Water surges over the hood of the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid as we motor it through a river with baseball-sized chunks of ice floating ominously near its door handles. Just minutes earlier, a huge rut in the path — and that's being generous — left a half-dozen cars high-centered, teetering on their floor pans, tires pawing at air.
Subaru innocently expected Iceland in November to be an ideal environment to show off its first-ever hybrid car. Instead, 90 mph wind gusts constantly blow snow over the path, and the water crossings are all deeper than anyone anticipated. "We wanted the circumstances to be a 9.5 out of 10 for difficulty. What we got was a 13," one Subaru representative laments.
In-House Hybrid System
Still, a little perspective. We're driving in conditions that would strand many vehicles, yet with a little assistance, the Subarus just keep on keepin'-on. But what exactly are we driving? The XV Crosstrek Hybrid pries open a heretofore underrepresented niche of hybrid-dom: the affordable all-wheel-drive hybrid station wagon with a lift kit. Based on the don't-call-it-an-Impreza XV Crosstrek, the Hybrid introduces the gas-electric Subaru to the world.
Subaru developed its hybrid system in-house and in doing so kept things relatively simple. A 13.4-horsepower electric motor was engineered into the tail end of the company's continuously variable transmission (CVT), while a 0.55-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery finds its way into the trunk floor. Though a lithium-ion battery would have been much smaller and lighter, Subaru brass cite cost as an issue.
Revisions to the 2.0-liter flat-4 gasoline engine include a bump in compression ratio (now 10.8:1, up from 10.5:1) and new heads with revised exhaust port geometry.
The hybrid system's combined power rises to 160 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 163 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm. These numbers represent peak gains of 12 hp and 18 lb-ft over the non-hybrid XV, which smacks of small potatoes until you consider that the base car develops its peak torque way up at 4,200 rpm. Thus, the electrified XV Crosstrek Hybrid feels punchy at low revs despite its 300-pound weight gain over the non-hybrid XV Crosstrek.
The Hybrid's 225/55R17 all-season tires had been swapped in favor of dedicated winter tires for our drive, so it was hard to say if the Hybrid's 3,451-pound curb weight noticeably influences the car's handling character. Nevertheless, Subaru says the Hybrid handles more sharply than non-hybrids and backs it up with hardware changes. Hybrid models get a quicker steering ratio (14.0:1 compared to 15.5:1 in non-hybrids) and a larger rear stabilizer bar than non-hybrids, in addition to retuned dampers and stiffer front lower control arm bushings.
For sure, the XV Crosstrek's ample 8.7-inch ground clearance and AWD abetted the tires in traversing the Icelandic terrain. Subaru's CVT-based AWD system uses an electronically controlled hydraulic clutch pack to bias torque where it's needed. It's an effective setup for blasting up snow-covered hillsides, as we found out. Once stuck in snow, however, the CVT doesn't switch rapidly enough between Drive and Reverse (and back) to facilitate rocking the car free.
Based on feedback from existing XV Crosstrek owners regarding that car's noise levels, Subaru added sound-deadening measures like a thicker front floor pan, more sound insulation and quieter glass. These changes will also show up on 2014 model year non-hybrid XV Crosstreks, too.
Small Fuel Economy Improvement
Go easy on the right pedal and the XV Crosstrek Hybrid will propel itself solely on EV power up to speeds of about 13 mph, at which point the gas engine springs to life to help things along. It's a commendably seamless transition. Likewise, the hybrid's regenerative braking is unobtrusive, with a minimum of synthetic-ness to the pedal feel.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this hybrid is its fuel economy, and not in a good way, unfortunately. The hybrid manages 31 mpg combined (29 city/33 highway), a gain of just 3 mpg over the standard XV Crosstrek. With its $3,000 price premium (the hybrid starts at $26,820 with destination) the hybrid's payback period based on fuel savings pencils out to more than 15 years.
The extra cash commanded by the hybrid does net some unique features like automatic climate control and keyless entry/ignition. Want more? The XV Crosstrek Hybrid Touring model adds a sunroof, navigation and leather and costs $30,120 with destination.
The Hybrid's bulky battery pack elbows aside space for other things, so there's a slight reduction in cargo volume (now 21.3 cubic feet, down from 22.5) and, as with most hybrid cars, the spare tire is history. Also, the hybrid's fuel tank shrinks to 13.7 gallons, so despite the slightly better fuel economy, range is a touch less than the non-hybrid version.
Subaru played it safe with the hybrid system in the XV Crosstrek Hybrid. While its increase in low-end thrust is welcome, the fuel economy improvement is too modest for the cost and attendant weight and space compromises of its hybrid battery. Still, it'll serve you well if you decide to venture off the beaten Pjórsárdalsvegur onto a closed road in Landmannalaugar right when a snowstorm rolls in.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.