Few brands apart from Land Rover are as strongly associated with four-wheel drive as Subaru. It’s been 41 years since the company launched its first all-wheel-drive model in the UK, in the form of the Leone coupe and saloon, way back in 1972.
Since then, Subaru’s many successes in the World Rally Championship have made it synonymous with fast and affordable all-weather sports cars, while its mainstream models have a strong off-road reputation.
From the outside, the Subaru XV certainly lives up to that no-nonsense pedigree, with thick plastic bumper protectors, 17-inch alloys and roof rails as standard on all but the entry-level 1.6-litre petrol model. Inside, you sit lower down than you might expect, but there’s still an excellent view of the road ahead, thanks to narrow A-pillars and large side windows.
The unique combination of a four-cylinder boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel drive makes the XV a real outsider in the crossover class: none of its rivals has permanent 50:50 split four-wheel drive sending power to all of its wheels, all of the time. So unlike the BMW 3 Series, the Subaru needs nothing to shuffle power around if the tyres start to lose grip.
Other things that set the Subaru apart are its best-in-class ground clearance (it can ride over higher obstacles than the brand’s taller Forester) and fully independent front and rear suspension. The latter makes it surprisingly agile when driven hard on tarmac roads.
But if you hit an icy patch, the engine cuts power to the affected wheel and keeps the XV on the straight and narrow – something we were able to demonstrate several times in the sub-zero temperatures on our test.
A screen in the centre of the dash shows the four-wheel-drive system working, and highlights any wheel that’s losing traction. This worked well on our off-road course, as we could use the display to judge when to apply the power to keep the wheels turning.
Everything inside the XV feels pretty tough, yet there’s no hill-descent control system or low-range gearbox, so you have to be careful to control the car’s speed – especially when descending very steep or muddy inclines.
The Subaru is the lightest car of the five that we tested here. It weighs a considerable 130kg less than the BMW, at 1,415kg. This, combined with small dimensions, allowed it to scrabble up the same trails as the Ranger managed. And although it lost grip more often, it felt much more manoeuvrable than the big pick-up thanks to its compact size, light steering and short-throw gearbox.
On the road, the ride is a little firm and a lack of cruising refinement is the price you pay for the low weight. But when the going gets tough, the XV is still head and shoulders above its crossover rivals, thanks to its 4WD.
Whether this is enough to justify the car’s hefty £29,995 price tag and heavy rate of depreciation is a different matter, though.