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First Drive: 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

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An Impreza by Any Other Name -

Having just returned from the press launch of the new 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, I can tell you two things with certainty. The first is that if you haven't seen the Tuscan countryside in late fall, you should put it on your bucket list. The weather is crisp, but the impossibly perfect winding roads zip past wineries and farmland, lined with fire orange leaves, lush greenery, and people just as colorful from a cultural standpoint. The second is that the Subaru XV, despite being 'just a lifted Impreza,' is a very cool car.
Here's the skinny: at its heart the Subaru XV is an all-new 2012 Impreza Sport, the five-door hatchback version of Subaru's popular C-segment car. The Impreza itself plays host to a number of improvements over the previous-generation car, including a windshield pushed forward nearly 8 inches; a redeveloped suspension that is stiffer and more responsive, improved aerodynamics, and improved fuel economy thanks to reduced weight and a more efficient CVT. Its longer wheelbase also provides more rear legroom without lengthening the actual car. The ancient SOHC 2.5-liter boxer four has been ditched in favor of a fresh twin-cam 2.0-liter mill (don't worry, it's still horizontally opposed), with slightly less power but improved efficiency and fuel economy. Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system remains standard equipment.

The Subaru XV retains all those features, but adds a few of its own. Most noticeably, the car rides higher than the Impreza. Designed to compete in the white-hot sporty CUV segment (Subaru says competition includes the Mitsubishi Outlander GT), the XV gets 8.6-inches of ground clearance. The front and rear bumpers are also revised, and have been sculpted in the wind tunnel for improved aerodynamics and styled in the studio for increased curb appeal. The front grille is unique to the XV, as are the silver and black 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, the only ones initially available for the car. Those contrasting plastic wheelarch covers are also new with cutaway ends that reduce their visual heft. Chief stylist for the XV, long-time Subaru designer Masahiro Kobayashi (responsible for the first-generation Forester, among other vehicles), was inspired by the influx of technical outdoor clothing and gadgets that have found a home with today's trendy urbanites.

In Europe, the XV will be offered with three engines and three transmissions. At the bottom rung is a 114-hp 1.6-liter gasoline engine paired to either the CVT or a five-speed manual. At the top is a 2.0-liter turbodiesel which produces 147 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque and is paired only with a six-speed manual transmission. Smack in the middle is the only engine shared with the U.S. -- the same 148-hp 2.0-liter gasoline mill with 145 lb-ft of torque that powers the new Impreza. The chief difference is that Europe gets a six-speed manual option, while the U.S. must make due with a five-speed unit or the CVT. Disappointing, but with the U.S. launch not scheduled until the fall of 2012, here's hoping there's time for Subaru to change its mind. Europe also gets start/stop technology which is also not currently destined to arrive stateside.

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So we've got a raised Impreza with the standard, somewhat lackluster engine/transmission paring, some fancy front and rear body work, and some neat-looking alloys. Even the interior is unchanged, save for a different black-faced tachometer and speedometer with white numbers and red gauges (a la Audi/Porsche). How does it drive? Given that snowy conditions were a real possibility for our test run, Subaru outfitted the press cars with snow/ice tires as a precaution, which led in part to a somewhat vauge steering feel and harsh ride -- issues Subaru says would be mitigated with regular tires. That aside, the XV drives very much like an Impreza. The electronic steering feels slightly artificial and there's not a ton of power. We only drove the CVT-equipped, 2.0-liter gasoline car as it's the only version promised to be coming to the U.S. While we're still not thrilled with the transmission, it's more responsive than Subaru's first-gen CVT. We were concerned that increased ride height would lead to more body roll, but the car remained remarkably flat during spirited cornering (as spirited as the snow tires would respond to on the damp roads). Take a corner too quick and major understeer would result, but we're chalking that difference in handling up to the tires as well. Road noise is rather subdued and visibility -- also a strong suit in the Impreza -- is just as good here.
All this may sound somewhat underwhelming, but here's the thing: the design works. And it works really, really well. Where the Impreza appears somewhat pedestrian, the XV has panache. It has that special bit of character that makes you want to climb in and drive it. Anywhere. Because you can. And we drive the XV we did. We survived morning commuter traffic in the heart of moped-choked Florence, flogged it over winding backroads in the Tuscan hills, traversed ancient stone bridges and stormed the Italian autostradas. We even did some soft-roading, climbing a muddy, rutted farm trail and descending down the rock-strewn backside. Despite some obvious flaws (again, some of which are said to be down to the tires), the XV is an enjoyable car to drive and look at. Subaru does 'lifestyle vehicles' -- vehicles that help define who a person is -- well, and the XV could well be its best yet. To be sure, we'll have to check back in mid-2012 when we're allowed to drive a U.S.-spec XV on U.S. soil. Until then, stay tuned.
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