By Jonathan Crouch
Subaru is a company discovering that the traditional rules of car building just aren't valid any longer. Customers are demanding more adventurous products that cost less to run and offer new levels of style, safety and versatility. Which is why the brand's XV Crossover model proved to be so important for the company. It was originally launched in 2012 but was priced to look more expensive than it should have been. A year later, with exchange rates looking a little more favourable, the importers were able to re-position this car, improving equipment levels and deleting the slow-selling 1.6-litre petrol unit from the range. It's this improved version of the XV that we're going to look at here, a car sold until 2015 when a mild facelift improved its proposition still further. Does it make sense as a used buy?
The Crossover. Arguably, it's the motor industry's fastest growing market segment and in Subaru's XV, that's exactly what we have here. By now, you're probably familiar with the concept behind this kind of car, but even if you're not, you're probably well acquainted with the end result. Whether packaged as Ford Kuga, a Peugeot 3008 or, most successfully, as a Nissan Qashqai, the idea's the same. A family hatchback with SUV attitude and none of the clunky connotations associated with Freelander-style small 4x4s. Virtually none of the off roading capability either - or the solid toughness. Some Crossovers don't even bother with a 4WD option and those that do limit it to ridiculously pricey derivatives.
Crossovers, in other words, are these days more about fashion than substance. But what if you could get one with Qashqai-like style matched to Freelander-like off road capability? What if this class of car, in other words, could actually walk the walk as well as talk the talk? That'd be quite something. That'd be unique. And that's exactly what this XV claims to be designed to deliver.
If any brand was going to be able to create a car able to do this, you'd put money on Subaru to do it. They were building models of this kind way before the concept became fashionable, with a history going all the way back to 1995 and the launch of the Legacy Outback, a chunky all-wheel drive estate then followed by more overtly SUV-like Forester and Tribeca designs. None of which really caught the imagination of British buyers. But this car did. The version we're going to look at here sold between 2013 and 2015.
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. 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, so choose your colour carefully.
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 many competitor models. 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 2013 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. Both 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's a single petrol option, a 148bhp 2.0-litre unit 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.
This car is better equipped for off road work than any 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.
Of course, if you're a typical Crossover customer, then you might be wondering whether this kind of capability is really necessary. The answer is that it's like having a watch that's waterproof to 200 metres. You'll probably never need it, but it's good to know it's there.
Here's a car that makes more sense the more you think about it. It may not be quite as flashy as some other segment rivals but there's plenty else to like. There's the standard 4WD system, the brilliant build quality, the lovely charismatic Boxer engines and this car's surprising off road ability. Then add in high equipment levels, class-leading safety and its quite brilliant after sales care package. Starting to look rather tempting now isn't it?
OK, so no, it's not perfect. Ride and refinement could be better, the interior isn't the last word in design elegance and the boot could be bigger - but these aren't deal-breakers. And they can't begin to dilute the XVs many virtues. Subaru, it seems on this evidence, is a company that hasn't quite got the hang of the whole 'style over substance' thing when it comes to Crossover models of this kind. Loyal buyers will be glad of it.