By Andy Enright
At first glance, the Subaru XV looks like a nailed-on winner. Chunky good looks underpinned by typically rugged Subaru engineering, a very good diesel engine option, engaging driving manners and a cool left-field image. Here's a car that should have been a far more common sight than it is. If you're looking for a used version, you're not going to have a lot of stock to choose from and you'll probably have to travel a fair way to get your hands on a car that's in the right trim, colour or condition. For a number of reasons though, the XV has turned into one of those cars that makes better sense used than it did at first when new. Want to know why? Read on.
To understand the XV, you first need to understand the effect external forces beyond Subaru's control had on its chances. Unlike Toyota, Honda and Nissan, who all have fairly extensive construction facilities within the EU, Subaru's product is built exclusively in Japan. When exhange rates started working against Subaru, its only option was to ask more for its cars. Of course, the company could have done a Daihatsu and decided Europe was a busted flush, but instead Subaru tried to tough it out.
The XV received favourable reviews when it was announced with one huge proviso. A car that should have been priced against a Toyota RAV4 or a Nissan Qashqai was instead priced against the BMW X3 and the Audi Q3. It didn't take a genius to figure out how that would end. The savage exchange rate situation eased somewhat in 2013 and Subaru was able to slash £1,300 off the price of its entry level XV models, as well as offering interest-free deals on 2.0-litre diesel variants, sparking an upturn in sales. Outright victory in 4x4 Magazine's 'SUV of the Year' also clued in those who'd previously thought of buying something a bit more mainstream.
What You Get
The XV's basic shape is a fairly faithful representation of the crossover norm but it's got a purposeful, chunky stance and some very interesting details. We love its five-spoke silver and black alloy wheels, if only because they remind us of Matchbox cars from our youth. The front end is very neatly finished with shapely headlamp pods, a gaping air intake below the number plate and a recognisable Subaru grille. Moving back, you get Audi allroad-style wheelarch extensions that look agreeably rugged and at the back end, a tidily finished rear bumper with dark cladding extending back from the rear wheel arch. You lose a lot of the contrast if you go for a dark paint shade, although some may baulk at the 'Tangerine Orange' finish which was used as the XV's launch colour but dropped from later cars.
Inside, the cabin is a step up from the rather plasticky efforts that Subaru has managed in recent years - but it still doesn't quite have the quality feel you'd find in the best of this car's European rivals. Some of the ergonomics are a little haphazard too, such as the temperature controls at the bottom of the centre stack and the digital readout at the top. Or the way that the seat heater switches are hidden away behind the handbrake. There's some compensation to be found in the build quality though, which matches the rugged, built-to-last feeling that pervades across the rest of the car. There are some nice details too. Like the way the heater controls are large and chunky enough to be used by a gloved hand. And the way that the USB and AUX-in points are nicely stashed away in the closable compartment between the seats.
Accessibility to the back is helped by doors that open wider than those fitted to an equivalent Impreza model. Once inside, Subaru talks of room for three adults, but the high centre transmission tunnel will make that difficult to achieve on all but the shortest journeys. It'll be fine for three children though. On the plus side, the XV's comparatively long wheelbase gives a decent amount of rear legroom, the space available helped by front seats that you can get your feet comfortably under. Out back, the 380-litre boot capacity is less than most rivals offer, but there is a small under-boot floor compartment and of course you can extend the capacity by pushing forward the rear bench - to 1270-litres, though the seats don't fold totally flat.
What to Look For
The underpinnings of the XV are shared with the Impreza, so it's about as tough as that suggests. Don't go searching for a spare wheel, as the XV doesn't come with one, which seems a bit of an omission for a car that proclaims its off-road ability. The engines get top results for durability and the running gear is also bombproof. Keep an eye out for signs of overzealous off-road action, which usually means hedge scrapes in the paintwork, chewed alloy wheels, dented exhaust boxes and possibly misaligned suspension. The interiors have proven hardwearing, although the dashboard mouldings can creak and rattle.
