Looking into our crystal ball we can already declare this the year of the compact SUV. In fact, it is the year of the sub-compact SUV as car companies realise customers are downsizing.
Just after VW has launched the Yeti, now comes the new Subaru XV delayed from last year because of the tsunami effects, with Mazda's much-lauded CX-5 arriving soon after.
Subaru has owned this class with its classy and versatile Forester for years now and this smaller version, based on the Impreza RX wagon, is bound to help it retain that class dominance. But the XV is up against stiff opposition and competitive pricing.
This is the first hurdle and it's complicated by the fact that all Subarus only come with four-wheel drive, so the XV instantly cedes the price advantage to competitor models with front-wheel drive options. Prices start at $28,490 for the six-speed manual which is several thousand more than the entry price of two-wheel drives from Nissan, Mitsubishi and Hyundai.
The Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) adds $2500, which is also a bit steep compared with other brands. While emphasizing that Subaru will never deviate from all-wheel drive, Subaru Australia boss Nick Senior points out that the XV with CVT has lower fuel consumption and emissions than its front-wheel drive competitors.
"All-wheel drive sets it apart from many faux SUVs," the former rally driver says. "It's an SUV in a traditional sense with clearance more than 200mm (220mm) and all-wheel drive. It's not confined to the suburbs. The horizon is your limit."
It's also better equipped than its cheaper rivals. Even the base 2.0i model comes with Bluetooth, cruise control, seven airbags, reversing camera and is the first in its class with stop-start engine technology across the range. Marketing general manager Andrew Caie says it will make customers "question the value of getting a front-wheel drive".
The L model adds satnav, dual-zone airconditioning, sunroof, privacy glass, leather gear shift and steering wheel, and sliding centre armrest, while the S gets leather trim seats, electric driver's seat, HID headlights with washers, alloy pedals, heated front seats, wing mirror indicators, chrome door handles and silver roof rails.
Senior admits the XV is not bargain-priced, but points out the whole-of-life costs are low because of high retained values. "Whole-of-life costs are becoming increasingly important in today's cost-sensitive society," he says. Subaru is also one of the few car companies that does not charge extra for metallic or pearlescent paint.
XV product manager Akihide Takeuchi claims the stop-start function can save as much as 5 per cent on fuel. Together with a lighter body, longer-stoked boxer engine tuned for economy and high-geared manual and CVT transmissions, fuel savings are up as much as 20 per cent on 90RON unleaded petrol. The CVT is actually better than the manual sipping only 7 litres of fuel per 100km. "It will debunk the theory that all-wheel-drive cars aren't fuel-efficient,'' says Takeuchi.
Stop-start automatically switches off the engine in 0.5 seconds when the car is stopped and restarts in 0.35 seconds when the brake pedal is released in the CVT or clutch is engaged in the manual. The new 2.0-litre engine has the same power and torque as before but now has a longer stroke for more torque at lower revs, which translates to better acceleration.
The manual now has six speeds, with a taller top gear that reduces engine revs from 3000rpm at 100km/h to less than 2500rpm, which is not only more economical but also quieter. The inadequate and outdated four-speed auto has been replaced by CVT with paddle shifters and six presets.
There are screens in the centre of the instruments, in the centre stack and a third on the dashboard. The larger multi-function display has up to eight displays, which can be personalised to show a range of useful information and can even send you a happy birthday message. The upgraded audio has USB, MP3 and iPhone connectivity and there is a new satnav system with voice control and predictive text when entering an address. It will even read out your text messages.
The XV is based on the new Impreza due next month with a 25mm longer wheelbase, better aerodynamics, a slightly fastback look, sharper headlights and a reserved attitude to style. No pompous macho posing here. The guards aren't flared and there are few chunky bits. Perhaps that is due to the high proportion of female buyers Subaru is hoping to attract.
The XV has the same high ground clearance as the Forester but a lower body height than most compact SUVs for a rakish, sporty crossover look. The longer wheelbase translates to greater interior legroom with scalloped backs to the front seats providing more rear knee room.
Rear passengers will also welcome the move from anchoring the centre lap-sash in the ceiling to the C pillar. Child seat tether anchor points are now integrated into the back of the seats, not the cargo floor. Head room remains limited, especially in models with a sunroof.
