cars: finally the new snow car

1998 Outback Sport dwarfed by 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid

I’ve driven the same Subaru Outback Sport (a Subaru Impreza with slightly increased ground clearance) for 16 years. After dealers sorted out a wonky thrust plate and rear bearing it’s been rock solid for over a decade. It’s a great snow car: decent control in a snowstorm without having to put on chains, and the next morning you can drive out of a driveway blanketed in a half-foot of snow without shoveling.

Small car needn’t mean cheap car

But even by 1998 standards the Impreza/Outback Sport was quite primitive. I criticized Subaru for treating their smallest car as a cheap car, with no winter package (heated seats, mirrors, and wipers), and I had to add aftermarket leather seats.

In 2011 Subaru listened to me and introduced the fourth-generation Impreza with all those options. At the time I complained there is “No small fuel-efficient all-wheel drive car… no one is making a small AWD hybrid,” and last year Subaru listened to me again and announced a hybrid powertrain option for the XV Crosstrek (like the discontinued Outback Sport this is another Impreza variant renamed – Subaru of America clearly hates the name “Impreza”).

So when the A/C gave out on the Outback Sport I was happy to reward Subaru for making the car I asked for. I ordered a 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid with a lot of options in August. I put aftermarket leather in the regular hybrid, avoiding the overpriced Touring model with a moon roof I don’t want and an nav/infotainment system that’s worse than my smartphone. It’s a fine AWD car and a huge advance over my 1998 Subaru Outback Sport (backup camera! Bluetooth phone! no ignition switch! electronic traction! stability control! a USB port!).

Impreza vs. XV Crosstrek (from CarAdvice.com.au, flipped)

inoffensive hatchback vs. “commanding road presence” mini-tank CUV

The regular Impreza has an inoffensive “nicer-looking than a Ford Escort/Focus hatckback” appearance. Unfortunately Subaru doesn’t offer the hybrid powertrain on the regular Impreza, so I had to buy this faux butch “commanding road presence” uglified poseur that I didn’t want, in order to avoid the unacceptably primitive behavior of belching out exhaust when the car isn’t moving.

1 step back, 1 step forward

The jacked-up stance and increased weight of the XV Crosstrek makes it less fuel efficient than a regular Impreza. The hybrid powertrain improves the city MPG but it still has worse highway MPG than the regular Impreza. (Somehow the 2015 model increments city and highway MPG each by 1 to 30/34, but combined remains 31 MPG.) I wish it got better MPG – I’d”un-UV” it with smaller tyres if I trusted a tuner like Brucie’s Executive Lifestyle Autos – but the new Lexus NX300h  and BMW 328d xDrive wagon are the only AWD cars with slightly better MPG, and they cost a lot more $$$.

License plate WEAKHYB

It’s definitely a weak hybrid. It’s more powerful than the regular Crosstrek, but the puny 0.55 kW·h hybrid battery drains quickly and the regenerative braking that recharges the battery can’t slow it down on a steep hill (the engine turns back on if you downshift with the flappy paddles!). Subaru is adding an “audible vehicle approach pedestrian warning system” to the 2015 model, which is comical because the engine lurches to life if you accelerate faster than walking pace. Every time the engine ignites I think “Goddam, if this thing had a real battery I’d have instant torque from 0 RPM and get 80+ MPGe around town instead of 29 MPG.” It’s funny to see people wishing for a more powerful engine on this and other cars; Tesla’s Model S shows the future is electric, with big batteries sending hundreds of kilowatts to a small powerful motor.

There’s a better way

All-wheel drive adds complexity and weight, because you have drive shafts running to the front and back wheels. But once you add an electric motor you can radically simplify this: have the engine drive one axle and the motor the other, with no mechanical connection between them. The motor flings the car forward from a standstill and powers the car completely gasoline-free for the first NN miles around the city; the engine only kicks in on long trips and when you need all-wheel drive. This “through-the-road plug-in hybrid” layout is the future of all AWD cars. Volvo and Mitsubishi are starting with bigger SUVs, BMW, Honda, and Porsche are starting with sports cars, and Subaru needs to abandon its mechanical Symmetrical AWD, with or without a puny motor spliced in, and make the transition.

Meanwhile Tesla’s ‘D’ version of the Model S shows you can ditch the engine altogether and put an electric motor on each axle for insane all-electric no-gasoline-ever performance. (I couldn’t wait for the Tesla Model X with the same dual-motor AWD, besides it’s much bigger than my needs and will cost over twice as much as the XV Crosstrek Hybrid.)

I sincerely hope this is the last car I buy without a plug.

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