Introduction: Welcome to Subaru's hybrid era
Distance driven 15km
If hybrid powertrains were a school camp swimming pool, Toyota’s Prius would have been the kid who ran straight up to the 10-metre board and bombed in before anyone else has barely finished pulling on their boardies.
At the other end of the pool, however, and some considerable time later, Subaru was quietly wading into the shallowest part and trying not to make too much of splash.
While Toyota is unequivocally the vocal early adopter of hybridisation, others such as Subaru have taken longer to dip a toe in the water. Neither is necessarily the right or wrong entrance as long as you stay afloat once you’ve taken the plunge, right?
Toyota and a handful of others have laid the ground for hybrid cars, building public interest along the way, but now other brands are getting in on the action. Has the delay been a disadvantage to Subaru or has the Japanese brand swooped in at exactly the right moment?
That’s what the next few months with the Subaru XV Hybrid are all about - Subaru is a relative latecomer to the electrified car world but it has recently made its debut with the Forester Hybrid and XV Hybrid.
We want to see if those years abstaining from hybrid models has allowed the company to watch from the sidelines, learning from the earlier adopters and the market’s response to them.
Is the XV Hybrid a well-executed and refined addition to the growing hybrid fleet available in Australia, or a benign first attempt that has some catching up to do? Let’s find out.
XV Hybrid - what you get for your cash
If you want to get the lowdown on the XV and all the reasons we rate it in ‘standard’ form since it launched in 2017 you can read all about it here, but let’s cut straight to what makes this new version unique and our focus over the coming months.
Its most obvious defining feature is, of course, the ‘e-boxer’ hybrid powertrain which takes the standard 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated flat-four petrol engine with 110kW and 196Nm and discreetly slots in a 12kW/66Nm electric motor in the transmission to boost the grunt sent to all four wheels via Subaru’s proprietary full-time four-wheel-drive system.
Its maker says the boost elevates the XV’s off-road ability in combination with the X-Mode driving selector, while chopping fuel consumption by about seven percent for an average figure of 6.5 litres per 100km.
Both are claims we will be testing during the XV's tenure with the WhichCar team.
As far as specification goes, the XV is based on the mid-range 2.0i-L but the addition of the hybrid extras bumps the price up about another $4000.
It’s not quite that straightforward, though, as it also gains additional active safety features.
But even with its price premium, a $35,580 XV is still affordable and still brings a lot to the table.
Read next: Subaru XV complete range
Beyond its subtle facelift and unique-to-the-variant Lagoon Blue paint, you might mistake the newest addition to the XV stable for any other, and that might be the unexpected genius behind Subaru’s hybrid foray.
A subtle enhancement of what was already an excellent package of car dynamics and wagon practicality paired with go-anywhere ability, could push this Subaru to the top of the pack.
Read next: Full Subaru XV Hybrid pricing and features
While our first impressions of the XV Hybrid have been promising, the only way to investigate Subaru’s economy and all-terrain claims is time in the saddle. Let’s go.
Update one: quiet achiever
Distance driven 527km
Average fuel use 6.7L/100km
In its first few weeks in WhichCar’s garage, Covid-19 restrictions have limited the XV Hybrid’s duties to ‘essential’ excursions only, which were about as uninspiring as you can get.
Nonetheless, pedestrian, routine chores are still a part of daily life and definitely worth handing to the Subaru. After all, it’s a hybrid and that should mean it takes to mindless commutes and thankless grocery runs like a hypochondriac to hand sanitiser. And it has.
One of the XV’s talents is its ability to behave like a larger vehicle even though it occupies a small footprint.
Cathedral-like headroom in both front and rear seating is great for a full load of adults, there’s a surprising amount of legroom in the back and the boot is not just a good size but, critically a good shape too (There’s little benefit to 345-litres of volume if it can only be occupied by long, thin items).
Luggage area capacity is unaffected in the Hybrid but spare wheel space is. With the lithium-ion battery hidden away under the boot floor, a full-size or even space saver wheel is usurped by a mobility kit.
Subaru XV Hybrid's battery tucked away under the boot floor
Day-to-day duties, therefore, have been a breeze and the Subaru has been a benign but not unlikeable addition to our garage.
Read next: Spare tyres explained
Its hybrid powertrain has been a bit of a curio, though. I was hoping the addition of electric torque and smoothness to Subaru’s CVT automatic would perhaps refine the transmission.
Subaru’s application of CVT tech is one of the best but I’m still not the biggest advocate and there’s still room for improvement.
Strangely, the addition of an electric motor piggybacked onto the gearbox has confused it a little. Where the un-hybridised box is smooth, the transition from pure electric drive at walking pace, through to dual-power is sometimes accompanied by a jolt.
Driving smoothly at low speeds requires more concentration than you might appreciate as the electrical management decides what to do.
