To some observers the Subaru XV may be just another pretend-pretend 4×4 that is really an accountant-type sheep in dingo’s clothing. They’d be wrong. There is much more to the XV 4×4 than meets the eye, and if you add some minor upgrades to the deal… well, then it turns into something a little bit wild
Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst
A little road trip to kick things off…
It all started in June, 2014. There we were, driving on a deserted dirt road, snaking its way towards Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal. We were in a stock standard Subaru XV, and on a mission to drive from Sodwana on the country’s east coast, using back roads where possible, all the way to Kleinzee on the West Coast. The total distance would be around 4500km.
But our adventure seemed doomed even before it had started. About 50km from Sodwana, the left rear tyre called it quits, the sidewall cut by a sharp rock. We changed the tyre in the dark, and thankfully the XV does come with a full-size spare wheel.
The next morning the tyre was fixed with some strong muti, courtesy of a Sodwana-based repair shop. But with the standard low-profile tyres fitted to the beautiful 17-inch alloy rims, we were rather worried about picking up more punctures. On a 4500km trip, that seemed inevitable.
Meanwhile, we’d been impressed by the XV’s comfort and the “sporty” feel that is virtually a Subaru patent. It’s not that the XV is fast. The two-litre Boxer engine does not breathe through a turbocharger, and it develops a mild 110 kW and 197 Nm of torque (at a high 4200r/min). Power is permanently sent to all four wheels via Subaru’s Lineartronic continuously variable transmission.
CVT gearbox technology seems to be all the rage these days, and partnered with Subaru’s turbodiesel engine it really is awesome in application. In the XV it is OK, but maybe not great, mostly because there is not so much low-end torque to work with.
As the days and kilometres on that trip flew past, we came to appreciate the Scooby’s comfort, that sporty edge, its entertaining yet solid performance on most gravel roads and the frugal fuel consumption.
With the Lineartronic gearbox spinning the engine in its most efficient range for the conditions, the XV needed an average of 8,8 litres/100km.
On the final leg of our journey, on a dirt road nearing Kleinzee, another small issue became apparent: the low-profile tyres did not appreciate big corrugations. Instead of absorbing the continuous bumps, the jolts reverberated through the cabin, seemingly shaking everything to pieces.
In the end That 4×4 Show presenter Tumelo Maketekete and I completed the journey without any further problems or incidents. And amazingly, those 235/55 R17 tyres, with their very commendable grip in corners but a less absorbing performance on a heavily corrugated dirt road, managed to avoid any more punctures.
Time for a nip & tuck!
The desert khaki Subaru XV was due to stay with us for a year, and with that 4500km trip behind us, we had some ideas on how to improve this nifty little 4×4.
But before we get to those upgrades, just some numbers and information to demonstrate that this car is actually a lot more capable in the rough than you might think.
Firstly, it has 220mm ground clearance, which is not just a thumb-suck number as is often the case with over-enthusiastic marketing department copy writers. And all the suspension components and other mechanical bits are neatly tucked away out of harm’s way under the vehicle, so you can go places in the XV that you would not be able to tackle in other cross-breed hatches.
Secondly, there is Subaru’s famous symmetrical AWD system – comprising a longitudinally mounted, horizontally opposed Boxer engine (flat four layout) and a symmetrically designed 4WD drivetrain.
The Lineartronic model gets the Active Torque Split AWD system, which normally sends 60% of the horses to the front wheels, and 40% to the rear axle. Sensors constantly monitor all parameters, including vehicle speed and grip levels on all four wheels. An electronically controlled multi-plate transfer (MP-T) system then adjusts the torque split between the front and rear axles in real time to suit the grip levels and driving conditions, as well as transmission and driver inputs.
With the CVT gearbox, you can switch to manual mode and use the paddle shifters on either side of the steering wheel for up or down shifts. So in off-road situations you can drive it “manual” if you like — just don’t expect engine braking on a steep downhill.
Right, so with some of the XV’s credentials explained, let’s look at those upgrades, done in conjunction with Gary Swemmer of the 4WD Truckin’ Company.
