The Subaru XV, launched to the media in late-2011, makes a lot more sense now that we have an all-new Impreza to talk about.
Because despite Subaru New Zealand's efforts to market the XV as a standalone model that's "positioned as the baby Outback and a new addition to Subaru's recreational range" (company words from the press blurb), the XV is of course a jacked-up version of the Impreza.
The new Impreza that is, which didn't arrive until after the XV due to the after-effects of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami. Not that there's anything wrong with a jacked-up Impreza (an Outback is a jacked-up Legacy, after all), but having the crossover version before the regular range has the potential to confuse.
The basics are the same: all XV/Impreza models are powered by a new 110kW/196Nm 2.0-litre boxer engine, driving through Subaru's version of Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which it calls Subaru Lineartronic Transmission (SLT).
In fact, the company says that its SLT is so different from CVT that the two acronyms should not be mentioned in the same sentence: it has a steel chain and is exceptionally compact and light, making it more responsive (it's also a more advanced second-generation unit than the SLT used on Legacy/Outback) and less annoying. But we have, so there.
The new engine, SLT and features like stop/start help the XV to achieve Combined fuel economy of 7.0 litres per 100km - impressive, albeit just slightly shy of the regular Impreza's 6.8 litres.
Our entry-level $38,990 XV 2.0i test car is $2000 more expensive than the Impreza 2.0i, although it's good value because it's slightly better equipped. The Impreza has steel wheels, for example, while the XV rides on 17-inch alloys. The XV also offers a 4.3-inch information display, which you don't get on the entry Impreza. You get the picture.
There's also the body addenda on the XV, which might look a little over the top (depending on body colour) but does give a major point of difference over the donor car. You'd never confuse the two and some companies would charge $2k for that alone.
Amid all this talk of fuel efficiency and value, it's reassuring to find out that Subaru is still a company that really cares about the driving experience. The XV might be perched 220mm above ground, but it steers and handles with real authority. It's particularly entertaining on gravel (as you'd expect), with beautifully chassis balance and great communication with the driver when grip goes south.
The boxer engine is still strong on character, the SLT less so. Continuously variable technology is a favourite of Japanese makers (Honda and Nissan really like it as well), but it's not nearly as entertaining as a proper automatic-with-gears. A lot more thrifty, but not nearly as entertaining.
The good news is that you can still have a proper manual XV (it'll save you $2000), but it's special order only and Subaru expects to sell only a handful in New Zealand. It's less economical (7.3 litres per 100km) but bound to be a better drive, not just because of powertrain control but also because it has a mechanical all-wheel drive system with 50/50 torque split. It's just a bit more old-school-Sube than the 60/40 electronic setup in the SLT. And apparently will be quite rare!
The low-rent interior was one of the most-criticised aspects of the old Impreza. The new one ups the ante with soft-touch plastics and tight panel gaps, and is particularly good in terms of storage: large centre console tray, big door pockets and a 340-litre boot - generous for the class.
Another thing about Subaru's claim that the new XV is a fresh addition to the crossover range: there was actually an XV version of the previous Impreza, underwhelming though it was with its average-quality cabin and four-speed automatic gearbox. Never mind, we'll let that one go. The 2012 XV is a good thing; it deserves a fresh start.