Tuesday June 27, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
CAUSING big mischief seems to now be a firm and fast policy for Japan’s smallest car maker.
Even though it has finally achieved the milestone of an annual production count of one million units, Subaru remains very much an auto industry minnow – this count after all, reminds Subaru New Zealand’s boss Wal Dumper, is one industry giants such as Toyota can generally achieve in just two months.
However, this is a small player doing big things, not least in New Zealand, where the brand is so popular that we’ve become acknowledged as one of the top 15 markets – out of 92 that Subaru sends cars to. We could be in the top 10 within a couple of years.
Outback is leading the charge; accomplishing more than half of yearly sales. But other models are stepping up.
Subaru New Zealand rocked the local scene six months ago when it conspired, with the factory’s assistance, to relaunch its Impreza for less than $30,000. Quite a feat given it's a wholly new car with a much higher specification than before - richer, too, than the category normally expects - and a genuinely premium feel.
It was a winning move. The car won such immediate acceptance that the initial annual allocation was exhausted within eight weeks of release (don’t worry, they’ve found a way to get more, though supply is still constrained).
Anecdotally, there was talk that this aggressive strategy had effect internally. Specifically, sister model in all-surface wagon format, the XV, still on the old platform and far less richly equipped, was left looking like a bit of a loser. But only for a few months.
Now there’s a new XV, which goes on public sale in the third week of July, which pretty much repeats the very same ‘get more, spend less’ pricing strategy that has worked so well for Impreza.
Which means more kit, less cash. The previous line started at at $37,990 in base format, then hit $40,990 as a mid-grade 2.0i-L and topped at $44,990 as a flagship 2.0i-S. The replacements are a Sport and a Premium car, the first for $34,990 and the other for $39,990. Both are far better equipped than the models they directly replace. Again, this has taken factory complicity.
The XV’s re-positioning recognises that the compact crossover category is the fastest-growing segment within the sports utility vehicle sector, which itself is now the dominant style of vehicle preferred by Kiwis, achieving just shy of 60 percent of all new vehicle sales at the moment.
“We’re confident we are going to sell more cars – but we would be foolish not to say that, because the sector is growing,” Dumper says.
However, the sharpened sticker strategy also reflects that Subaru here is keen to get XV back up the sales speed it enjoyed until 2013, when the market was saturated with a diversity of softer crossovers, including quite a few that avail mainly – and sometimes wholly – in front drive.
Subaru NZ reckons those cars are not what adventure-minded Kiwis deserve. As dealer sales manager Wayne McClennan put it to media at today’s XV drive event in Napier, this car stands out by virtue of being “a real SUV, capable of far more than a trip down the road to get your nails done.”
Them’s fighting words, for sure, but also a fair call, well demonstrated on a drive that took in some gnarly country roads, much of it on gravel.
Perfect conditions for a car with the assurance of having all-wheel-drive all of the time, of course, and also the right surfaces to demonstrate the new feature of an active torque vectoring that offers improved steering response and better turn-in into corners.
We would have needed more challenging conditions, still, to fully try out the other new add-in, the X-Mode assistance function. A feature that until now has restricted to the more off-seal attuned Forester and Outback can, as on those products, be engaged under 40kmh to detect tyre slip, even when turning, and incorporates hill descent and vehicle dynamics to deliver assured roadholding on loose surfaces.
Past experience is that X-Mode comes into its own when you’re off-roading, something we didn’t undertake today; something, too that the previous XV acquited only reasonably well.
But now? Even though it runs on seal-tuned tyres (as do the bigger Subaru wagons), XV has an excellent ground clearance (ditto) - maintained at 220mm, which just 5mm less than a Toyota Landcruiser's – so perhaps this means we’ll see it now venturing into the territory previously known only to the more robust fare.
That’s an aspect worth exploring further but, certainly, on open gravel roads at speed, this Sport I drove today came across as being a confident performer. The excellent grip, good balance and low centre of gravity ensure a more engagingly involved experience than many small SUVs provide.
The quality driving aspect is far from being the sole factor driving Dumper’s confidence of this model gaining importance within the Subaru family going forward, with an anticipated 500 sales (100 more than Impreza) for the remainder of this year, 800 units in 2018 and at least 1000 the year after.
XV’s stocks will also lift because all the big changes that transformed the sedan now also deliver nothing but good to the wagon, the fundamental one being that it now sits atop the Subaru Global Platform architecture that’ll eventually underpin everything from the WRX, to the Forester, Outback and Legacy.
Far more rigid than the previous platform, the new underpinning allows for the pluses of a tighter driving feel and a bigger cabin, while also delivering huge improvements for weight reduction and crash worthiness – reflected by it gaining a top-drawer five star ANCAP crash test score.
New platform, new look? Well, obviously not quite. The same-again styling is one of those factors that undermines brand contention that this car is 95 percent new.