All-terrain tyres were at the top of our shopping list, but it proved a challenge to find the ideal set of takkies. Hankook provided a set of 17-inch Dynapro ATM all-terrain tyres, and we fitted these to the original17-inch rims. But with the higher profile all-terrains, the wheels no longer fitted in the wheel arches. So that idea went out the window.
The next step was to go one size smaller with the rims, and Subaru SA supplied four 16-inch steel rims from a Forester. On these more hardy rims we fitted Hankook Dynapro ATM all-terrains (235/60 R16s).
Not only are the chunky Hankooks more resistant to punctures and offer better grip in off-road conditions, but the higher profile allows you to deflate the tyres so they can absorb the impact of, for instance, major corrugations, resulting in a much more pliant, comfortable and composed ride.
The new tyre and rim combination is only marginally larger in circumference, so ground clearance is also slightly improved. Good news is that the vehicle’s standard warranty is not affected.
Function without form is also no good, so to fit in with our black-and-desert khaki theme, the silver rims were sprayed in a coat of Plastidip – a vinyl spray-on wrap that not only protects the original surface but can be peeled off in a jiffy.
To add some extra space, Front Runner supplied an aluminium strap-on roof-rack. They also provided a 45-litre water tank with outlet, two 20-litre jerry cans and a spade that bolts onto the side of the rack. To add some packing space, a 4WD Truckin’ Company Wolf Pack and transit bag were added, tied down with some good quality straps.
For increased safety when driving at night on those rutted dirt roads, we added a set of powerful Lightforce 170 Striker driving lights. And to round off the exterior package, some discreet decals were added.
The interior remains standard apart from an aftermarket Caska entertainment system that replaced the original head unit in the centre console. This new system, with its big LCD screen, includes a GPS navigation system with TomTom maps.
Although we were at first not greatly impressed by some of the features, the GPS and some other functions have proved invaluable over the past 20 000km.
A little road trip to finish things off
So the beefed-up Subaru XV featured on the television programme, and for months it served as school taxi, camera crew vehicle that went where hatch-based crossovers should probably not venture, and general city runabout.
But there was only way to really judge whether the upgrades had been worth the trouble, and that was to compare the toughened up XV with a standard model – such as the Leisure Wheels XV.
And so we put together a road trip to the Witwater Safari Lodge, near Mookgophong in the Limpopo province. Besides a 30km dirt road leading to the lodge, there are some rough mountain tracks to contend with, making it the ideal rough-roader test ground.
So off we went, and on the smooth N1 highway there was a clear difference in the performance of the two Subarus. With all that gear on the roof, and the slightly taller tyres, the 4WD Truckin’ Company XV required considerably more right-foot to maintain a steady 120km/h. The roof load certainly compromised the XV’s usual aerodynamic performance. It was like trying to launch a brick-shaped rocket into space. As you’d expect, fuel consumption also suffered. (See the numbers elsewhere in this article.)
But once we hit the dirt road outside Mookgophong, any aerodynamic inefficiencies were quickly forgotten. In the standard XV, the driver had to be more circumspect about rocks and ditches, and although the driving experience was still quite excellent and sporty, it did get slightly bouncy — with rattles — in the rougher sections, because of the low-profile tyres.
Thanks to the Hankook tyres, we hardly bothered about ruts and rocks as the all-terrain tyres absorbed the impacts more efficiently. The taller tyres did not compromise that inherent sporty feel, either – they actually enhanced it on the gravel.
Finally we reached some of Witwater’s rougher tracks, normally reserved for the 4×4 game drive vehicles. From his lofty Landy Defender, ranger Jacob Maponyane looked at our XVs with a certain level of pessimism.
After the first rough section we crossed (in both XVs, without any hassles) Jacob was all smiles. In fact, he could hardly believe that the vehicles handled the conditions so easily, without leaving expensive plastic bits alongside the track.
But sometimes you have to quit when you’re ahead, and we did this at one particularly rocky climb that would have given some pukka off-roaders with a transfer case a work-out. We parked the standard XV — and had a go in the 4WD Truckin’ Company version.
