Reykjavik, Iceland — “In Iceland, sometimes the plow gets stuck.” This is not what you want to hear as darkness descends on your expedition. Certainly not if you’re driving something considerably smaller than a snowplow, like, say a 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid.
It wasn’t our idea. Subaru elected to introduce its first-ever hybrid on this hardy island nation of 320,000 people. The automaker’s press representatives duly show some Power Point slides about how environmentally minded Icelanders produce seventy-two percent of their own energy, thus providing the perfect analogue to a new green vehicle.
The 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid attests to Subaru’s peculiar way of doing things. The automaker is seeking to close the gap between its image as a progressive, environmentally conscientious manufacturer and the reality of its relatively inefficient all-wheel-drive lineup. And yet, rather than offer a new hybrid model or base one off a particularly efficient gas-engine vehicle in its lineup, it chose to start with the XV Crosstrek, the lifted Impreza variant introduced for 2013. The hybrid consists of a 13-hp electric motor integrated into a CVT automatic. Paired with a 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder, the system creates 160-hp and achieves 29 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. Those are rather mediocre numbers for a compact car, but they’re quite good for a small crossover. Subaru naturally prefers you think of it as the latter even though it has some twenty cubic feet less cargo space than a Honda CR-V. But then, you wouldn’t drive a CR-V in Iceland.
Not that we’d really recommend driving the Crosstrek Hybrid or any other compact crossover around Iceland. Already in the month of November, the days are short and the weather unpredictable. It doesn’t help the hybrid’s case that its nickel-metal hydride battery pack sits in the spare tire well. The can of fix-a-flat substituting for a real spare probably won’t help if (when) sidewall meets volcanic rock. Fortunately, we won’t be traveling alone. Local guides drive ahead in heavily modified Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rover Defenders, which ride on forty-four inch rubber and carry extra winter tires for the Subies.
The journey starts off sensibly enough at the 9:30 a.m. sunrise with a mix of paved roads, dirt trails, and packed snow. Icelandic expedition guide Karl Olafsson, who looks very much like an Icelandic expedition guide named Karl Olafsson, instructs us before river crossings and cryptically promises it will be “meaningful.” The Subaru performs well and is no doubt more comfortable than the old Toyota or Landie. The 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid is, in fact, the nicest evolution yet of the Impreza. It features more sound deadening than the conventional XV and comes with a higher level of standard content, which helps justify its $3000 premium over a conventional XV Crosstrek with an automatic transmission. We particularly appreciate the standard heated cloth seats.
We’re still appreciating the heated cloth seats and dimly wondering when we’ll get to our hotel for an after lunch nap when Iceland gets serious. There were two variables our guides may not have sufficiently considered. The first is how blowing snow can all but erase an off-road trail. The second is how the incompetence of automotive journalists can multiply. That’s how your humble scribe, following too close behind another 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, had to turn off into a snow bank to avoid a pile-up of like-minded colleagues. The XV contributes flaws of its own. Throttle response, seamless in most situations, is a bit sluggish when trying to rock out of deep slush, although the electric motor does boost low-end torque (163 lb-ft at 2000 rpm versus the conventional XV’s 145 lb-ft at 4200 rpm). Stability control intervenes even when it’s turned off, making it difficult to spin the wheels to create momentum. A Subaru logistics man advises drivers to leave stability control enabled and let it apportion power to the proper wheel. “You’ll be able to go through just like the big trucks,” he adds hopefully.
Instead, the big trucks spend much of the afternoon freeing Crosstreks, and it begins to appear we’re in actual trouble, as opposed to the sort that’s entertaining to write about. In-car supplies include a bottle of water, a few protein bars, and a bag of Haribo gummy bears. At 5 p.m. a snowplow comes to the rescue and promptly gets stuck, requiring chains on the tires. Finally, four and a half hours after we’d departed and after several river crossings in the dark, we reach our destination, which turns out to be a large hut with bunk beds. At least it’s warm. Damaged tires are strewn across the bathroom floor for field repairs. Fresh spares are running short. Our Icelandic hosts don’t seem so concerned, as they’re snorting tobacco.
We wait until late the next morning to depart so that our guides can scout the best route. Meantime, the breakfast spread includes coffee, bananas, and ground sheep’s head. Our fleet of XV Crosstreks look as bedraggled as the group of drivers, with front fascias hanging askew and a thick plaster of ice and grime covering the once bright assortment of white, green, and silver paint. Nevertheless, all but one vehicle fires up and the convoy forms once more for the voyage to Reykjavík, Iceland’s biggest city. Fortunately, much of the path has been cleared or at least packed down, and we make it to pavement without much incident.
The asphalt is still four-wheel-drive territory, as we frequently hit patches of snow and ice. The 3450-pound hatchback charges stoically through the gusting wind, although front-end skittishness keeps us from pushing too hard. We’re cruising along between 40 and 50 mph when, about 10 miles outside of Reykjavík, the low fuel light comes on. We slow down and carefully monitor the power flow on the multifunction display—under the right circumstances the gas engine can shut down at speeds up to 25 mph. The XV, filthy and out of gas but still running, eases up to the hotel curb in EV mode.
What have we learned? Mainly, that the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid isn’t as elegant a solution for Icelandic expeditions as an SUV on forty-four inch tires, just as it may not be as elegant a solution for saving fuel as a Toyota Prius. But in three days of fording streams and drifting through snow, it did prove to be one tough Subaru. For brand loyalists who want a more efficient vehicle, that should be more than enough.
2014 Subaru Crosstrek XV Hybrid
- Base Price: $26,820
- As Tested: $26,820
- Engine: 2.0-liter flat-four/electric hybrid
- Horsepower: 160 hp @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 163 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
- Transmission: CVT automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- L x W x H: 175.2 in x 70.1 in x 63.6 in
- Legroom F/R: 43.5/35.4 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.8/37.7 in
- Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 21.5/50.2 cu ft
- Curb Weight: 3,451 lb
- EPA Rating (city/highway): 29/33 mpg