WINTER in Rovaniemi lasts seven months. The frigid town in northern Finland, bordering the Arctic Circle, can receive snow cover from October to April, with deep powder blanketing the landscape in the first few months of the year. It’s home to huskies, reindeers and, importantly for the local tourism, Father Christmas, whose workshop is nestled less-than-serenely into what appears to be a roadside business park.
Those local inhabitants are well accustomed to the challenging weather conditions, of course, but the buckets of white stuff can pose problems for cars. Winter tyres are a must, and if you want to venture off the snowploughed track, four-wheel drive is essential.
That’s why Subaru has brought us here in February. The Japanese company wants us to remember that one its two cornerstone technologies, alongside the “boxer” engine, is permanent all-wheel drive (AWD). Unlike most other manufacturers’ drivetrains, its “always on” symmetrical four-wheel drive system sends power to all four corners of the car all the time.
And Subaru has a new type of AWD, already available on the XV and Forester SUV models and now being introduced to the Impreza hatchback. It’s called “eBoxer”, and by introducing an electric motor into the drivetrain, the system improves on Subaru’s old four-wheel drive in every way possible, so the company claims.
The eBoxer hybrid system, along with the all-new platform that underpins the Forester, XV and Impreza (so far… the Outback and Levorg are still on the old platform), are the result of a €1.2bn investment by Subaru to help bring its products up to date. By 2030, 40% of all Subaru’s vehicles will feature hybrid or pure-electric power (the company is skipping plug-in hybrids), and within five years after that it expects 100% to be “electrified”. The first pure-electric model will arrive before 2025.
Permanent four wheel drive will remain one of Subarus USPs, though, so making sure eBoxer does the business when the going gets slippery is hugely important. The system involves a standard two-litre petrol engine under the bonnet plus a 12.3kW electric motor bolted to the gearbox, which provides extra torque to all four wheels when needed.
It also allows the cars to run on electric power alone for up to around a mile, depending one how much charge is in the lithium-ion battery mounted under the boot.
It all sounds a bit Toyota Prius but the while the Prius is designed to sip fuel it would get stuck at the mere sight of a snowdrift, while Subaru has tailored its system to take on the toughest off-road conditions. Yes, the eBoxer system improves fuel economy by 10%, but it’s more about allowing customers to venture further off the beaten track.
Driving on ice part one
Rovaniemi’s -10C temperatures and steady snowfall the day before we arrive mean treacherous conditions, but this is why we’re here. Three fiendish challenges await.
The first is an “axle twist” — a series of offset moguls which ensure that at least one of the wheels is removed from the surface of the road. This causes problems for cars without limited slip differentials, as all the power is fed to the wheel with least resistance — i.e., the wheel in the air — which is perfectly useless. That’s why most proper 4x4s have a locking centre diff, to ensure 50:50 power to front and rear so that at least one wheel can pull the car forward, or clever electronics that realise one wheel is spinning aimlessly and bring the other three into the party.
The eBoxer system is in the latter camp, though it has the added benefit, in X-Mode, of instant torque from the electric motor from standstill, with zero revs from the engine. That means that on the axle twist, simply lifting off the brake means the car pulls forward effortlessly over the bumps, with power distributed to the wheels with grip.
By driving eBoxer versions of the XV and larger Forester (the Forester is now exclusively sold as a hybrid, in fact) back-to-back with the Outback, which is on the old platform and doesn’t have eBoxer, the differences are thrown into sharp relief. All have automatic gearboxes but the Outback is more urgent when throttle is applied, wanting to jump forward, whereas the eBoxer cars creep ahead in a more linear fashion when the brake is released, without jerky acceleration. That’s important for traction when working your way across loose surfaces but it also makes the ride more pleasant for the occupants.
Watching from the side, though, it doesn’t appear to be the most quick-witted of 4×4 systems — the wheel off the ground will spin for a second or two before sense prevails, whereas one might expect Audi or Land Rover tech to respond within milliseconds — but it works. And it works well.
Safe as houses
Another point the axle twist makes clear is the inherent rigidity through the structure. With the rear left wheel cocked like a urinating spaniel, Subaru’s guide driver was very keen to show that he could open his door and close it without any issues at all. You’d hope that was the case in any modern vehicle, but it’s an important point for Subaru to highlight as its new platform has increased overall strength by 100%, with torsional rigidity — twisting, basically — up by 40%.
That has led to some startling results in crash tests, too. Last year the top four safest cars according to independent safety organisation Euro NCAP were the Mercedes CLA, BMW Z4, Tesla Model 3 and BMW 3 Series respectively. But rounding out the top five was the Subaru Forester eBoxer.
