SUBARU owners are a very discerning but passionate breed. They can be divided into two distinct groups. The rally-inspired speed merchants who congregate around the Impreza; and those with a more distinct country lifestyle who need the marque's All-Wheel Drive technology, dependability and pure ability.
For this latter group, looks and go-faster stripes were distinctly an anathema and they worshipped at the shrine of the Forester, which one critic described as a garden shed on wheels.
The Japanese company's expertise was more in the line of engineering than marketing and it showed. Yet I loved the cars and the Forester became one of my all-time favourites, especially when my late friend, the great PR consultant Jim Rowe, bought one in 1999 to cope with living in Cavan and a very active life with horse, dogs and myriad friends. At that time, Subaru eschewed diesels, while the exigencies of economy and design were very much in the ha'penny place.
But 13 years is a long time in a motoring company's life and the Forester and Impreza have evolved to become even tastier cars but now have considerably more economic Boxer diesel engines to go alongside their petrol variants. And picking up the latest Subaru, I was struck by how contemporary the XV looks, making it a very strong contender in the premium crossover/SUV stakes but with its very high ground clearance -- equal to a Land Cruiser -- and its AWD drive system, it has real rough country ability as well. Yet it keeps its low centre of gravity and corners really well.
It is a very roomy car with ample space for five and plenty of adaptability to deal with real country living, although the luggage area is nothing special. However, the XV has also oodles of bling, especially with its alloys and very high spec. There's plenty of grunt from the 2-litre diesel with a 0-100km of 9.3 seconds. However, the diesel is still not quite as refined as that of longer players in the game and tends to be noisy and have a bit of lag. Yet it won't take long to fix.
To the ordinary punter, the Subaru is a very fine entrant to its sector. However, Subaru purists may not be so impressed. When I went up to Cavan last Monday to see my old friend Evelyn, Jim's widow (he died 10 years ago this month), the XV stood out like a sore thumb next to her 1999 Forester, which was connected -- as so often -- to a horse box.
It definitely looked Lycra and trainers to the Forester's black solid sturdiness. But this is where Subaru wants to be; hitching a ride on the trend for crossovers, sales of which are up around 40 per cent year-on-year across Europe, especially among urbanites who like their country pursuits but now have more sense than to go the traditional SUV route. The company has taken much of the Impreza and put it on stilts, like BMW did less successfully turning the lovely Six-Series into an ugly X6.
In its press briefing Subaru says, without apology, that the target market is "young professionals with individual style; young families with safety a priority; (and) downsizing SUV owners with outdoor hobbies and lifestyle". It needs to make this breakthrough, especially among more youthful group, as Andrew English said in the Daily Telegraph, commenting on the big slump in sales of the 57-year-old marque: "These days a Subaru seems to be driven by young men whose necks have felt both a policeman's and tattooist's hand."
The XV has some serious opposition. The new Audi Q3, Range Rover Evoque and BMW X1 among the premium brands for a start, before we even mention the mainstream Nissan Qashqai, which was the mother of them all; and the Ford Kuga, which urgently needs its update.
Subaru is at pains to show that the XV package at €34,995 is far better value than its competitors and I would agree. However, some of those have finesses about their finish, especially inside, which are missing from the Subaru. Yet it is a car and a marque I would trust. I hope it makes the breakthrough.