(approx based on a 2012 XV 2.0-litre diesel) Parts are pitched a good deal above what you'd expect to fork out for Vauxhall or Ford spares but Subaru counters that you'll need to buy them less often. A replacement headlamp unit will cost in the region of £275, whilst an exhaust is around £450. Tyres are around £90 a corner.
On the Road
Crossover models as a breed are all about what they say. The raised driving position, the plastic body cladding, the big wheels. And not a lot else. Subaru as a brand doesn't hold with that. Here's a company that cares about what it cars can actually do as well as the school run statement they make, with the result that this XV is far more capable than most buyers will expect. It does, in short, offer a different approach to the Qashqai and Kuga norm in this segment, something you get a feel for from the very moment you slip behind the wheel.
Twist the ignition key and you know you're in a Subaru thanks to the engine's characteristic flat, thrumming Boxer engine beat. All three of the mainstream four cylinder engines on offer use the Boxer configuration, one in which the cylinders lay flat and whizz back and forth like a boxer's fists. There are a couple of petrol options, a 112bhp 1.6 and a 148bhp 2.0-litre, both available with either a manual gearbox or a 6-speed Lineartronic CVT automatic. Most UK buyers though, will opt for the 145bhp manual-only 2.0-litre diesel model.
So how does it fare on the road? Well for a start, the driving position is extremely good, with decent adjustment of both the seat and the steering wheel. The windscreen pillars are refreshingly slim, although the rear three quarter view will have many relying on the parking sensors when nudging it into a parking bay. Get beyond the city limits and give the throttle a good prod and you're rewarded with a nice gravelly thrum from this 2.0-litre diesel as sixty is dispatched in 9.3s on the way to 120mph. Thanks to 350Nm of torque, there's reasonable pulling power through the sweet-shifting six-speed gearbox too, if not quite as much as is provided by some comparable rivals.
And around the twisty stuff? Well you might have reasonable hopes here, given Subaru's claims that thanks to the way the Boxer engine can sit very low in the car, this model can boast the lowest centre of gravity in the segment. Which ought to make it very taut around the corners. That might be true in theory, but it doesn't feel that way the first time you throw the XV into a tight bend. The raised driving position makes the car feel a little precarious, but stick with it and you'll find plenty of grip. In fact, the more you drive it, the more confident you get and it actually becomes good fun. Or would be if the electric power steering offered a bit more feel.
Take it off tarmac and the XV copes better than most of its crossover rivals thanks to standard symmetrical 4WD on all models and 220mm of ground clearance, 30mm more than you get in a Nissan Qashqai and more even than a Land Rover Freelander. Not that you'll be taking on the Rubicon Trail. A 19.6-degree approach angle means really steep head-on inclines might be beyond you and of course, like all crossovers, this one lacks proper off roading mechanicals like a low range transfer 'box or lockable individual axle diffs.
But unless you're somewhere you really shouldn't have gone to in the first place with your XV, then you won't need any of that stuff anyway. A manual car distributes its torque equally 50/50 front to rear, with a viscous coupling to change that balance whenever a front wheel or rear wheel slips. It's as pure a four-wheel drive system as you could possibly hope for and it just works, even when only one wheel has traction. There's also a neat Hill Start Assist system which prevents the car rolling backwards when you're beginning on a sharp incline. All XVs get a very clever VDC stability control system which comes in very handy if you forget quite how muddy your tyres are. And you can switch it off if you want the kind of momentum-maintaining wheelspin that'll get you through really slippery sections.
The Subaru XV is a clever used buy if you can get one at the right asking figure. The problem is, many owners will be asking unrealistic prices hoping to recoup what they paid, not realising that the market has changed. That's tough luck for them, but it's a buyers' market and you could land a real deal with a bit of determined haggling. Clearly the 2.0-litre diesel is the model to target. If you want a stylish crossover vehicle that can do the business when the going gets tough, there's not a lot to touch the XV.