Review by Jacob Black, photos by Jacob Black and Courtesy Subaru
Maybe it’s because I’m from Australia and snow is novel to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a masochist, or maybe it’s because I think traction is overrated and slip angle is the only way to truly enjoy a car – either way, when a winter trip comes up on our radar my eyes light up and my little hand goes shooting up into the air – “pick me, pick me!”
Such was the case when this one came across the desk. Jonathan: “Hey Jacob, there’s an event in Quebec in Janu–”
“Yep, mine. I’ll take that”.
“But it’s SUVs.”
“Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t hog all the winter launches?”
“Done. Mine. I’ll take that, thanks”.
I’m employing a small amount of creative license of course, but that’s the sort of thought process that demonstrates my opinion of Subarus in the snow. They’re fun. Even the SUVs. Ever since Subaru brought its brand of flat-four engines and AWD together for Canadian markets the marque has prided itself on winter capability and its ties to the adventurous outdoor lifestyle.
The relatively new X-Mode capabilities of its higher end fleet, including hill-descent control and upgraded hill climbing capabilities only further that cause. Add to that the EyeSight road safety system, which uses twin cameras and radar to monitor lane markings, provide adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring as well as collision avoidance and you’ve got a car perfect for the weekend cottage set.
We’d be treated to a “day in the life” of the affluent and outdoorsy on this event. Subaru provided us with a trio of SUVs. The brand-anchoring 2015 Subaru Forester, the more rounded 2015 Subaru Outback and the flashy youngster, the 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek.
Our tour would take us around a far-eastern town in Quebec called Montebello. It’s just about half-way between Ottawa and Montreal, with snow covered-fields, beautiful long, narrow and winding country roads plus one of the most beautiful hotel/lodges in the country – the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello.
But why SUVs? Impreza and Legacy are both off-road capable winter warriors. Subaru wanted us to experience their most popular nameplates in their spiritual home. Together, Crosstrek (16 percent), Outback (21) and Forester (29) represented 66 percent of Subaru’s sales in 2014. Forester led the bunch – as always – with over 12,000 units around eight percent growth. Outback’s recent refresh saw it improve from just over 6,000 to over 8,000 units while the XV Crosstrek sold just under 7,000 units in its second full year on the market. This is the trio anchoring Subaru’s 14.3 percent growth over the past 12 months.
But why are we doing maths? There are snow, winding roads, wildlife-rich forests and pristine frozen lakes to explore!
Starting early, my co-driver and I set sail in a 2015 Subaru Forester equipped with X-Mode and the 2.0T with the CVT gearbox. We whined about the CVT (because we’re auto journalists and if we don’t the other auto journalists get suspicious and ask if we float like a duck then burn us for witchcraft). Its 250 hp/258 lb-ft output proved more than adequate as we ate up the miles, the Forester settling into a rhythm as we picked our way through the picturesque forest.
Wind noise was barely noticeable but the drone of the winter tires over icy roads soon had me reaching for the radio dial. I remarked on the size of the sunroof – not panoramic but not small either as we worked our way towards Kenauk nature reserve.
Two hours of driving passed in a flash, the cloth seats perfectly capable of keeping my soggy physique supported even if they did lack some side bolstering. Over large dips and bumps the Forester was composed, settling back down on its springs with the automotive equivalent of a shrug.
After that, it was time to swap into the next car – in our case an Outback. The all-new Outback has been covered a lot here, and I noted the loose steering and noticeable body roll during our first-drive event. The softer ride was welcome on some of the back roads we encountered during this journey though, and I appreciated the large SUV’s sure-footedness when one corner tightened sharply on me – catching me unawares. In my defence, I thought I saw a deer to the left and was distracted. I hadn’t though. Yet.
The wind noise that bothered me on our first drive of the Outback wasn’t evident on this journey, perhaps because we spent so little time on straight highways or over 80 km an hour.
The Outback was a 3.6L H6 model, thankfully because that engine is the only I think is worthwhile in the Outback. It’s true the smaller four comes with a manual transmission, but I’d give up the row-your-own experience for the extra grunt. The six produces 256 hp and 247 lb-ft; not dissimilar figures to the Forester’s 2.0T. Those figures are prodigious however when compared to the 175 hp/174 lb-ft available in the 2.5L four also offered with the Outback. Having driven both back to back, and revisited the six on this event please allow me to reiterate: Get the 3.6L six, not the 2.5L four and in the Forester also eschew the 2.5 for the 2.0T.
