Small SUVs are all the rage right now, but it’s a confusing category for buyers which is becoming rapidly segmented into increasingly niche sub-classes.
For example, the two cars we’re looking at here, the Subaru XV and the Ford Puma technically belong to two different classes, small SUV and light SUV respectively, even though they’re pretty closely matched on spec and cost.
The reason these different niche categories exist is to appeal to different buyer profiles, but we reckon there’s a lot of overlap between them as they appeal to buyers who once would have considered hatchbacks.
We've looked at these two models individually earlier in 2021, and for this comparison we're exploring the strengths and weaknesses of these two to help you decide which might be right for you.
Our competitors here fly remarkably close together on price, despite their differing origins. On the one had we have a mid-spec Subaru XV, the 2.0i Premium, which for the 2021 facelift is also our pick of the range when it comes to price and equipment. It wears a before on-road costs price (MSRP) of $34,590.
On the other hand, we have the challenger, the Ford Puma ST-Line. It’s also the mid-spec car in the range, wearing a slightly sharper MSRP of $32,340.
The Puma features an 8.0-inch multimedia touchscreen. (Image: Tom White)
However, to give the Puma the same safety kit as our XV (which we’ll look at in the safety section of this review) you’ll need to also add the 'Park Pack' bringing its before-on-roads total to $33,840. Much closer to the mark.
It’s worth also noting that the XV is all-wheel drive across the range, while the Puma is front-drive only, another value consideration. See more on this in the engine and transmission part of the review.
The XV includes a 8.0-inch multimedia screen. (Image: Tom White)
Outside of those factors, our cars are closely matched, see our table of equipment below for the important items:
Subaru XV 2.0i Premium
Ford Puma ST-Line
Multimedia screen size
Dual-zone climate control
Single-zone air conditioning
Y (standard single row)
O ($2000, panoramic)
As you can see both our cars have the lion’s share of important spec items, with the Puma adding a few more cutting-edge touches like LED headlights, a fully digital dash cluster, and a wireless phone charger. Only the Puma gets a single USB-C port, although both score bright and responsive 8.0-inch multimedia screens with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support. Annoyingly, the Puma misses out on keyless entry (whilst still having push-start ignition), and its larger panoramic sunroof is a pricey option.
Both cars also have manually adjustable premium cloth interior trim, but it’s worth noting that as with the rest of the items inside the XV, the quality and comfort of its seats seem a cut above.
While these two seem to have a similar intent, their design languages couldn’t be more different.
The XV is quite traditional and unchanged for years, while the Puma is all new, starting with a blank slate to deliver something sporty and unexpected.
The Subaru will appeal to a more conservative buyer who wants a car unlikely to draw eyes in a car park. That’s not to say it isn’t conventionally attractive given its hatchback shape, but looks a little tougher thanks to its pumped arches, a visual clue to its superior off-road chops.
The XV is quite traditional and the design has remained unchanged for years. (Image: Tom White)
The Puma meanwhile, is a statement. It sits apart from other small SUVs on the road with its swoopy design, exemplified by its almost Porsche-shaped headlights, and sporty bumper and spoiler fittings which ram home its relation to Ford’s family of hot hatches.
The ST-Line is an SUV for someone searching for something sportier and more aggressive, but it also has a smaller footprint, perhaps making it more appropriate for someone who spends a lot of time in Australia’s metro centres where parking comes at a premium.
The ST-Line gets Ford’s swoopy, grille-heavy, design language. (Image: Tom White)
Inside I think there’s a clear winner. The Subaru looks and feels fairly upmarket and spacious compared to its Ford competitor, thanks to its larger Impreza-based footprint.
The trims inside the Subaru are also relatively high quality, and it has comfortable seats, a standout steering wheel, and a dazzling array of screens which could be considered a little busy.
The Puma meanwhile leaves quite a bit to be desired on the inside. The quality of the interior trims is lower than those in the XV, with an abundance of hard plastics and a monotone colour palette.
The Puma’s smaller Fiesta-based underpinnings are on full show in the front seat, with the little SUV feeling narrower and almost claustrophobic compared to the XV.
That said, the Puma also has a fun well-trimmed steering wheel, and by the time you get to this ST-Line grade, it also scores a fully digital dash cluster, which the Subaru still misses out on.
I’d say our competitors are pretty closely matched, depending on what you’re looking for. The Subaru is a hands down win for interior design and quality, while the Puma is a much more fun and daring design from the outside
The seats are comfortable and adjustable, the storage in the cabin is plentiful, and importantly there are few ergonomic blunders.
