Subaru has been undergoing a metamorphosis of late.
The enthusiasts among us know them primarily as a company that set their roots in the world of motorsport. Rallying, in particular. Driving a Subaru in the World Rally Championship meant that you had a chance of winning titles, and such was the case for drivers with the surnames McRae, Burns, and Solberg. And because of that winning heritage, Subarus were the machines of choice for those who like to go fast, no matter the road conditions.
What if, however, the name on your license says Santos, Reyes, or Cruz? What if your idea of driving involves spending hours in traffic, navigating urban streets, and occassional trips on a highway? What does a rally pedigree matter to you?
And that's the case with Subaru of today, and that's why the XV is a very important model for them. So we went to Taiwan to not only to witness the regional launch of the new generation XV, but to see the changes going on within Subaru regionally and globally.
The XV was originally launched in our market in 2012 and instantly it became a hit for Subaru as it gave regional distributor Motor Image another key model in a market that welcomes good SUVs and crossovers with open arms.
To the unfamiliar, the XV is what we consider to be a compact crossover, but unlike the Forester which has been Subaru's entry into that category, the XV actually slots in under that in both price and size. This is where it gets a little tricky because, by that description, that implies the XV is a subcompact crossover, a title that I'm a little hesitant to use in this case because really, it's not “sub” compact.
Now Subaru has a new generation of the XV, and like its predecessor, it's based on the Impreza. The company isn't exactly known for groundbreaking designs, but the new XV does look far more polished and modern than before, sharing many details from its 4-door brother. Actually, the XV is really an Impreza, but just executed like an SUV. Yes, it has a suspension that lets it sit 220mm above the road and it has more rugged details like fender flares and wheels that look like they can take a pounding off-road.
The cabin, the place where we honestly spend so much time in traffic, has likewise stepped up its game. We didn't have much time to fully try it out, but from the outset it's clear that the materials, the build quality, the consistency, and the overall feel of the interior panels, controls, and seats have been significantly improved. Even the features have been definitely stepped up, particularly the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capable infotainment system.
What Subaru seeks to highlight is the new platform which was given a conventional name: the Subaru Global Platform, or SGP, and it will underpin all of Subaru's future models. This style of implementing a common platform is not exactly new as many carmakers do construct their models using engineering architecture that's common across their model ranges, often amongst cars, SUVs, and MPVs that are similar in size. What's unique about SGP -apart from the much stiffer chassis for better confort and control- is the standard all-wheel drive system, and it's symmetrical down the length of the vehicle.
Some may scoff at the idea of Subaru sticking to their S-AWD system as their unique selling proposition (USP); some even say it's just for show. In reality having the heaviest automotive system -the powertrain and drivetrain- symmetrical from left to right is perhaps the single most important feature of the XV, especially since it affords an inherent balance that can never be matched, and is further enhanced by Subaru's driver aids.
The new thing with the XV is the presence of X-Mode, a system that optimizes the vehicle for off-road and articulated driving; you know, the kind that has wheels hanging in the air. If you've driven a current model Forester, chances are you've seen a silver buton just forward of the automatic shifter; that's the X-Mode switch, and it activates a program that manages throttle control, the transmission, the all-wheel drive torque transfer, the other electronic driver aids and important gizmos that relate to making off-road driving easier.
There were a variety of courses that were prepped by Subaru to give us a sample of how the XV can perform including an off-road course that shows the articulation and torque transfer in extreme conditions, but perhaps the most interesting aspect was the presence of a pair of competitor cars that -for all intents and purposes- give us a frame of reference to see how different the XV is. Mind you, the competitor cars, while front-wheel drive only, are not pushovers. The first is a rallycross course, and it's on dirt that they laid out on a large section of tarmac, and here the competitor car is the Mazda CX-3; a great little crossover by every yardstick that we have. The next one is a tarmac course with a unique twist that we'll get to later, and the competitor car here is the Honda HR-V; another well sorted small crossover.
On the dirt, the XV is exceptionally stable, and that was to be expected. The all-wheel drive system, as well as the improved CVT, worked well in unison to keep you in control even when you're trying to do everything wrong like I was. By comparison, the front wheel drive CX-3 really was out of its element given the slippery dirt, understeering like mad if you try to approach a corner at the same speed you did with the XV.
While you can extract all kinds of performance from the XV if you have experience and training, the truth is that torque-transferring S-AWD system, the CVT, and the driver aids like traction control, stability control, and ABS work together in extremely tricky conditions to maintain a sense of confident control for the driver. It's all for safety, though it can also be quite fun punting around the dirt trying to get it sideways at every corner, but that only works with TC off. Yeah, I tried.
The next course is far more demanding. A few months prior Subaru had us try out the Impreza with the new SGP on a course in Singapore with several wet steel plates -you know, the kind they use to temporarily cover potholes with- to show the capabilities of the car. This time the course is faster (the Singapore course was far smaller and slower by comparison), and instead of water, the lubricant they put on the steel plates was oil... the cooking kind. No wonder it smells like a kitchen out here.
The HR-V was up first, and when we hit the first series of plates, it was clear that the HR-V's chassis and stability control were very well tuned to handle these extraordinary conditions. Yes it slides a bit, but not in a way that was completely out of control; it can easily be recovered.
But a lap in the XV was something else. On the slippery stuff, it maintains its composure, mildly activating its stability control given that the all-wheel drive was doing most of the work. Surprisingly there was still some measure of steering control on the plate itself, and once out of it, the XV continues on without a hitch.
That is perhaps the beauty of the XV. Yes, a lot of us know Subaru as the producers of the greats like the WRX, the STI, and the many WRC rally cars of decades past, but today they're applying that high-performance greatness to make the cars we drive everyday so much better. Heck, they didnt even highlight the horsepower from the naturally-aspirated 2.0L boxer engine; just so you know, it's 156 PS. What they highlighted instead was how the powertrain was more efficient and much lighter overall; it weighs 19.8 kilograms less than the powertrain of the previous XV.
Such is the greatest change going on within Subaru, a brand whose parent company recently changed its name from Fuji Heavy Industries to Subaru Corporation; a move to strike a clearer brand identity. They're no longer highlighting their past motorsport achievements; instead, they're working on better daily cars. The technological knowledge they accumulated in competition is now used to make their cars safer. And instead of aiming for the niche automotive enthusiast -a market they already have a solid presence with-, they've broadened their marketing to be more family-friendly. That's why Motor Image had Cesar Millan -the Dog Whisperer himself- at the launch, not any of their many, great rally and stunt drivers like Russ Swift.
Transcendence is perhaps the proper term for it, and while we do miss the great rally heritage of Subaru, they've charted their own path to translate that high performance greatness into something we can enjoy everyday. Our full test of the Subaru XV will come later, but already we know it's going to be an interesting comparison to other models and even its predecessor.