Subaru is one of the pioneers of the crossover vehicles that are now all the rage. David Thomson gets behind the wheel of the company's latest contribution to the genre, the new XV.
Take a look at most of the crossover vehicles that have been launched in the past year or so, and you will see vehicles that combine high-riding SUV-like styling with conventional on-road mechanicals. Many, including the Nissan Juke and the Citroen DS4 that have featured in Drivesouth of late, are so soft-road they don't even come with four-wheel drive.
Subaru takes a quite different approach: Four, or as Subaru would have it, all-wheel drive, has long been standard in every vehicle the company offers here.
Included in that mix is the Forester, which is well-established in the small-medium SUV segment.
It follows quite naturally that when Subaru launches a new small-medium crossover it will be more car-like in appearance than most of its rivals, but stauncher in its underlying off-road abilities. Enter the XV, which is based on the platform and mechanicals of the latest Impreza, with a lengthened wheelbase, additional underbody strengthening, more generous ride height, and beefed-up styling.
Visually, the XV makes a strong impression, in part because it is one of the few crossovers that looks like a beefed-up hatchback rather than a watered-down SUV. Fat bumpers, wrap-around plastic guards for the wheel arches and sills, and distinctive alloy wheels are the most obvious
points of styling difference between it and a conventional Impreza hatch.
One can also add to this a substantial increase in ride height. Whereas a regular Impreza provides 145mm of ground clearance, the XV rides 220mm proud of Mother Earth.
The extent to which that ground clearance converts into a genuine capacity for off-roading depends on the transmission chosen to match the 110kW/196Nm 2.0-litre engine that is standard across the New Zealand XV range.
Opt for the six-speed manual gearbox, and the potential for light off-roading is certainly there, albeit tempered by the knowledge the XV's boot contains a space-saver spare.
On the other hand, the six-stage Lineartronic CVT transmission that is the self-shifting alternative, is probably more suited to a driver who regards the skifield run on a frosty Central Otago morning as sufficient challenge.
It was the CVT version that came to Drivesouth for appraisal, in $40,990 2.0i entry-specification.
This still includes 17-inch alloys, roof rails, front fog lights, cruise control, climate air-conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity and a six-speaker audio system on the manifest. There's also a colour multifunction display screen with a range of display options, including a reversing camera and
graphical displays relating to journey times and fuel efficiency.
Helped in part by thinner sills and doors that open more widely than a regular Impreza, the XV is an easy car to get in and out of.
The XV interior is more conservative than the exterior, trimmed in dark tones below the waistline, with thin metallic strips across the dash giving the main visual lift up front.
Forward storage options include a centre bin that includes the iPod and USB plug-ins for the sound system.
The main controls fall nicely to hand from the driver's seat, which adjusts manually for squab height. Paddle-shifts for the transmission and controls for the phone, sound system, cruise control and multifunction display are provided on a steering wheel that adjusts for both rake and reach.
A slightly knees-up position is demanded of taller adults in the rear of the cabin, but leg-room is reasonable, head and shoulder room fine, and visibility good. Flexible load-carrying is a necessity for a crossover vehicle, and while the XV doesn't offer any special tricks here, the 60:40 split
rear-seat backs fold forward readily to provide a flat floor area. With the seats folded right down, carrying capacity is boosted from 310 litres in five-seat mode to 741 litres.
The test car passed the urban component of the test-drive programme with flying colours, proving easy and undemanding to drive and attracting favourable comment for its styling.
Round-town fuel economy was good, with the inherent efficiency of the CVT transmission supplemented by an automatic stop-start function for the engine. The new XV CVT's standard cycle consumption figure of 7 litres per 100km is some 20% better than its predecessor's.
Were I buying an XV for predominantly open road and gravel-road work, the manual rather than the auto would be my transmission of choice.
Even so, the CVT acquitted itself well on highways and byways, with little of the "rubber-band" effect that can be a feature of these transmissions. Some credit for this must go to the inclusion of manual paddle-shifts to enable to the driver to take control of ratio selection.
Overall, performance ranked as adequate rather than brisk. This was largely because the engine - while pleasingly crisp in its responses - reserves its best for 4000rpm and beyond.
One of the biggest challenges in adapting a car platform for crossover use is retuning the suspension to cope with the higher centre of gravity. Steps taken with the XV include stiffer suspension mounts, high-response dampers and special rebound.
These changes contain body roll fairly well at everyday speeds but push the XV into a demanding tarmac corner at pace and the chassis protests by pitching into understeer.
Similarly, while the suspension soaks up big bumps, smaller imperfections pitter-patter into the cabin to a greater degree than in a regular car or, indeed, than the best-sorted of the XV's crossover rivals.
Still, a crossover car that pays more than visual lip service to the notion of an SUV has to be an attractive proposition in parts of the world where a decent amount of time is spent motoring beyond city streets. In this regard, the new XV and Otago shape up as a pretty good match.
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