At 188cm tall, Dan still had enough leg and headroom
The extra 12kW intervention does contribute a small but noticeable boost to performance. Off the mark acceleration is adequate if not sporty.
The XV will drive under electric-only propulsion up to about 20km/h but only if you ask very little of it. Even a light prod of the accelerator or anything steeper than completely flat prompts the 2.0-litre boxer petrol into life.
Rival systems such as Toyota’s now-commonplace hybrid drivetrain allows more exclusively electric locomotion but that’s only possible with a bigger (heavier) battery and an engine (Atkinson Cycle) that is nowhere near as energetic as the Subaru’s once it starts to help out.
The efficiency gains are more enhanced with Toyota’s system but the impact on driving style is also more pronounced.
Put simply, the Subaru feels more like a ‘normal’ combustion-powered vehicle than almost any other hybrid.
As I had suspected from the start, Subaru’s first hybrid is almost unnoticeably subtle in its adoption of electrification and little, if anything, of the combustion-powered XV’s function is compromised compared with the hybrid. Except for visits to the petrol station.
Despite virtually undetectable electrical intervention, the hybridisation is definitely saving me trips to the servo, with an average fuel consumption not far off the claimed figure of 6.5L/100km.
Given a majority of its work until now has been notoriously inefficient urban crawls, 6.7L/100km is impressive.
A serious load of camera gear was no problem for the XV
Claims of about 10 percent fuel saving over the standard 2.0-litre versions appear to be substantiated, but Subaru also says the extra grunt offered by the electric motor has advantages when you steer away from the beaten trail…
Now that day-to-day life in Australia is gradually changing course and resembling something normal again, it’s time to stretch the XV’s legs and continue this review into more adventurous territory.
Read next: Subaru’s X-Mode function
But I’m not sure ‘normal’ will ever return as we knew it before and, of course, this is no normal Subaru, so I’m looking forward to revisiting the definition of ‘essential’ and taking the XV Hybrid with me.
Update two: serious kilometres
Distance driven 2706km
Average fuel use 7.2L/100km
With each instalment, these updates are feeling less like a long-term car review and more like ominous captain’s log entries and, as I re-read the final paragraph of update one, I am chilled by the significance and prophecy of my own words.
When I wrote that last update at the start of June, the nation was nervously taking a sigh of relief as the coronavirus pandemic seemed to be loosening its grip and we were all looking forward to some relaxed restrictions to enjoy life again.
Alas, our combined optimism was short-lived as Victoria’s now undisputed second wave wrapped its viral tentacles around the state and slowly began to squeeze tighter than ever.
It was during this dark time that I issued the Subaru with its most important duty since its arrival in the WhichCar garage.
With border closures looking increasingly likely, the possibility of seeing an imminent NSW arrival in the family was looking low, as well as the feasibility of several crucial TV shoots for the TV series.
We made the call, packed the XV with everything we might need for an unknown period away from home, and headed north.
Though I couldn’t have known at the time, this last-minute dash for NSW would be the “essential” I referred to weeks before, and I was definitely taking the XV with me.
July 6, 14:00 - On the road
I should make it clear at this point that the borders were still completely open and our scheme bolting to make a crossing was completely legal, especially as we were travelling from an outer Melbourne suburb nowhere near one of the emerging ‘hotspots’.
Nonetheless, there was still a hint of Thelma and Louise about the XV’s cabin.
Settling into the Subaru’s accommodation for the long drive ahead offered an opportunity to revisit everything you get as part of the Hybrid deal. There’s no heated seats or leather, and the black plastic door handles remind you this variant is very much mid-spec even if its drivetrain is premium.
Thankfully, a good driving position for tall drivers, quiet cabin, excellent view of the road ahead, and a decent sound system are very much standard.
The suite of EyeSight driver assistance features is also included in every XV and particularly welcome for extended road trips.
Adaptive cruise control was flicked on and left to its devices and, when it was disengaged, the lane-departure warning is among the least annoying only intervening on the rare occasion you may actually need an alert.
Like Toyota’s hugely popular hybrid Corolla and Camry, the XV’s level of specification (and the effect on its price) is clearly aimed at fleet deals rather than private customers as the volume. Although there’s appeal for both.
Some extended seat time has brought no clearer explanation of what is going on with the transition between electric and combustion power, and the combination of both. What first manifested itself as an occasional jolt when switching between motors, has become a more annoying inconsistency in power delivery.
Sometimes a launch from stationary brings the full combined might and a healthy burst of acceleration, other times only the electric seems to play a role and others, it’s a petrol-only affair.
I want to blame the CVT auto but Subaru has proven time and again it is one of the leaders in this type of auto, so the only other element must be the programming of electric intervention. No one gets it right first time, hey?
20:00 - Over the border
For long cruises out of town, including this milestone road trip, the combination of electric and boxer-four, the XV is perfect and we quietly sail into New South Wales at Albury just hours before restrictions kick in.
