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BBC Autos

Joyride

Subaru versus the volcano

About the author

David G Allan is the Managing Editor of Features sections for BBC.com. He has managed to survive getting hit by two different cars while riding a bike, being run off a snowy highway in Poland by a texting driver and falling asleep at the wheel, twice.

  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (David G Allan)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland
    (Subaru)

HIDE CAPTION

When Subaru tapped its XV Crosstrek to spawn the company’s first hybrid, it did so with the usual goal of improving fuel economy.

But the Japanese automaker has more on the mind than mere miles per gallon. Being a Subaru, the gasoline-electric Crosstrek was expected to perform at least as well as its non-hybrid counterpart when the going got rough.

To that end, the company shipped a fleet of these little-engines-that-could – and a cadre of adventurous motoring writers – to a remote and adventurous moonscape of snow storms, icy rivers, jagged rocks and perpetual threat of volcanic eruption. Iceland, whose inhabitants know a thing or two about self-sufficient energy, is a television-commercial-quality playground in which to drive grown-up Matchbox cars.

Notwithstanding owners of Range Rover Hybrids, your average hybrid driver is unlikely to ford an ice-choked river, scramble down a snowy gully or barrel up the side of a rime-encrusted small mountain. Subaru merely wants you to know that its gasoline-electric XV could perform those feats when called upon. The car’s developers chortle over the owners’ manuals of other hybrid crossover vehicles, most of which warn against venturing off pavement at all.

Until our pint-size convoy of Crosstreks encountered ugly weather, with cars blowing tires on shards of volcanic debris and bogging down in the deep, snowy ruts of our lead vehicles (Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers, locally modified to handle the terrain), the hybrids were living up to their maker’s hype. Reviewing the non-hybrid XV Crosstrek last winter, BBC Autos’ Jonathan Schultz challenged the crossover to a blizzard, and the car won. Crosstrek Hybrid v Iceland produced more mixed – but more exhilarating – results.

I’ve driven under some extreme conditions – down gritty river beds in Mexico, ice-slicked roads in Alaska, sandy byways in Morocco, downtown Paris – and none of it could compare to driving the XV Crosstrek Hybrid up and into the crater of an Icelandic volcano in white-out conditions.

The wind kicked up while my foot kept the throttle pedal to the floor just to maintain forward momentum through the maelstrom. My driving partner would shout “To the left!” “Go right!” “I think it’s straight!?” when the snow squall abated and we were afforded, for a second or two, visibility. Several cars became stuck, with drivers having to radio for a cinch from our medically trained mountain guides. No real danger presented itself, but when our group later recounted the adventure from decidedly less raw confines, a number of us confessed thoughts of survivalist scenarios involving cannibalism.

In the run-up to that gallows-humour session, things had not looked good. As the guides contemplated how we would surmount a looming ridge, the snow grew deeper and wind gusts rocked the stationary cars. Through this uncertainty, my favourite feature of the Crosstrek became its heated seats, part of an all-weather package that included heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer – also extensively used.

Not long after we began contemplating our mortality amid the frozen tundra, over the ridge it came: a tank-size tractor with huge plows on its front and rear. The cavalry had arrived – but the horse was in need of new footwear, so we remained stationary for nearly an hour while a group struggled to get chains around the tractor’s massive tires. The sub-Arctic sun set as we waited.

Making their last push, in the pitch darkness of 18:00 local time, over the last volcanic hill and through a river of slush, the Crosstreks had compressed a lifetime of winter trauma into one day.

Yes, the ambitious itinerary tested man and machine, but the Crosstrek Hybrid acquitted itself well, its powertrain’s combined torque of 163 pound-feet proving sufficient to pull the car up gravelly grades at low speed. Large ruts from the plow’s wheels tested the strut-type front and double-wishbone rear suspension, but the car’s 8.7in ground clearance afforded excellent forward visibility, and was of critical importance passing over chunks of vikur (solidified lava). An unexpected improvement over the non-hybrid Crosstrek came in the Hybrid’s interior, where engine drone was tamped down by engineers after buyers and critics complained. Under Iceland’s driving conditions, however, fuel economy – the motivating factor for hybrid purchases – was nigh on impossible to verify. (The automaker rates its hybrid at 29mpg in urban and 33mpg in highway driving.)

The hatchback’s compact size, compared to the company’s Outback and Forester models, appeals to hybrid owners, who not surprisingly tend to congregate in metropolitan areas. When it arrives in US showrooms later this month, some features may grate, such as the low-quality plastic console and a rudimentary digital schematic of the engine-battery function, which fluctuates so frequently it could induce epilepsy. Another potential sore spot is the battery’s air intake – a vent adjacent to the rear-passenger seat on the driver’s side – which draws in cabin air to cool the battery pack. A weekend warrior would be ill-advised to place a sleeping bag over it.

But the list of superlatives for the XV Crosstrek Hybrid is much longer. Subaru claims to have built the most fuel efficient all-wheel-drive hybrid on the market, and from a pricing perspective, the closest gasoline-electric SUV, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, costs $14,000 more in the US. It all serves to make this XV the least expensive, smallest and lightest hybrid SUV – even with an additional 300lbs for batteries and other hybrid components – and maybe the only one outside of a Range Rover Hybrid (which is not even slated for North American sales) you might ever consider taking off-road.