12-month test: Subaru XV 2,0I-ES Lineartronic CVT
A year spent with Subaru’s stylish midsize crossover pays testament to the firm’s ability to turn out pleasingly balanced products
FROM my standpoint as a motoring writer of more than a decade, I’ve observed trends in the automotive market are remarkably fickle things. Where once the station wagon was the multipurpose car of choice, our desire to avoid a family label so beige that it’s practically vanilla has now meant that children and chattels are being threaded through our streets in frankly unfit-for-purpose SUVS.
It’s this struggle to avoid being pigeonholed with the humdrum that’s similarly fuelled the meteoric rise of the crossover, albeit in a slightly less contrived manner. Although they’re generally more townie than trail-breaking, most crossovers have the requisite butch bodywork and jacked-up ride height applied to a hatchback donor car that’s more practically presented and less likely to teeter in corners or drink you out of house and home than an SUV. And it was with this in mind that I took delivery of Subaru’s smallest crossover, the XV. From the staple plastic lower-body cladding, to the raised ride height, roof rails and wedge-shaped profile, the latest XV closely echoes much of its predecessor’s chunky, fun aesthetic. But, whereas the latest car is incredibly similar to its forebear, it is in fact a completely new product with a surprising mechanical twist. In the interests of family ties and economy of scales, it would have made sense for Subaru to underpin much of its model range with Toyota’s New Global Architecture platform (Toyota owns 16,5% of Subaru), which did sterling service in my previous long-termer, the Prius. Instead, Subaru invested a cool US$1 billion in developing its own modular platform; think of it as the Japanese equivalent of Volkswagen’s MQB chassis. Although much of the new platform’s focus is on crash survivability, there’s also the matter of a considerable (more than 70%) improvement in torsional rigidity. And a lengthy stint behind the XV’S wheel has shown this to be money well spent.
The driving experience is pure Subaru: meaty, direct steering coupled with a supple ride and a
modicum of body lean offset by plentiful grip from the AWD setup. I took the liberty of driving the long-termer back to back with a friend’s first-generation XV and the difference in body flex and ride revealed a palpable improvement in the new car’s road manners.
Changes in the engine bay were a little less marked. The 2,0-litre flat-four engine received a 5 kw shot in the arm, raising the total output to a still fairly modest 115 kw, while torque remained at 196 N.m. While it favours mechanical refinement over flatcylinder burble, it’s nonetheless a tractable unit that’s pretty much perfect for the XV … but for the transmission to which it’s hitched. Motoring journalists’ widely held disdain for these band-driven CVTS no doubt elicit a chorus of sighs and eyes rolling skywards but, in a car as accomplished as the XV, the Lineartronic ‘box does the engine few favours.
To Subaru’s credit, its CVT is one of the better ones out there. The “shifts” are smooth and responsiveness to input from the paddle-shifters is reasonably quick, but there’s still that (virtual) gear-slipping lag between throttle input and acceleration, leaving the engine somewhat strained. This lethargy was particularly apparent during my daily motorway commute of 80 km, where the act of overtaking slower traffic had to be carefully measured against the speed of following cars. Once the speeds level out and the transmission’s band settles on a preferred ratio, however, the XV becomes a pleasure to pilot.
Early in its tenure, I decided to pit the XV against both tarmac and sections of the country’s near-27 000 km dirt roads on a 3 000 km round trip to the Eastern Cape. I’ve never been much for planting the fast pedal on gravel but the well-measured intervention of the XV’S AWD and stability-control system gently lulled me into carrying speeds on the loose road surfaces which would’ve seen most FWD crossovers nervously crabbing. The XV’S supple ride also managed to iron out much of the teethchattering pain those washboard corrugations on well-used dirt roads often present.
The free-flowing run on the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay really saw the XV’S ability to munch motorway miles come to the fore. With posterior planted in seats with just the right amount of support, the impressively crisp audio system drowned out the tyre roar that afflicts all cars on the sandpapersurface roads in this region and, with the cruise control set at a not-too-hurried 115 km/h, the XV managed to shrug off its 8,0-odd L/100 km thirst to register a far more pleasing 6,92 L/100 km.
Furthering its open-road credentials is the XV’S party piece, the Eyesight system. As the name infers, the setup works much like human eyesight. Instead of radar or laser sensors, the system
utilises a pair of colour cameras providing the car’s array of active safety systems (including lane-departure warning, collision detection and adaptive braking) with a stereoscopic view of the road up to 110 metres ahead.
The adaptive cruise control to which this system is harnessed garnered mixed praise from the CAR team. While its actions are fluid, the system’s throttle application is somewhat leisurely. When it comes to braking, the system is more alert, firmly applying the anchors when encountering slowed traffic or smartphoneoccupied pedestrians; it saved my bacon on a couple of occasions. It must be noted, like our own eyesight, it has certain limitations rendering it inoperative in fog and heavy rain.
Contrasting with the XV’S fussfree nature, the 15 000 km service experience at Thorp Subaru Tableview was a bit of a letdown. With a telephonically organised appointment received by a somewhat laconic reception, my arrival at the dealership was met with news that my appointment wasn’t on the system and it took more than 1,5 hours to sort out. Speaking with the dealer principal, the franchise was still in a transitional period with staff previously servicing GM clientele still find- ing their feet with Subaru.
In this flagship ES model, Eyesight is part of an impressive suite of features including leather trim, auto wipers and headlamps with high-beam assist, climate control, touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone integration, sunroof and keyless ignition. These items stud a cabin that’s solidly constructed and, although something of a patina mishmash, sporty looking and logically arranged.
Given that the XV’S target demographic is the outdoorsy lifestyle set, or just as likely young families and empty nesters, the interior’s packaging is somewhat askew. Climb into the back and you’re greeted with acres of legroom. Open the boot and it becomes apparent where that extra rear space was mined; the load space is small and likely a consequence of the AWD bits on the rear axle.
And it’s this system that elevates this car above most of its rivals. While it plays the part of comfy commuter very well, the XV’S 220 mm ground clearance and an AWD system with torqueapportioning and hill-descent control render it a capable off-roader.
Putting the compromised boot packaging and divisive transmission aside, its ability to combine solid construction with stylish execution and plentiful standard spec has won the XV plenty of fans. While striking a neat balance between commuting and a respectable degree of off-road ability, it is easy to see how the model has become Subaru’s banker in the local market and kept second-hand price retention decently competitive; it’s certainly made me look at the crossover genre as less of a contrivance and more of a viable bridge between hatchback and SUV.
The AWD system elevates the XV above its rivals
Striking Cool Blue Khaki paint complements the XV’S rugged frame.
clockwise from top Crisp touchscreen infotainment system forms the focal point of a sportylooking cabin; plentiful legroom and 60:40-split folding seatbacks; Eyesight is the nerve centre of the comprehensive safety system; AWD and 220 mm of ground clearance contribute genuine dirt-track capability; boot is surprisingly small; dual-zone climate control part of generous standard specification.