Subaru XV 2.0D

With its new 4x4, Subaru might just have rediscovered its appeal

Price: From £24,110 (range spans £21,075 to £29,810)
Engine: 1,998cc, flat-four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 145bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 120mph, 0-62 in 9.3sec, 50.4mpg, CO2 146g/km

If the average motorist thinks anything at all when Subaru is mentioned, it is likely to be one of two things. One: isn't that the company which makes fast, noisy, usually blue cars which used to win rallies a lot? Or, two: that's the company that makes odd-looking estate cars and 4x4s, but no one seems to buy them any more.

Both are true. And Subaru's big problem is that its recent products simply haven't been very appealing. The current Legacy is an ugly, oversized mutant compared with its Audi-rivalling predecessor. The latest Impreza is barely more numerous than a dodo. The Forester 4x4 is a dull example of the house-brick school of design. But now there comes the new XV, and suddenly there is hope.

It's a "crossover" 4x4, derived under its skin from the Impreza and smaller than the next Forester will be. The XV's role is to be less the traditional, square-cut 4x4 workhorse and more the "designed" object. It's neat, crisp-edged and shapely, and Subaru would like it to steal buyers from Audi Q3s and Nissan Qashqais.

There's a choice of six-speed manual or continuously variable Lineartronic automatic transmissions, the former splitting outputs evenly between front and rear axles until the viscous centre differential decides otherwise; the latter biasing effort rearwards via a multiplate clutch, and optional only with the petrol engines. There are two of these, a 2.0-litre with 148bhp and a 1.6 with 112bhp, plus a 145bhp, 2.0-litre turbodiesel.

The diesel is definitely the one to have, with ample overtaking thrust, a crisp response to the accelerator and remarkable smoothness. It suits the XV's character well, and has much the best performance figures as well as equal-best claimed economy. The petrol-fuelled XV 2.0 is rather less engaging, especially in Lineartronic form, in which the plentiful mechanical, rotational activity somehow fails to be converted into vigorous movement. Neither engine sounds as a Subaru's should, though, the distinctive flat-four throb having been eradicated in case potential buyers think it odd. (Subaru is the only manufacturer still using a flat-four engine.)

When on the road, you don't feel as if you're sitting unnaturally high. Firm suspension keeps roll angles low, steering precise and cornering tidily capable, but the penalty is a busy ride at speed over undulations that's a disappointment given the surprising suppleness over small, sharp lumps. There's quite a lot of road and wind noise, too.

Off-road, the XV proves extremely capable, even when wading through glutinous mud. Ample ground clearance helps here, along with an electronic, wheel-braking traction system to keep it moving. There is neither a low-range setting nor a mechanical differential lock, but it gets by without either, just as a Land Rover Freelander does.

Subaru's new advertising approach plays down the technical stuff and plays up the way these inherently unusual cars can fit into your busy, take-control-of-it lifestyle.

"Are you Subaru?" it asks, with much behind-the-scenes research having been done to identify who might be and who might not. For example, I don't own a pair of running shoes, which means I fail to qualify. But neither do I use Avon cosmetics, which means I fit the template after all. Am I Subaru? The jury is out on that one, but my own verdict on the XV is that it's well worth a try. Even in tangerine orange.

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