Amazingly, it managed to clamber about three-quarters of the way up the hill before we decided to retire, rather than carry some expensive Subaru body parts back home in the boot. With the Lineartronic gearbox in manual mode, and the AWD system and traction control doing their stuff, the XV got a lot farther than we’d thought it would.
Make no mistake, this is no hardcore 4×4 ready to tackle major off-road obstacles. But if you have to negotiate some rougher dirt roads or mud, rest assured that this Scooby can handle them.
Was this upgrade worth the effort? We reckon so, yes. When you use the XV around town you can always store the roof rack and its accessories, and refit them for those longer trips. Offering more packing space, fuel capacity (a total of 100 litres), water storage and a shovel, the accessories are practical, too.
The all-terrain tyres handled very well on tar roads, but they really came into their own off the beaten track. And with pot hole dodging becoming a national sport, the tougher all-terrain tyres are more resistant to punctures and damage, even in town.
The 16-inch steel rims also play their part here… in the middle of the bush, when a wheel is damaged, you can try to convince the buckled wheel to get better with a five-pound hammer. If an original aluminium alloy mag is damaged… well, that will be that.
The upgrades also demonstrate that you don’t have to spend a small fortune to change an already very good package for the better. In fact, we’d recommend the wheel and tyre upgrade all day long, while the roof accessories would be a question of personal preference and requirement.
This road trip again highlighted what a good all-round package the XV really is, even in stock trim. Five-star EURO NCAP safety rating meets fuel economy meets cool mom’s taxi meets sporty driving experience meets comfort meets luxury meets extremely capable rough-roader.
It is, in short, the rainbow wheels of the crossover segment.
* Great-looking 17-inch alloys with 225/50 R17 low-profile tyres. Awesome grip on tar and in corners, but less happy on a corrugated dirt road.
* Fuel consumption on trip: 8,5 litres/100km.
* Range @ consumption (standard 60 litre-tank) – about 700km.
* Subaru Forester 16-inch steel rims (R1200 each) with Hankook Dynapro ATM 235/60 R16 tyres (R2380 per tyre at Tiger Wheel & Tyre outlets). Rims sprayed with Plastidip vinyl coating (R1200, includes application).
* Front Runner Slimline II aluminium roof-rack (1165mm x 1156mm) with four mechanisms to connect to standard roof-rails. Includes wind deflector. Retails for R4 971 (excludes fitment).
* Front Runner double jerry can holder (R695) plus two matte black jerry cans (20 litres each) at R325 each.
* Front Runner 45-litre water tank to fit on Slimline II rack (R1285) plus mounting system (R295).
* Lightforce 170 Striker 100W driving lights, one of the Aussie company’s most popular models worldwide that weighs only 560g per light. Retails for R4500.
* Two Front Runner Wolf Pack storage containers (R204 each), in a 4WD Truckin’ Company canvas transit bag (R880) and two tie-down straps (R300).
* Caska multimedia and entertainment system with (unexpectedly) capable TomTom mapping, Subaru approved product (R11 999).
* Fuel consumption on trip: 12,3 litres/100km.
* Range @ consumption (includes extra 40-litres of fuel): About 812km.
Witwater — Waterberg paradise
Set on the banks of the Phalala river, about 50km from Mookgophong in the Limpopo province, Witwater Safari Lodge and Spa offers a five-star experience in the beautiful Waterberg mountains.
Besides the amazing game viewing opportunities, Witwater’s main lodge offers an unforgettable holiday experience, with friendly staff that treat guests like royalty. Accommodation ranges from suites, tented suites and lodge suites to self-catering options. Prices start from R625 per person for the self-catering house, which can be hired at R5000 a night for up to eight people. At the other end of the scale, the full board option in the most luxurious of suites costs up to R3000 per person per night (single).
The restaurant is a highlight, serving gourmet meals. The lodge also puts on outstanding braais in the lapa area.
Another attraction is the luxurious spa, situated next to the main lodge. Here you can treat yourself to a long list of beauty and relaxation therapies.