Performance and practicality in harmony
Subaru is associated with just one car in the mind's eye of the great British public, the hot-to-trot Impreza, even though they actually market five models in the UK and will be adding a sixth anytime soon.
But by this time next year company bosses confidently predict it will be their most recent addition to the range, the Subaru XV, that will be the biggest seller.
XV – shorthand for crossover vehicle – is their bid for a slice of a booming sector of the market currently dominated by Nissan's popular Qashqai.
On sale since February, the XV is certainly a smart-looking vehicle and brings to the party proven Subaru qualities such as all-wheel drive and proven boxer engines which, although noisier than conventional powerplants, offer great stability and control which translates through to a very positive driving experience.
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Will it be a huge threat to the Nissan? I'm not sure it will win that particular battle.
Great drive or not, is that really one of the major determining factors when buying a car in this sector? And consider this, Qashqai offers an entry-level price of £16,595 on the road compared with £21,295 for the Subaru.
And if you really want the best driving experience – to me that means the two-litre diesel XV – the price goes up to £24,295.
So, rather than attacking the market leader, methinks Subaru's real rivals are more likely to be BMW's X1 or Volkswagen's Tiguan.
The XV does boast a sporty and attractive profile. Key elements of the new design include a larger, chrome-plated hexagonal front grille; fog lamps that blend seamlessly into the front bumper; dynamic shapes for the side cladding; eye-catching silver and black alloy wheels; and carefully profiled front and rear bumpers to reduce drag and enhance fuel economy.
The bodyshell builds on the knowledge acquired while engineering the current generation Impreza and incorporates a high percentage of high-tensile steel, leading to enhanced strength and a reduction in weight. As a result, the XV is one of the lightest vehicles in Europe's compact SUV class.
As well as improved strength, the XV bodyshell also minimises chassis flex, delivering more responsive steering and enabling the refined suspension characteristics to work more efficiently and provide a supple, well-controlled ride.
Out on the road it offers a relaxed and unfussy drive, although it can get a bit noisy around town. The six-speed manual gearbox fitted to my two-litre diesel test car was slick and, provided you worked it hard enough, performance was nicely responsive – 0 to 62mph in under ten seconds and a top speed of 120mph. Economy is decent enough without ever being startling (official figures quote 50.4mpg) and emissions are 146g/km.
Other engines on offer are 1.6 and two-litre petrol ones.
As with all crossovers, you enjoy the benefits of a high driving position while the XV's all-wheel drive and highest ground clearance in its class gives it genuine off-road capabilities without it ever being in the same league as something like a Land Rover Freelander. Ice, deep mud, grass, rocky terrain, pot-holes and bumps, however, pose no problems at all.
Equipment levels are good, which they should be in cars within this price range. The trim levels are S, SE and SE Lux Premium.
Every XV comes with fully automatic air conditioning, front, side, curtain and knee airbags, front passenger airbag auto-enable, 17in alloy wheels, daytime running lights, heated front seats, wiper deicers, CD player and a multi-function display.
Moving up the model range to the SE, standard specification includes cruise control, folding door mirrors, dual-zone air conditioning, rear view safety camera, Bluetooth, HID headlamps and rear privacy glass. The top-of-the-range SE Lux Premium also has these features and adds a sunroof, keyless Smart Entry, push button engine start/stop, powered driver's seat, leather seats and a sat-nav.
The crossover genre is one that Subaru ought to excel at. All the ingredients are already in place. The company can draw upon a long tradition of rugged, multi-purpose all-wheel drive cars. Where it needs to up its game is in packaging and presenting this clever engineering in a way that is accessible and appealing to mainstream customers.
The XV is a very creditable effort. It looks good, it is a reasonable size, it drives well and it will undoubtedly be very reliable.
The fly in the ointment might well be the value proposition. I have already mentioned the potential savings to be had with the class-leading Qashqai and rivals such as the Hyundai ix35 undercut the XV quite significantly.
This Subaru is undoubtedly the better drive but is the driving experience something family buyers really prioritise?
It might prove to be an exploitable niche for Subaru, but my hunch is that pricing and packaging are more compelling reasons to buy a car in this class. While the XV probably won't trouble the best-sellers list anytime soon, it is nevertheless an interesting and entertaining entrant.
If you are a keen driver and want a car with all-weather ability that will still discharge the family duties, it is well worth a place on your shortlist.