According to Euro NCAP, the Forester was even more impressive when it came to safeguarding child passengers: with 91% in the Child Occupant Protection category, the Forester achieved the highest score ever in its class. Commendably, it also has a child reminder system to tell parents that they may have a baby strapped into the rear of the car. Sadly, in extreme hot and cold climates, children have been known to die after being left in the car by parents who simply forgot they were there.
The fifth-generation Forester was also named best in class overall in the Small Off-Road / MPV category, marking the second time Subaru has received the award: the XV and Impreza picked up the best in class gongs for the Small Family Car category in 2017.
Safety is something Subaru is keen to focus on right now as, let’s face it, the company’s exterior designers aren’t likely to win any awards this year. The Forester has a face that only a mother could love, while the XV is best described as “generic crossover”. The Impreza: “Meh”.
The BRZ sports car (a rebadged Toyota GT86) is the only model in Subaru’s line-up that’s likely to get the pulse racing, though as only 84 of them left Subaru’s UK dealers last year it’s clearly not ticking many other boxes with car buyers.
Subaru’s sales aren’t terrific in Europe. It will tell you it sells all the cars it can get from its production facilities in America and Japan (there are no factories in Europe), though when you consider it managed to shift just 33,000 cars in Europe last year, which is nearly half as many that they sold in 1999, and the company’s market share has dropped from 0.4% to 0.2% over that time, you have to conclude it could do better.
On the other hand, Subaru still does remarkably well in the States, with 700,000 of its 1.04m global sales last year going to North America. Global sales have climbed steadily since 2011, too, and in 2020 the company expects to shift 3% more cars overall, up to 1.07m units.
And it has managed this while still claiming to be fiercely independent (one or two Toyota tie-ups aside) rather than joining one of the automotive giants. Subaru Europe’s David Dello Stritto, general manager of sales, claimed his company would never sell to a behemoth car company. Subaru customers therefore get something the big groups can’t offer: exclusivity, and the sense that they’re backing the little guy. One that punches above its weight, too.
Driving on ice part two
Being a niche car company does leave Subaru more open to falling behind the big hitters on the research and development front, though on the evidence of the stability test set up for us in Finland, the eBoxer hybrid system means it can mix with the best.
The course involved a tight slalom followed by a double lane change, both conducted at 35mph. We were able to try it in both the XV and the Forester, and despite neither being shod with spiked tyres, they proved remarkably resistant to spins on packed snow. When pushed too hard, understeer could be induced, though it could quickly be rescued and the quick left-rights of our course proved no match for the cars, which stayed pointing the right way even with punishing jerks of the wheel.
We then snaked our way up an alpine switchback, again on packed snow, and again with the four wheels working in unison to keep us on course, and the eBoxer system reduces the car’s centre of gravity and improves the weight distribution, aiding stability. Braking sharply in the tight hairpins led to loss of traction and a trip towards the outer snow wall, but lift off and the cars pivoted in the direction of the front wheels, with light throttle application further helping you out of trouble.
A final test involved stopping at the top of a snowy hill, engaging X-Mode again and simply lifting off the pedals, the cars taking over with hill descent control to brake each wheel as necessary to keep you facing in the right direction, and rolling at a pace that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you.
At the bottom of the hill we did a 180 and floored the throttle, which disengages X-Mode, and fired ourselves back up the hill to a section that has one dry, Tarcmac’d area. With one side of the car on the grippy stuff we stood on the brakes to check that we weren’t thrown into an uncontrollable spin. We weren’t.
Subaru is no stranger to world-beating performance on loose surfaces, of course. In 1995, British rally legend Colin McRae racked up his one and only world championship drivers’ title with the Subaru Impreza 555 — a car that became a pin-up for petrolheads the world over.
In road-going form, the Impreza WRX also became the go-to car for bank robbers thanks to its 237bhp performance and grippy four-wheel-drive system, which enabled rapid getaways and humbled pretty much every police pursuit vehicle of its day.
Sadly for car fans, Subaru’s performance car days are behind it. We haven’t had a WRX STi option for more than a year and according to Dello Stritto, “all plans regarding sporty models have been frozen for Europe.” I ask him if the eBoxer hybrid system might lead to a hybrid Impreza STi, but he robustly denies the idea.
There’s still the BRZ, and rumours suggest another one might be on the way, possibly with a 2.4-litre flat-four boxer engine, though Dello Stritto refused to confirm that. Partly because it doesn’t fit with the off-road, tough and safe image he’s trying to convey on our trip to Rovaniemi.
