When you've built your brand on the toughness element of your vehicles, adapting to market trends and offering a ‘soft-roader' option is always going to be a challenge. The upside is the chance of attracting new buyers, but at the same time you've got to be careful not to alienate loyal followers.
Spare a thought for Subaru, then, as it rolls out its XV. Its rakish profile and low-slung appearance give the impression that it should be viewed alongside the likes of Nissan's popular Qashqai, Kia's Sportage and BMW's X1. But an XV wouldn't be a Subaru if it didn't come with a full-blown all-wheel drive system to keep longtime fans happy.
It's a tough gig, but Subaru is keen to surprise a few people with a car that satisfies both camps. Keen to move on from a past dominated by turbo-powered Imprezas and rallying successes, recent years have seen Subaru attempt to boost its family-friendly line-up of 4x4s and sturdy estate cars.
Transforming the once low-
Forester into a rugged SUV has helped matters, and now the XV has been positioned beneath it to steal some of the lifestyle market.
At one level the difference between the two cars is a simple one; the Forester boasts a proper low-range gearbox for added versatility and the XV doesn't. But far from being the soft option, the XV's transmission is the genuine article and easily trumps its softer rivals despite the absence of a low-range mode.
While customers in Europe get to choose from two petrol engines and a diesel unit, the XV will be sold here only with a 2.0-litre petrol packing 150 horses and 196Nm of torque. It's also surprisingly frugal despite the inclusion of all-wheel drive.
The XV's cabin is another pleasantsurprise; with its generous levels of occupant space fore and aft it's a genuine family holdall. Cabin quality, often a sticking point of past Subarus, is much improved and there's no doubting its durable nature — an ideal quality when you're talking about a family-friendly SUV. Simple controls and easy-to-read displays complete the XV's understated cabin.
If you think the XV's interior is too modest to compete with the bold and brash examples of its rivals, you're forgetting the real reason why the chunky Subaru exists.
And in this context, the XV is comfortably ahead of the competition. Granted, plusher rivals are happy to focus more on image but this Subaru comes with a brand heritage that's focused more on doing stuff rather than being seen posing on the high street.
To that end the XV's permanent all-wheel drive system allows you to take more liberties than you could with any comparable soft-roader. Factor in Subaru's clever traction and stability electronics and the only limiting factor is, predictably, the car's ground clearance. It's also no surprise that the XV's engine is happy to haul you up and down all day long without complaint. Thanks to its ample reserves of torque it's also capable of trundling around town and piling on the highway mileage with barely a murmur.
OK, so not every XV buyer is going to want to scale mountains at the weekends, but there's a lot to be said for the car's go (almost) anywhere abilities, decent ground clearance, accommodating cabin and refined road manners to convince families of its potential as an activity wagon. That it's just as adept at towing is a bonus.
The XV's combination of decent looks and ability along with the promise of enhanced aftersales support are compelling factors in what is a fiercely competitive market. In truth, the XV is more of a lifestyle choice than those so-called ‘lifestyle' soft-roaders.