While many hybrids bring little benefit on extended highway trips, the Subaru bucks the trend with unfaltering fuel consumption of high sixes - exactly what it has been returning during day-to-day urban duty.
As Wodonga becomes Albury, the drama unfolding in Melbourne becomes background noise like the quiet hiss of Yokohama BluEarth rubber on wet asphalt.
Here’s a word of touring advice: If you need a bite to eat or a wee on the way to Sydney, make sure you stop before Holbrook because the 115km stretch between there and Gundagai is ridiculously spartan.
22:50 - Refuel stop #2
While the XV was reporting very respectable fuel economy, a second fuel stop seemed to suggest otherwise. Turns out the Subaru's tiny 40-litre tank necessitates frequent refills on a trip like this.
The upside is that you are never carrying a heavy load of fuel which would impact consumption as any heavy load would, but a slightly longer range would be an advantage.
Makes you wonder how much the extra weight of a motor and battery is impacting efficiency…
00:20 - Arrival
As the witching hour ticked over, we rolled into a leafy northwestern Sydney suburb and powered down the XV for the night. It doesn’t matter how many times you make the trip, the final hour is always gruelling.
It could have been a lot worse, though. The XV had passed this test with flying colours. With surprising fuel consumption, excellent cruising comfort and the driver assistance systems to ensure a safe arrival, it had been a welcome companion on this spontaneous trip.
Some four weeks later, I write this still in my NSW outpost, wondering if I’m about to tap out another weirdly prophetic final par.
Regardless of the Victorian situation, home beckons and I’ll be saddling up the XV Hybrid and heading back into who knows what?
Update three: All-terrain or all talk?
Distance driven 1096km
Average fuel use 6.9L/100km
From its initial duty as urban runabout and some seriously uninspiring drives, the Subaru has been thrust into far more significant work staying one step ahead of the corona pandemic. And it’s handling that responsibility very nicely.
But before heading back into Melbourne’s petri dish and the stage four lockdown, (yeah I know, don’t ask) I thought it a good time to test another of the XV Hybrid’s claims and something that would appeal to people looking to leave the beaten trail, whether it be for a little light exploration or evading doomsday.
While the Subaru’s hybrid powertrain has certainly contributed to a measurable saving of fuel, its maker claims the added chunk of torque from idle is even more of a benefit to the company’s famous off-road prowess.
So, one very greasy NSW hillside complete with exposed and slippery boulders later, the XV Hybrid was poised ready to either substantiate the claims … or slide helplessly into a dam.
Read next: Snow and ice in the XV
One of the most pleasing things about the XV in any guise is the simplicity of switching from its good on-road manners to the off-road realm.
There’s one button to hit to switch its brain into X Mode but other than that, everything stays as it was. No selecting surfaces, altering ride height, faffing with this and adjusting that.
Despite the XV in petrol-only power proving its off-road worth numerous times before, I still had my concerns about this particular variant.
For a start, its standard fitment tyre is not a dual-purpose or mud and snow tyre you might find fitted to any other, but a Yokohama BluEarth more focused on extending range rather than providing better grip in the rough.
Then there’s the extra weight of an additional motor and battery. One of the reasons the standard XV is so happy away from the road is its relatively light weight.
I needn’t have worried, though. After tackling some very boggy fields and nasty wet rocks, it quickly became clear the Hybrid shares the important chromosomes with its petrol-only brethren.
The symmetrical permanent four-wheel-drive system finds ways to get torque to the ground when you’d swear it was a struggle and the clever electronics share the power around often before you realise any particular wheel is starring to slip.
Like all XV variants, the Hybrid has 220mm of ground clearance, which is unusually tall and is a distinct advantage over rocks and sharp boulder edges. The Subaru has underbody protection, too, but I didn’t need it on this occasion.
And then there’s the matter of that little extra torque. The electric intervention had been difficult to get used to on the road with strangely inconsistent delivery, but it’s like the XV Hybrid knows when it’s in Subaru country.
For those times when you need to bury the throttle and summon a few revs from the 2.0-litre boxer four, the electric action is ready to step in immediately and can avoid the need for big stabs on the gas. It’s only a small step up in grunt but that seems to make all the difference.
Unfortunately, there is one electric elephant in the room that prevents this excellent XV from being the go-anywhere hero that it so very nearly is.
To accommodate the lithium-ion battery, the full-size spare you get with any other XV has been evicted and a not-exactly-confidence-inspiring mobility kit is provided instead. A shame, because I’m sure this will deter a lot of potential owners who genuinely love to exploit Subaru’s all-terrain ability.
There’s always the option to lash a spare (or two) on a roof rack, which always looks tough on a Scoobie, but it undoubtedly removes an element of flexibility in this particular variant.
It’s a pity and ironic that the one thing that actually makes the XV Hybrid a little better off-road hobbles its outright suitability as a machine to go adventuring.