“But don’t you have to tolerate a CVT then?” – yes, you do, but that penalty isn’t as bad as you’d think in these. The flappy paddles on the steering wheel grant you access to pre-set gear ranges that mimic conventional autos. While not fast, the paddles react well enough to help you navigate the approach to traffic lights or set up for a challenging section of your course. The CVT is no longer as loud and droning as it once was and certainly not as power-sapping. By day’s end, I’d gotten over my reservations about the unit.
And yes, that included my final stint aboard the 2015 XV Crosstrek Hybrid. The 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid got a pasting from me a while back for its clunky interior and the fact the Hybrid drivetrain has no demonstrable benefits over its conventional brethren. My issues with the interior and the infotainment system have now been addressed with the next generation of radio and user interface in the Crosstrek – bravo Subaru!
I did also mention in that review that the all-wheel drive system might well have saved my life – and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if it didn’t do it all over again on this drive! You know that deer I thought I saw earlier? Seems it was a premonition. As I crested a slight hill and came around a gentle bend suicidal Bambi leapt from the bush to my left. In a panic I threw out the anchors, then quickly released the brake and steered around the fluffy tail of the bewildered deer – I had barely regained full control before I began cheering to my driving partner for the day. “A deer! I saw a deer! Finally I saw a deer! That was so awesome!” This was my first actual live wild deer – I’ve only seen them on farms before – and I was ecstatic. Drive in the country, see a deer. Fantastic.
I still don’t know if it was that pulse-raising encounter or the more youthful, playful nature of the Crosstrek compared to its older brothers but I found myself thoroughly enjoying my stint in Subaru’s newcomer.
Hustling along the country roads I enjoyed the weight of the steering, not too light, not too heavy and enjoyed the feeling of the four wheels scrambling for grip underneath me. Even with traction control and ESC off the AWD system doesn’t allow much rear wheel spin and so low entry-speed, high-exit power slides were not the order of the day, instead we enjoyed high entry speed high mid-corner drifts, letting the XV Crosstrek pick itself up and focus forward on corner exit.
In a setting like this, with empty, private reserve roads just wide enough to give a margin of error and winding corners stringing together a Strauss-worthy waltz the XV demonstrates the allure of a smaller crossover.
It was noticeably lighter and less well-damped than the Outback though, and my co-driver remarked on the lower-quality ride in the XV. You get what you pay for, I guess. The Outback does give a nice ride over rutted rides and seems quieter.
On our way out to Kenauk we also had a chance to test the XV Crosstrek in deep snow. Spotting a long unplowed driveway and a woodshed meant stopping for a photo – but I’d already driven past the entrance. Here we encountered another nod to the playfulness found in the XV and not the Forester or Outback albeit an accidental one: a proper mechanical handbrake. The road was narrow, and slippery but straight and clear in both directions for a good 400 metres. You know what comes next. Rapid U-turn completed we headed back to the entrance of the driveway but silly me drove past it by mistake. Three times.
Knowing there were four other Subarus behind us we felt confident trying out the 220mm of ground clearance (all three models have the same ground clearance) and snow traction, so stopped halfway up the driveway in axle-deep snow. The XV Crosstrek had such little trouble I felt embarrassed I’d referred to our excursion as a “test”.
I also needn’t have gone off the script to find difficult terrain. Our late-afternoon rendezvous was deep inside Kenauk at a dynamic driving course the Subaru folk had set up. Some woops, some steep inclines, dramatic dips and a good foot of snow over the ground lay before us. For the next hour we did continuous loops in the three cars, stopping halfway up a slope to test the traction getting up the hill.
All three cars made it up easily, but the X-Mode equipped Forester and Outback managed the task with far less wheel spin and drama. With X-Mode off, they scrambled for grip momentarily before working their way up the hill.
Here as on the cottage roads I found the AWD system hampered my desire to throttle-steer in the snow, but I got excellent results from carrying high speed into and through the bends on the course. I highly recommend it.
The point is, it was only when I was being silly that these cars really showed even a hint of limitation and those limits were largely confined to the types of skids I could and couldn’t do. At every other turn of the wheel the Subaru trio showed nothing but confidence.
And if we’re honest, it’s the confidence you’re buying. Even in remote parts of Ontario or Quebec you can get to most things you want to get to with just about any winter-tire shod rig, be it SUV, sedan or otherwise.
It’s not about the things you already want to do though. It’s about the things you can do if you decide to on a whim – the things that usually end in disaster and an embarrassing tow truck experience. That’s when any one of these three stand out, when the snow is thick, the hill is steep and your sense of adventure is at its peak.