Driving on ice part three
But clearly Subaru’s sports pedigree and rallying DNA have been passed down to its eBoxer models. For our third test of the we ventured out onto an off-road forest course, weaving between trees, over crests and up winding hills – all on a mix of packed and soft, deep snow. This is where ground clearance, short overhangs front and rear, and trick four-wheel drive systems count for everything.
Well, almost everything — stop on an icy hill without studded tyres or caterpillar tracks and no car will be able to continue forwards when you lift off the brake (the Outback I tried did not, so reversing down and trying again with a run-up was required). And later in the course, one particularly tricky section with soft snow and a sharp left-hander foiled both an Outback and an XV, and some digging out was required before a new, slightly less challenging route was found.
But fair play to Subaru — these were challenging forest courses and they were putting assembled international motoring journalists in not one 4×4 model, but three. Notable was that the Forester had no issues at all making it around, and there was some debate afterwards as to whether it was driver error more than anything. The overall impression I came away with was that the eBoxer system is supremely capable in the toughest of conditions, and the Forester is an absolute beast when the white stuff falls. The XV is very nearly as good.
Road safety tech
In addition to the mechanical and electronic stability aids, Subaru has also introduced a number of other technologies to help drivers avoid accidents. Front-view camera systems are not unique to Subaru – most cars have them now, to aid with automatic emergency braking, for example – though its “Eyesight” system is impressive.
Not one but two digital cameras monitor traffic movement and can apply pre-collision braking in emergency situations, as well as warn you of lane departure on motorways or dual carriageways. In cruise control mode, it will also help keep you in lane and a constant distance from the car in front.
According to Dello Stritto, Eyesight resulted in 61% fewer accidents over a four year trial period, and it’s a key purchase reason for 87% of European customers, with 35% reporting at least one collision avoided thanks to its intervention.
In addition, the new Forester and XV e-Boxer models include infra-red cameras inside the cabin to monitor drivers. The facial recognition system will sound alerts if it thinks the driver is distracted or tired, and can be programmed to recognise individual people — handy if you want the car to automatically adjust the seat, wing mirrors and air conditioning to your preferred settings when you enter the car. We went through this set-up process and it’s an impressive bit of kit.
Sensors on the rear of the car will also help avoid collisions when reversing, and other sensors around the car will tell you when vehicles are in your blind spot. There’s even a camera on the near-side wing mirror pointing at the front wheel, which is useful when crawling over rocks but also when simply parking next to a kerb.
During a long road route we tested all these systems, and of course the driver monitoring system wasn’t perfect — it failed to detect me holding my phone but five minutes after setting off it decided I was tired and should take a break — but not once did the car feel like it was wrestling control away from me, and it isn’t anywhere near as nannying as it could be.
What’s more, even travelling at 60mph on roads that in the UK would cause total network shutdown, with cars stranded in the verges left and right, the Subaru Forester eBoxer inspires amazing confidence. Even overtaking slower vehicles wasn’t intimidating, without a hint of weave or fishtail.
Driving on ice part four
Our fourth and final test involved a few flat-out laps of an ice circuit, to reinforce the idea of improved stability, this time at high speed. While lacking a little in immediate power, the continuously variable transmission dulling throttle response somewhat, the cars continued to prove amazingly grippy when pushed hard.
Fun is a subjective term, and many will prefer a rear-biased four-wheel drive system — Maserati specialises in this, and even the Skoda Kodiaq vRS feeds extra torque to the rear of the car when needed. The Subarus go for an even balance, which means less sideways action and a more reassuring balance for those who don’t feel comfortable stepping out the back end. But hammering around an ice track is inherently good sport, regardless.
A company making smiles?
The glamour and glory of its rallying heritage a fading memory, Subaru is now seen as an engineering company as much as anything. Dello Stritto pointed out that in addition to cars, it also makes the centre box between the wings of the Boeing 777 aeroplane and supersonic drones for the Japanese airforce. The technologies onboard the new Forester and XV eBoxer prove that when it comes to clever, capable engineering solutions, Subaru is still a force in car world. Loyal customers trust their Subarus to be safe, capable and reliable.
But Subarus are English bull terriers rather than labradors; you can admire their abilities but they’re not pretty, and when out and about people will tend to avoid you rather than come want to pet your pride and joy. When someone at a dinner party asks what you drive and the answer is a Subaru Forester, I’m not sure you’ll give the answer with the same gusto and pride as a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.
Dello Stritto told us that Subaru wants to transition “from a company making things to a company making people smile”. The company still has a way to go on that front. But when the going gets slippery, a Subaru owner will be glad they when for function over form, and capability over aesthetics. As brand loyalists will no doubt attest, true beauty lies beneath the skin.