While the Subaru XV feels a better fit for the company's first hybrid drivetrain than the larger Forester, the inflated price and basic specification level still present issues for it to try to overcome.

When I first drove one of the first two hybridised models from Subaru, that being the Forester, I went in with high hopes but was left a little disappointed. While the Forester is undoubtedly a good car that’s perfectly pleasant to drive and packing some clever tech, the hybrid drivetrain left it feeling underpowered and overpriced given the meagre fuel savings.

However, when it comes to the second electrified model launched alongside it, the XV Hybrid that you see here, I still had my hopes up that the drivetrain it shares with its bigger sibling would be a better fit in this smaller, lighter, and more affordable crossover.

Unlike the Forester which is offered in two levels of specification – one more basic than the other, but both brimming with kit – the XV Hybrid is only offered in a sole specification for the Australian market, although it’s a rather confusing one.

For the most part, it’s based on the regular XV 2.0i in that it only features manually-adjustable cloth seats, a tiny 6.5-inch infotainment screen that lacks satellite navigation, old-school reflector-beam halogen headlights, single-zone climate control, and smaller 17-inch alloy wheels; and lacks features such as illuminated vanity mirrors, blue ambient interior lighting, and a sunroof.

That’s all despite it costing $35,580 which is just $950 shy of the range-topping 2.0i-S and $6340 more than the 2.0i it shares the most in common with.

However, it does at least gain a few features from the S model that the base-spec lacks to help justify the massive price hike – which is, of course, also driven up by its complex hybrid drivetrain – including the complete EyeSight and Vision Assist active safety suites, dusk-sensing headlights with automatic high-beam, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and heated wing mirrors.

Throw in some unique features like a pedestrian alert system, some black slimline roof rails, and the Lagoon Blue Pearl paint option you see here that’s unique to the hybrid model, and it’s a most confusing specification indeed that feels cheap in key areas that you’ll notice day-to-day, with the only real advanced features ones you’re less likely to notice on a regular basis.

That’s not my only issue with the interior either as there are some ergonomic challenges I encountered, too – as someone longer in the leg, I found the seat base too flat and too short to offer any real under-thigh support, and with it lacking tilt adjustment for the seat base to offset that, it meant it wasn’t the best on longer drives.

However, there is still a lot to like about the interior – the build quality is typically Subaru in being top-notch, the materials including even the basic cloth upholstery are all of a good standard, the orange contrast stitching throughout adds a touch of fun, and the resolution of its three screens across the dashboard is high even with the smaller infotainment unit.

What really matters here though, of course, is what’s under the skin – the new hybrid drivetrain that it shares with the Forester, which is Subaru’s first attempt at producing such a thing.

Pairing a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated direct-injected flat-four that makes 110kW and 196Nm and an electric motor that makes 12.3kW and 66Nm, it channels the power to the ground through a CVT automatic and Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.

While in the Forester this drivetrain felt to be lacking compared to the regular, more powerful 2.5-litre petrol model, with the XV only ever originally featuring the 2.0-litre engine seen here on its own, there is certainly a tangible performance benefit with the hybrid model.

Although it’s still no rocket, as the electric motor it features is certainly on the less powerful side, when you really give it a bootful you can feel it kicking in, helping it feel punchier and noticeably more responsive than the standard petrol-only model.

As such it feels quite nippy around town, which is certainly where it’s served best – the biggest advantages of the hybrid system are seen with fuel economy hovering around the mid-sixes here, and its compact size being based on the Impreza hatch makes it an ideal car for tight city streets and carparks.

It should be noted, though, that while the CVT it features is, for the most part, a decent fit for smooth and relaxed city driving, it does suffer from that rubber band feeling and hints of rev flare on occasion if you go harder on the throttle, which it’s worth pointing out the CVT in the regular XV doesn’t suffer from so much.

Like in most other Subarus, the ride quality is quite well-judged with it soaking up the bumps with relative ease while its electric power steering is nice and light for easy manoeuvring.

Heading out of the city, the XV is actually a rather rewarding steer if you throw it at a twisty road, and I’ve always enjoyed how malleable and forgiving it feels through the corners.

While it does tend towards understeer as you may expect, with some mastery of your throttle inputs and a slight flick of the wrist, you can easily use the weight transfer the very slight amount of body roll it has to your advantage and get it to rotate back around slightly instead.

Not all is perfect – the flat-four sounds strained and the CVT whines when you explore the upper reaches of the rev range, and the gearing of the transmission’s simulated seven-speed manual mode is far too tall to be of any real use for sporty driving – but for the most part it’s a good thing to drive, and that extra dash of power really does add some needed zing.

With this being a hybrid though, a lot hangs on the question of fuel economy. While I mentioned that around town, it seemed to hover around the mid-sixes, throw in some stints on the open road where a hybrid system isn’t quite as useful and by the end of the week I saw a return of 7.3L/100km.

While this marks a roughly nine percent improvement compared to the fuel economy I’ve seen when testing the petrol-only XV on the same roads, which is in Subaru’s claimed improvement range of between seven and 14 percent on the combined and urban cycles respectively, like with the Forester I’m still not sure that’s really enough of a saving to justify the price hike the hybrid is subject to.

Unfortunately, with a mere 0.568kWh lithium-ion battery pack in the boot and an electric motor on the lower-powered end, it just can’t rely on electric power only for long enough, acting more like a mild hybrid than a full hybrid vehicle, and as a result the improvements simply aren’t as drastic as they could be with a slightly bigger battery and more powerful electric motor.

And that’s a shame, as in isolation the XV Hybrid is a good thing to drive that definitely feels to be an improvement over the regular model in regards to power and responsiveness.

Factor in the meagre fuel savings, basic specification level, and massive price-hike, however, and it fails to add up in my eyes. A better fit for this hybrid drivetrain than the Forester, it definitely is, but unfortunately it’s still not enough to justify the price.

2020 Subaru XV Hybrid List Price: $35,580
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Tech & Features - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 7/10
    Value for Money - 7/10

Pros: Electric motor adds some needed zing and hybrid drivetrain is a better fit here than in the Forester, responsive handling and well-tuned ride, spacious and well-made interior
Cons: Feels basic inside being based on the entry-level XV, front seats lack any real under-thigh support, meagre fuel savings aren’t enough to offset the big price hike

In a nutshell: The XV is undoubtedly a pleasant drive and a better fit for Subaru’s first hybrid drivetrain than it’s bigger sibling, the Forester, but it does still suffer from the same big issue of the fuel savings not being enough to offset the big price hike, with its basic interior feel also letting it down. 

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Subaru Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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