The XV has wide and spacious cabin. (Image: Tom White)
In fact, in three months of living with the XV there wasn’t a single practicality issue I ran into when it came to this car’s cabin.
Even the doors open nice and wide, and the seating position and window size make for excellent visibility. The XV would certainly be my choice for ferrying around adults in comfort or living with pets or kids.
The one downside? Despite its larger size, the XV somehow has a smaller boot than the Puma! All that cabin space comes at the cost of luggage capacity, which is a measly hatchback-sized 310-litres (VDA) in combustion versions of this car.
It seems the limiting factor is the floor height, with our full three-piece CarsGuide luggage set technically fitting in while obscuring your view out the rear.
The Puma, comparatively, has a brilliant boot. While the measurements don’t compare (the Puma has a claimed 410 litres but to a different measurement standard), its boot floor is not compromised by all-wheel drive running gear and is much deeper and more useful than the one in the Subaru.
Check out the pics of both boots loaded up with the luggage set to see the difference. The Puma consumed all our cases with a little space to spare, all without compromising rear vision.
The Puma has a claimed 410 litres of space. (Image: Tom White)
The Puma has a claimed 410 litres of space. (Image: Tom White)
The XV has a capacity of 310-litres (VDA). (Image: Tom White)
The XV has a capacity of 310-litres (VDA). (Image: Tom White)
The cost for the Ford small SUV is rear seat space. While the Subaru offers ample room for my legs and head (at 182cm / 6'0" tall, behind my own driving position) the Puma is notably tight.
My knees are almost up against the front seat, while I have to duck down below the Ford’s swoopy roofline to get in. Once inside, there isn’t much headroom to spare. Tough luck if you’re any taller than me.
The Puma has soft elbow-rests in the doors, but they aren’t as plush as the ones in the XV, and storage is limited to small bottle holders and flimsy nets on the backs of the front seats.
The Subaru gets big bottle holders, and dual cupholders in its drop-down armrest, which the Puma doesn’t get at all.
The centre seat is tight in both cars, but the Subaru is the one I’d consider humane enough to accommodate adults for short periods.
Annoyingly, neither car gets adjustable rear air vents or power outlets for back seat passengers.
In the front the Puma feels tight, with the A-pillar and multimedia screen feeling a little too close for comfort.
The seats are an upgrade from more basic versions of this car, but still not as supportive as the ones in the Subaru.
In the front the Puma feels tight, with the A-pillar and multimedia screen feeling a little close for comfort. (Image: Tom White)
Storage feels limited thanks to small bottle holders in the doors and centre console, and it’s also annoying that even in the ST-Line grade the Puma has manual adjust air-conditioning instead of the dual-zone climate featured in its Subaru rival.
The Puma does, however, score a wireless phone charger, with my final irk about the Ford being the fact it has push-start ignition, but no keyless entry. Annoying!
Finally, both cars have space-saver spare wheels under the boot floor. Note that if you choose one of the hybrid XV variants, you’ll score slightly more boot space (345L) but lose the spare wheel entirely.
The comparison between the two engines here is a revealing, because it shows there’s much more to the story than pure power outputs, or even power-to-weight figures, as well as the role a transmission can play in the drivability of a car.
In one corner we have our Subaru XV with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine producing 115kW/196Nm. On paper it is the superior of the two, with double the displacement, an extra cylinder, and even a better power-to-weight ratio overall of 80.5kW/t.
The Subaru XV has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine producing 115kW/196Nm. (Image: Tom White)
The Subaru also scores a permanent all-wheel drive system, and sends drive to the four wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission.
In the other we have the Ford Puma, which has a much smaller 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbo producing 92kW/170Nm.
The Puma is front-drive only with power transferred via a very European seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The Ford Puma has a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbo engine, producing 92kW/170Nm. (Image: Rob Cameriere)
Despite its lower kerb weight, the Puma still falls short on power-to-weight, at 72.8kW/t.
It might surprise you to learn the Puma is vastly more engaging to drive but take a look at the driving section for more on why that might be.
Frustratingly, in the case of the XV, the only alternate option, the 'e-Boxer' hybrid, doesn’t really improve things.
The European-style Puma with its trim weight, tiny turbo engine, and dual-clutch auto makes for a fuel sipping small SUV.
Its official combined cycle consumption number is just 5.3L/100km (which, for the record, is only a litre off the hybrid Corolla's claim). But in the real world I scored 7.7L/100km during a week of mainly urban testing.
