic sophistication, the crossover makes a confident and promising initial impression on its driver.

The XV handles smaller lumps and bumps on the road in composed, progressive, predictable fashion, and because it holds so few surprises for you, generally going where you point it and responding as you expect it will, it is pleasingly easy to drive. It has a chassis that isn’t over-endowed with lateral grip or handling agility but instead goes big on bump composure and damping authority; that feels, in other words, like it’s keeping plenty of rough-stuff capability in reserve for just when you need it. That’s an unusual dynamic for a crossover hatchback, but it makes the XV as unique in 2018 as it did in 2012; and if only the car had a powertrain better suited to making the driving experience rich and engaging, the car’s chassis would doubtless come to the fore much more readily.

Sharper corners tease plenty of roll out of the XV, but not enough to corrupt its grip level or handling balance too seriously.

The XV did not take well to the Alpine hill route at Millbrook. Its powertrain made hard work of long gradients and building or maintaining speed wasn’t easy. Leave the CVT in ‘D’ and the engine spends almost all its time spinning away up near 6000rpm, and builds up so much inertia doing it that you seem to need to lift early for corners just to allow the car to settle before turning in. In manual, things are a bit better, but even here, the ratios chosen and paucity of torque means the car needs second gear to accelerate up the steepest slopes.

Subaru’s claims to have made a large improvement to the XV’s body stiffness, to have lowered its centre of gravity and generally to have relocated it within the crossover hatchback market to within touching distance of the class’s dynamic standard-bearers. This is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although it is much more composed-riding and precise-handling than it used to be, it’s not a match for a Seat Seat Ateca or Volkswagen T-Roc. At least, not playing those rivals at their own tarmac-borne game.

The car’s handling deserves better. The XV doesn’t grip or rotate with the tenacity of some small crossovers but, considering its genuine dual-purpose brief, it’s remarkably poised and secure. Body control allows plenty of roll but ultimately keeps it in check well enough to preserve steering authority under high lateral load, and the car’s stability controls work with subtlety.

But transfer the comparison onto gravel or wet grass, throw in some bumps, and you’d certainly fancy the XV to dominate it. The car finds strong traction in slippery conditions, and its X-Mode electronic drivetrain management and torque vectoring system work well to deliver controllable, secure progress on soft, wet mud.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium 2018

The Subaru XV is priced from £24,995, making it considerably pricier than an entry-level Volkswagen T-Roc or Seat Ateca, which start at £18,950 and £18,670 respectively. In its most basic form, the XV is powered by a 1.6-litre boxer engine, which Subaru claims will account for only a small portion of overall sales in the UK.

There are two trim levels to choose from in the UK: SE and SE Premium. Standard equipment is fairly strong, with all models gaining an 8.0in touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, LED headlights, hill descent control and Subaru’s EyeSight suite of safety equipment for no extra cost.

The availability of a torquier diesel engine and manual transmission would make this a much more appealing proposition in the crossover market.

That spec level, plus the provision of an automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive as standard, partly explains the high starting price. SE Premium models gain satellite navigation, leather upholstery, sunroof and power adjustable driver’s seat.

Depreciation is unfortunately forecast to hit the XV fairly hard. Our top-spec 2.0-litre SE Premium model – which starts at £28,495 – is predicted to retain only 40% of its value after 36,000 miles and 36 months of ownership, which will be hard for many private buyers to stomach. A comparable petrol-powered Ateca, meanwhile, is expected to retain 51% of its value over the same time frame.

VERDICT

Subaru XV 2.0i Lineartronic SE Premium static verdict

Dieselgate has claimed bigger casualties, of course, but for it to have taken away a perfectly good diesel engine from the Subaru XV – a car that we liked six years ago but is much the worse for the loss of the accessible torque that unit provided – is a baffling shame.

The car’s new 2.0-litre atmospheric petrol motor struggles to shoulder its mass even half as well, and its two-pedal CVT transmission is perpetually disobliging.

The XV would serve its dual-purpose niche better if it weren't for a meek powertrain

Improvements have been made to cabin quality, to infotainment and to ride and handling but, such is the calamity of the start that the car gets off to, resulting from that powertrain, that it can’t possibly recover to anything but also-ran status in its segment.

Those who buy the XV will do so because they live in remote places that suffer bad weather, because they need ‘a proper 4x4’ and because they know they can depend on it. These people are not wrong to trust Subaru, but we have to judge it on more than its ability to satisfy a small niche.

The objective of this test is to measure a car against others in its category. We wanted to enjoy driving the XV, but we didn’t really get close.

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 2017-2023 First drives