If ever there was a car brand that needed a shot in the arm, it’s Subaru. With production heavily scaled back last year due to the Japanese Tsunami, and sales falling as a result, the arrival of three new models in 2012 will be a welcome relief.
First to hit the UK is the new XV crossover, and Subaru is claiming that it’s the company’s most important car for a generation. That’s partly because the XV is based on the same platform – and uses the same engines – as the next Impreza, due out later this year.
So to help the XV make a big impact in this crowded corner of the market, it’s been launched in the eye-catching Tangerine Orange paint finish shown in our pictures. More conservative shades are available if you don’t want to look like a beach rescue vehicle!
The XV also sees the debut of the brand’s new family face, with ‘hawk-eye’ headlights and a bold single-frame chrome grille up front. Every model in the range comes with black and silver 17-inch alloys, and the 2.0-litre petrol and diesel versions get roof rails, too.
Thanks to the low nose and jutting bumpers, it looks quite aggressive head-on, but at the back the boxy design is a little brash. It’ll seem perfectly at home tackling muddy country tracks, yet lacks the classy subtlety that gives the Sportage so much urban appeal.
The ruggedness hinted at by the exterior’s plastic body mouldings and tall ride height continues inside. You sit much lower here than in the Kia, giving a more car-like driving position, but the XV still offers a commanding view of the road. The A-pillars have been moved 200mm forward from their position in the Impreza, further improving visibility.
While the rest of the cabin will be instantly familiar to anyone who has driven a Subaru in the past decade, that isn’t a good thing. It feels built to last, and there has been some effort put into giving it a luxury feel, but the drab dash design, dot-matrix displays and sharp-edged plastics are unforgivable on a car of this price.
The SE we tested does come well equipped, with heated seats, cruise control, a reversing camera and colour multifunction display all included as standard, but the cheaper Sportage has even more kit.
The XV rides 30mm lower than the Kia and has a slightly shorter wheelbase, but thanks to some clever packaging there’s a similar amount of space inside. Four adults can easily sit in comfort, with leg and headroom to spare, but a high transmission tunnel means five would be a squeeze.
If you avoid the optional full-size spare wheel then you get a reasonable 380-litre boot, which expands to 1,270 litres with the seats folded flat. Flipping down the rear bench is a hassle-free operation, yet the Kia’s load bay is a lot wider and deeper.
Once we arrived at the track it didn’t take long for the XV to turn its compact size into a clear dynamic advantage. With a lot less weight over the wheels and an extra 11bhp, it’s no surprise that the car was more than a second faster covering the 0-60mph sprint. The in-gear times were closer, but the Subaru still held an edge over the Sportage.
Its boxer engine is a little noisy on start-up, yet quickly settles down, and is smooth and eager to rev, with enough torque to make quick and easy progress. Fully independent front and rear suspension and the XV’s superb four-wheel-drive system – which splits power evenly between the front and rear tyres – means there’s loads of traction in normal driving conditions. The car feels balanced and agile, and as a result it corners really neatly.
But on the road you pay for this stiffness, and at low speeds the XV struggles to soak up bumps and potholes. On the motorway, there’s also a lot of wind noise around the big door mirrors and rumble from the tyres.
Engine tweaks and tall gearing aim to make the Subaru more economical, but our return of 33mpg was disappointing, and the Subaru will have its work cut out to overcome its accomplished rival.
Chart position: 2WHY: Subaru’s first crossover needs to impress. It has all the right credentials, with a unique flat-four diesel and a tried-and-tested four-wheel-drive system.