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By Tim Britten, carsales.com.au
Subaru has been a brand that appealed to eco-warriors long before hybrid-powered and electric vehicles were a reality.
The Japanese car maker’s quirky crossovers in the 1980s – which evolved into pioneering models such as the Outback and Forester – found favour with early adopters to the environmental movement and fostered a new generation of eco adventurers.
Which makes it all the more surprising that it has been a relative latecomer to the hybrid party when a petrol-electric version of the popular Subaru XV arrived in early 2020.
Since then, it has expanded its Hybrid line-up to the Forester and recently confirmed it will launch its first fully electric vehicle, the Solterra mid-sized SUV, early next year.
It has also had a chance to upgrade the XV Hybrid with a Model Year 2021 update that we’re testing here.
More Hybrid choice
The 2021 Subaru XV range brought a variety of changes, including the choice of two hybrid variants comprising the entry-level XV Hybrid L and the flagship XV Hybrid S tested here that pushed the electrified small SUV beyond the $40,000 mark.
The previous single model Hybrid variant was priced at $35,580 plus ORCs.
Despite the MY21 tweaks, Subaru’s first foray into the hybrid market in Australia – launched in parallel with the Subaru Forester Hybrid – looks a little tentative.
With confirmation that the fully electric 2022 Subaru Solterra is coming, the company is virtually admitting that its first stint at hybrids is essentially an opportunistic stop-gap measure.
The Subaru XV and Forester are there to offer buyers an alternative to the bigger hybrid players – particularly Toyota which covers practically every SUV segment from the light-class with its Toyota Yaris Cross to the just-launched fourth-generation Toyota Kluger.
Subaru’s XV Hybrid, like its larger Forester sibling, is powered by a detuned version of the company’s 2.0-litre normally-aspirated boxer four-cylinder engine that receives some help from a minuscule 12.3kW/66Nm electric motor with a small lithium-ion battery pack that absolutely minimises the XV’s ability to run in full-EV mode.
Two is better than one
The 2021 Subaru XV Hybrid S AWD is the most expensive model in the XV line-up at $42,090 plus on-road costs, with the Hybrid L costing $36,790 (plus ORCs).
Because Subaru has now added two models, it has deleted some of the standard equipment in the Hybrid L that were previously standard in the standalone model, such as blind spot monitoring, lane change assist, high beam assist, rear cross traffic alert and reverse automatic braking.
Those are now included in the now more expensive XV Hybrid S, along with a new front view monitor and side view monitor for 360-degree viewing, plus a new two-setting X-Mode off-road traction control system.
As well as the driver assist safety aids mentioned above, it also has autonomous emergency braking (AEB) in forward and reverse – both high- and low-speed operation in the former – as well as adaptive cruise control.
Inside, the XV Hybrid S gets leather-look trim, an eight-way adjustable power seat with memory for the driver (including pre-set side mirror positions), seat heating on both sides, self-dipping LED headlights that also follow bends in the road ahead, climate control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and an impressive six-speaker sound system with plenty of punch at both the upper and lower registers.
The 2021 Subaru XV Hybrid S slots in between two of its closest competitors, the Mazda CX-30 X20 Astina SKYACTIV-X mild-hybrid (from $48,190 plus ORCs) at the upper end and the Toyota C-HR Koba Hybrid (from $37,665 plus ORCs).
While it delivers appropriately in terms of refinement and general on-road performance, the mild hybrid powertrain isn’t as substantial as the series-parallel hybrid set-up in the Toyota and is a little underwhelming.
The now-universal e-Active SI-Drive system maintains higher engine rpm when braking, cornering or going downhill to ensure consistent torque delivery, while the latest MY21 update has upgraded the suspension to improve ride and handling.
The Subaru XV Hybrid S feels settled, responsive, secure and commendably quiet on the road.
But the engine gets little help from the electric motor, even though the 110kW/196Nm boxer has enough power on hand when you need it.
A pointer to its hardly-hybrid approach, the XV comes with paddle shifters and an EV light indicating full-electric operation that rarely activates. And, unlike many hybrids that favour full-EV mode at start-up or when reversing, the XV’s boxer four generally fires up from the get-go.
The XV’s full-time all-wheel drive system is the same as that used in other Subarus. That is, it’s a proper mechanical arrangement with a rear differential fed via a tail shaft from the CVT transmission mounted aft of the longitudinal boxer engine.
The bottom line to all this is that the Subaru XV S Hybrid’s fuel consumption and CO2 figures are barely any different to the regular, non-hybrid XV at 6.5L/100km versus 7.0L/100km and 147g/km versus 159g/km.
During our test, we averaged 7.9L/100km, which proved to be cruising-range challenge for the hybrid’s smaller (48L versus 63L) fuel tank.
Despite its compact exterior dimensions, the Subaru XV Hybrid S’ five-seater cabin offers surprisingly decent accommodation.
The back seat has good legroom for tall passengers, although it does lack rear air vents, and the boot, with its normal spare wheel replaced by a temporary repair kit to make way for the lithium-ion battery pack, will carry as little as 340 litres or as much as 765L.
The XV’s cockpit is a pretty good place for the driver, too. Where other car makers are minimalizing the cabin, its conventional design features an array of buttons which makes an immediate impression that there are a lot of systems to come to grips with.
But, once familiar with everything, frequently used functions such as cruise control speed and radio volume are simple to use and are operated by tactile toggle switches on the steering wheel. The often-indecisive touch-control functions embedded in the big central screen are, at least, easily identifiable with large finger-landing points that help minimise mis-hits.
Subaru’s camera-activated EyeSight system delivers reliable performance from the functions it controls, as lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control – although at times with our review car the former would inexplicably switch off before quietly resuming, usually after a minute or two.
Primarily, the XV has the space and amenities to suit small families without a problem. And even though pulling a small caravan or boat is not really on the average small SUV buyer’s radar, the maximum towing capacity of 1270kg is at least up to the mark in its class.
The big questions
The Subaru XV Hybrid S asks two questions: ‘How much value do you place on fuel economy’ and ‘Why did Subaru arrive so late, and underdressed, to the Hybrid party?’
Buyers will have to answer the first, because the price premium it commands and the fuel saving it offers don’t quite add up. And, with the fully electric Solterra on the horizon, it might have been better for Subaru to wait a little longer and make a much grander entrance.
But it’s here now, and with an ever-growing list of competitors such as the Toyota C-HR Hybrid, Mazda MX-30 and CX-30, the new Kia Niro and even the MG ZS EV, it’s necessary to have at least a degree of environmentally friendly technology across a broad range of models.
The 2021 Subaru XV Hybrid S AWD ticks this box, somewhat.
But, again, do the incremental improvements justify a $3600 price premium over the similarly equipped, non-hybrid Subaru XV S that starts from $38,490 (plus ORCs)?
Call me environmentally unfriendly, but I really can’t see that it does, especially considering the non-hybrid Subaru XV is already a highly competent small SUV anyway. Hybrids this mild aren’t going to change the world.
And, with fuel economy improvements over the regular XV of just half a litre every 100km, recouping the premium charged for the similar-spec hybrid is never likely to happen.
How much does the 2021 Subaru XV Hybrid S AWD cost?
$41,090 (plus on-road costs)
Continuously variable automatic
6.5L/100km (ADR Combined)
2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
147g/km (ADR Combined)
Five-star (ANCAP 2017)
Disclaimer: Images supplied by carsales.
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