The Subaru, with extra weight and heavier all-wheel drive system has a claim of 7.0L/100km, but in a week of more combined testing I landed on a much closer-to-the mark 7.2L/100km.
A bonus for the Subaru, it is capable of drinking entry-level 91RON unleaded, while the turbocharged Puma needs mid-shelf 95.
It also has a much larger fuel tank, at 63-litres compared to the Puma’s 43L. Looks like it’s a surprise victory in the testing for the Subaru here.
Both cars having been relatively recently released or updated have the full suite of safety gear you would expect at this price, in this segment.
To be fair to the Subaru, it gets more stuff as standard, with rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, and front parking sensors optional on the Puma.
However, when compared on price, even with the Park Pack added, the two are pretty evenly matched.
The Subaru holds an edge for its standard features, bonus front-facing manoeuvring camera, and extra airbag coverage, but perhaps not by a full point because the Puma is unusually good for the light-SUV segment it plays in.
Ford goes a little further to offer a free bookable loan car or a pick-up and drop-off service with each scheduled visit, and despite its more complex drivetrain comes in at nearly $200 less than the Subaru to service per year.
While the Subaru is by no means bad on the ownership front, we think the Puma gets the nod here.
They're in a similar category, and both are easy to drive, but these cars are surprisingly different from behind the wheel.
Visibility out of both is excellent, with the Subaru’s glasshouse perhaps being superior thanks to its more distant A-pillars and chunky wing-mirrors.
The wheel in the Subaru is hefty and chunky, inspiring confidence for the driver, and its seating position is unusually good, letting you feel balanced and secure between both axles.
In contrast, the Puma leaves you feeling as though you’re sitting over the front axle, and its smaller, sportier wheel makes it feel darty and direct.
It also leaves you with the impression of peering down on the road, a little disconnected from where the wheels are.
Acceleration is the biggest character difference. The Subaru’s non-turbo engine and continuously variable automatic make it feel thrashy and heavy compared to its Ford rival, stripping it of a more engaging feel for keen drivers.
The wheel in the Subaru is hefty and chunky, inspiring confidence for the driver. (Image: Tom White)
It feels secure and planted, though, always under control courtesy of its always-on all-wheel drive system and tame power application.
This is true regardless of whether you choose the 2.0i Premium reviewed here, or one of the e-Boxer hybrid variants.
The Puma feels zippy and responsive in comparison. It’s tiny turbocharged engine has loads of character and a gruff tone to match.
Its European-style dual-clutch automatic is snappy between shifts, and unlike the Subaru locks up nicely in the gears to keep things engaging.
It feels initially less secure than the Subaru, due in large part to its front-drive underpinnings, but the Puma proves to be a surprisingly grippy, capable and fun little car in the corners.
Certainly, the Puma is the driver’s car of the pair.
The Puma's smaller, sportier wheel makes it feel darty and direct. (Image: Tom White)
When it comes to their performance in the confines of a city, the Subaru is perhaps a little more agreeable thanks to its no-nonsense transmission.
While the Puma’s DCT is more engaging, like most dual-clutch units it can be a bit busy at low speeds. The Subaru is a cinch to park thanks to its excellent visibility as well as its front and rear parking cameras.
But the Puma makes up for its lesser visibility with front and rear parking sensors, as well as a smaller overall footprint.
In terms of ride comfort, the Subaru is well above average. It has independent suspension all-round and its off-road aspirations gives it a bit of extra ride travel, meaning more comfort on any surface the suburbs can throw at it. Family buyers will love it.
Meanwhile, the Puma ST-Line specifically comes with a firmer and more sporting ride than entry-level variants, making it sharper over bumps, but more secure in the corners. Overall it is more rough than the Subaru over less impressive road surfaces, so I'd say it's better suited to drivers who will appreciate its handling prowess.
Both cars are refined enough at city speeds, but get noisy in the cabin with both wind and tyre noise above 80km/h.
It leaves me with an odd conundrum where I’d rather drive the Puma every day, but ultimately the Subaru is the easier to live with.
A surprisingly close contest, but the winner for you, regardless of the numbers, will be down to lifestyle. For a couple in a city, the Puma is fun and engaging to drive, with a daring design and a small footprint. But, if you have a child or are considering one, the XV is easier to live with, granting a much larger cabin space and total ease-of-use.
For everything else, value, safety, and ownership, these cars are reasonably even. Our numbers has the Puma pull ahead slightly, thanks to its more engaging drive, a particularly rare trait in the small and light SUV space, as well as its contemporary design.
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