The doors are light and a little flimsy, but they open out very wide for easy access. Forward visibility is aided by the A pillar being narrower and further forward providing the cabin with an open, airy feel.
Storage bins and cup holders are seemingly everywhere while the door pockets will take a water bottle and an A4 folder or laptop. The centre console has a handy clip-holder for a notebook and a pen. The boot is flat with a low-loading lip and flat-folding rear seats. However, cargo space is limited because the floor is raised to accommodate a space-saver spare tyre wide enough to still permit towing for a short distance.
Subaru regains its perfect record for five-star ANCAP safety ratings with the XV which has seven airbags, including full-length curtain airbags and a kneebag for the driver. They also come with a reversing camera as standard, AWD and a brake override system that is biased to the brakes if the driver hits the brake pedal and accelerator at the same time.
Driver vision is improved not only by a slimmer A pillar, but also higher front seats and 20 per cent bigger sing mirrors. The body and chassis are 20kg lighter but also 10 per cent stiffer.
There are more Subarus sold in Tasmania per head of population than any other state, so the company chose north-west Tassie to launch the XV this week. The route included city streets, highway, lumpy back roads, gravel forest tracks and the scarily but spectacular ascent to Ben Lomond. It's called Jacob's Ladder and it is highlighted by sheer drops and dangerous hairpins with names such as Hanging Corner.
XV came through the acid test with full marks for its road handling, grip and predictable manners. At the same time, ride and cabin noise have not been compromised. However, the wheel arches could do with more sound dampening if you are traveling over gravel frequently.
The steering doesn't have a lot of feedback, but there is no kickback either and on the lumpy country roads of this route, that was a blessing. Technical manager Derek Ashby claims the XV performs the standard obstacle avoidance test or "elk test" at 72km/h which is the same speed as the BMW X1. Brakes have a fair bit of initial bite which makes the car twitchy on gravel, but confidence-inspiring on Tassie tar.
Inside, there are simply too many screens. You don't know where to look. There is just too much information available including a graphic representation of all four wheels and what they are doing. It's distracting for the driver when they are flashing orange while the driver's hands are crossed up and the vehicle is heading for the shrubbery on a tight forest fire trail. Thankfully, the stability control keeps it all on track and you can't even turn it off; only the traction control.
The manual transmission is disappointing with a wide spread of gears designed for fuel economy, but not performance. Second is too high and there is a huge gap from fifth to the too-tall sixth which won't accelerate and dies on hills. Senior confirmed that the gearing was high to maximize fuel economy "in line with customer expectations".
The shifter also feels notchy and you can easily grab third instead of fifth on the way down and fifth instead of third on the way up. The CVT doesn't scream like most, but it does whine a bit and to keep momentum in a slippery corner you need to use left-foot braking which is somewhat overruled by the brake override system.
Cabin comfort is good with supportive seats although the leather trim in the S model is slippery when taking hairpins. There are plenty of soft-touch rubbery surfaces inside providing a feeling of quality while the controls and door handles feel firm and assured. The overall feeling of quality is broadsided by the flimsy doors, usually your first point of contact with any car. However, some people may like the equally lightweight tailgate.
Subaru is boxing with one hand tied behind its back thanks to its dogged commitment to all-wheel drive only. It is also hampered by the lack of a diesel option and too-tall manual transmission. Advantages are the quiet and well-mannered ride, high safety standards, features galore and impressive fuel economy. Caie expects to sell 500 a month to younger buyers and empty nesters alike, and claims it will not cannabilise Forester which he says is a bigger car.
Subaru XV Crossroad Sport
Price: from about $28,490
Warranty: 3yrs/unlimited km
Service: 6 months/12,500km
Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cyl petrol boxer, 110kW/196Nm
Transmissions: 6-speed manual, CVT; AWD
Economy: 7L/100km (man) 7.3L/100km (CVT) CO2 168g/km (man) 168g/km (CVT)
Safety: 7 airbags, stability control, ABS
Dimensions: 4450mm (L), 1780mm (W), 1615mm (H), 2635mm (W)
Fuel: 60L tank, 90RON
Turning Circle: 10.6m
Suspension: independent McPherson struts (front), independent double wishbone (rear)
Tyres: 225/55 R17 97V Yokohama Geolander
Towing: 1400kg (brakes), 750kg (unbraked)