Welcome to the sometimes weird, often wonderful world of Subaru, the off-beat Japanese manufacturer that has piled sales record upon sales record throughout the Great Recession while other manufacturers have had near-death experiences that called for government resuscitation or limped along until the slow recovery began to take hold.
To get the picture, let’s now consider the recipe for the newest member of Subaru’s caravan of winter-weather conquerers.
Take one all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza, jack the compact hatchback up 3 inches to create 8.7 inches of ground clearance, toughen it up a bit and you've got the Subaru XV Crosstrek crossover vehicle.. Then, a couple of years later, offer an alternative gasoline/electric powerplant and, voila, you've got the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid.
Of course, hybrid powerplants are nothing new in the automotive industry ---Honda was first to the U.S.market with its tiny Insight some 15 year ago and Toyota has been leading the industry with its Prius for a dozen or more years.
Subaru? It has soldiered on with its four-and six-cylinder horizontally opposed (boxer) gasoline engines and, while they are not fuel-efficiency leaders, they have proven themselves over and over again to legions of motorists who love their rugged dependability and the all-wheel-drive systems that Subaru builds into every car it sells in the United States.
Now, for the first time, Subaru has built a hybrid system by teaming its 2-liter, 148-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine with a 13.4-horsepower electric motor that is integrated into its continuously variable automatic transmission.
Of course, there's more to it than that. The Crosstrek Hybrid's engine was massaged to reduce friction in its moving parts, a stop-start system was installed to shut down the engine at stops signs and traffic signals, and the Subaru can move from a stop for short distances on electric power alone if the driver keeps a very light foot on the accelerator.
In addition, low-rolling-resistance tires are fitted on to new aluminum alloy wheels and an Active Grille Shutter system closes the shutters to lessen wind resistance and improve fuel economy during highway driving.
The electrical power is stored in a nickel-metal hydride battery that is replenished by coasting, regenerative braking and, when needed, an electric drive motor powered by the gasoline engine.
The downside is that the battery replaces the spare tire. Crosstrek Hybrid buyers get only a flat-tire repair kit, a kind of scary thought for those who plan to do some serious off-roading in their Subaru.
The upside is that the battery placement allows the hybrid Crosstrek to have interior space nearly identical to the gasoline-powered model. There is room for five passengers, 21.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seat and 50.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the second-row setbacks folded forward.
The hybrid system has two primary advantage over standard gasoline power. It generates 160 horsepower, compared to 148, and it achieves an EPA-estimated average of 29 mpg in the city/33 on the highway. That compares to the 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway figures for the standard gasoline engine. In my time with the Crosstrek hybrid, it averaged between 27 and 32 mpg.
So, how does all of this work? Perhaps surprisingly, the hybrid's driving dynamics are a bit better than those on the standard Crosstrek. Don't think sporty or anything close to that. But there is a difference, thanks to a retuned suspension, quick-ratio electric power steering and a lowered center of gravity made possible by placing the electric drive motor within the all-wheel-drive system.
The Crosstrek Hybrid doesn't feel top heavy when cornering, as is the case with some sport-utility vehicles and crossovers, and the retuned suspension provides a generally comfortable ride.
I did not get to do any off-roading, so I can't vouch for the Crosstrek's trail-blazing talents. However, past experience tells me that all-wheel-drive Subarus are great winter-weather cars and that they are competent off road. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance and the extra power over the standard Crosstrek should make it a competent performer even under some tough off-road conditions.
The stop-start system is another matter. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Apparently that is related to the climate control system, which has veto power over the system's operation. Anyway, when it is working, the transition from stop to start is a rough one.
Although it can have a meaningful effect on fuel efficiency, I am not a big fan of the continuously variable transmission. There's something off-putting about hitting the accelerator for quick acceleration, then listening to the engine race while waiting for the transmission to find the right gear ratio to comply with the driver's request.
That said, the Subaru system actually works pretty well in normal driving situations. The Crosstrek will accelerate satisfactorily from a stop without the engine roaring toward its red line.
And then there is the matter of the test car's color. Subaru calls it Plasma Green Pearl and says it "spotlights the vehicle's environmental character." I'll just say it reminded me of a lime-green lollipop. That's great for finding the Crosstrek Hybrid in a crowded mall parking lot, but a bit embarrassing when trying to explain it to family and friends.
The 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid carries a suggested price of $26,820, including an $825 delivery charge. Among its features are an upgraded instrument cluster, multi-function display, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, automatic climate control and keyless access and start.
If you live in a southern climate and spend all of your driving time on paved roads, the XV Crosstrek Hybrid may not be the best car for you. But it you live where the snow blows and/or like adventures where the road doesn't take you, this car could make an ideal traveling companion.