Well, maybe underneath, but not much with the latest look. This doesn’t divert too much from what we’re we’ve become accustomed to; the second-gen is obviously wider, and has a new front – with the same kind of hawkeye lamps that do wonders for the Impreza - and it looks a touch sleeker in profile, an impression heightened by that crease line running along the flank. Yet all the previous styling trademarks of contrasting colour bumpers and wheel arch spats continue.
Whereas much about the exterior styling relays a ‘same again’ impression, the cabin thankfully does not. The previous XV was dire in its interior execution: It looked cheap and chintzy. Not so now, now.
All the hard, scratchy plastics that did the previous effort no favours have been binned for the same premium, soft-touch materials that did the world of good to the Impreza. Attention to ergonomics and detail has also massively improved. It’s simply much more welcoming and easier to abide.
An increase in total boot space - maximum luggage capacity with the rear seats folded increases by 24-litres to 1240-litres (the boot opening is also wider and more accessible, and the length of the boot has been extended) – will be welcomed, but there’s benefit within the people part of the cabin, too.
The extra space front and rear brings benefit for all. Just like the Impreza, it feels wider, roomier, airier and altogether less cramped. It achieves a much better driving position, because in addition to having reach and rake adjust on the steering column and a chunky chair with decent bolstering, the seat itself has more fore-after movement. The rear seat squab is a bit flat but it offers something that was barely available in the old car: Decent head room and actual leg-stretching space, the latter through 26mm being added to the rear footwell.
The Impreza’s instrument binnacle is pretty much shared, with attention drawn to the significantly improved centre console user interface including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a large eight-inch touchscreen. It’s a delight to use.
While the car’s structural integrity mainly caught the NZ-accredited agency’s eye, buyers should be impressed that the specification also delivers an above average safety level for this category.
The NZ specification includes a rear-view camera as standard, and the brand’s well-received Eyesight technology, incorporating adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and lane departure warning, has also been added.
The XV Premium is also the first Subaru to feature lane keep assist and reverse automatic braking. The latter is part of the so-called Subaru Vision Assist suite which also includes blind spot monitoring, high beam assist, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert.
Who will buy into this? Interesting question. In the previous range, the high-end car captured 75 percent of the action. McClennan reckons ultimately this time the share might be more 50-50, which might suggest customers don’t care for loading up on accident-avoiding assists.
However, really it just reflects that the Sport is just such good value. The Premium certainly swanks up with leather trim, a sunroof, in-built sat nav, a powered front seat plus some neat ingredients such as a reversing aid that auto-stops the car if it senses it might hit something solid, but the base car still has the core good stuff: Apple Carplay/Android Auto (that’ll undertake nav), dual zone air, adaptive cruise, seven airbags and roof rails. It has the same 17-inch wheels and 225/60 R17 tyres as the flagship.
As before, XV continues with a single powerplant, a four-cylinder 2.0-litre boxer, this time paired with the in-house-developed Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, the previous entry six-speed manual having been discarded.
Engineered to meet the impending EU6 emissions standard to keep it sweet for Europe, the powertrain is broadly similar to the old car’s, so much so that you wonder about how the word ‘new’ translates in Subaru-speak.
All we know is that every component has been modified, with Subaru claiming a 12kg weight reduction, and it adopts direct injection. Even though the torque output of 196Nm and claimed optimal fuel economy of 7.0 litres per 100km match those for the old car, the torque is delivered across a flatter curve than previously, so it makes the car feel a touch more muscular and less prone to un-necessary reviness, which is always good when there’s a CVT involved. It also sounds smoother, less hoarse, than the outgoing car’s engine.
There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of grunt, though, and you have to wonder if this car would present even more positively with a bit of extra oomph.
The Forester’s 2.5-litre would be just the ticket, except it’s pretty much at the end of its production cycle. Subaru Japan has acknowledged the chassis could easily cope with more grunt but, frustratingly, also says there are no plans to implement it. Same goes for the transmission choice.
What helps the engine give all it can as best it can is the transmission. You’re tight in thinking most CVTs are far from helpful, but Subaru does gearless transmissions better than any other brand and this edition of its Lineartronic is a best-of-breed in offering a stepped speed control and a seven-speed manual mode that almost replicates a proper gear change. It’s smooth and responsive, not least when you’re employing the paddle shifters.
Even so, during our drive today I was left wondering how much more of a weapon this car would be with a more powerful turbocharged engine and a sharp dual-clutch transmission.
Even so, the XV seems well placed to cause something of an upset in as category that also includes the Mazda CX-3, Toyota C-HR, Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai. It doesn’t match all those on performance, but certainly seems set to equal or outgun on all-round ability, practicality, size, specification and price.
There’s one other model that might also be the firing line. The Forester has 18 months to go in current form before, it too, shifts to the new platform. In theory, it’s a medium wagon, whereas the Impreza is compact, but in reality, they’re now quite similar in size and space, but certainly not in respect to spec and sophistication. That’s where the XV shows clear advantage.
Here’s the thing: Forester pricing starts where the XV tops out, and kicks up to $55k. Why spend that when there's a newer, better sister car in the mix .... déjà vu, right?