New Subaru Solterra, or a Toyota bz4x, badge engineering takes over at Toyota
Admitting that he is worried about the lack of enterprise being demonstrated by Toyota, which rescued Subaru from oblivion around a decade ago, Iain Robertson states that ‘badge engineering’ demonstrates a distinct lack of brand awareness that might make Subaru’s future survival untenable in several territories around the world.
While Subaru operations in the UK are managed by IM Group, a Birmingham-based concessionaire that cannot be said to have a genuine grip on the brand, playing as it is with Mitsubishi UK’s brand fallout and Isuzu’s pickup trucks, Subaru has not exactly helped its cause following withdrawal from the World Rally Championship several years ago but doing very little to bolster it elsewhere. Considering the intense love affair that both motorsport fans and keen country folks appear to have for Subaru, it is surprising that a positive kickback has not been felt. On the other hand, its popularity in North America could hardly be at a less fevered pitch. Americans and their adulation of The Great Outdoors have already welcomed the Solterra model range and, production issues notwithstanding, have built a waiting list that is being served slowly but patiently. They love their brands and, even with a near-identical Toyota being represented just down the road, Subaru still gets their votes.
Toyota’s strangely lower case and semi-anonymous bz4x is an all-electric machine that relies on nothing from Subaru other than to provide an indefatigable and much trusted off-road stance but it is going into headlong competition with Solterra, which will be a fight that only it will win. Altthough, it appears hell-bent on selling front-driven, single-motor, long range versions (up to 315mls), while the Solterra will have the alternative 4×4 set-up, twin-motors and around 215mls range, from what can be gathered thus far, and, all-electric or not, I cannot see where in Toyota’s range line-up the new car fits. It does seem that examples destined for sale in the UK will also feature the faster charge battery pack by way of rising above range anxiety, which means an up to 80% recharge in less than 30 minutes. Solterra’s performance figures have also been released, suggesting a restricted top speed around 100mph, with 0-60mph despatched in around 8.5s (7.4s for the twin-motor versions), not exactly the quickest off the blocks.
However, from the annals of the weird, it does appear that both Toyota and Subaru may have been smoking the same drugs as the clots at Peugeot, as a small diameter, low-set steering wheel avoids predomination on a digital dashboard. Fortunately, it is not as stupid as the French ‘i-cockpit’ system, which demands too many driver compromises and affects both safety and comfort levels but it is still an unnecessary over-styling aspect. A neat instrument display sits ahead of Solterra (and bx4x) driver, while the balance of the button pushing is relegated to a large touchscreen at the top of the centre stack, again identical on both cars, apart from the opening graphics on the touchscreens that are both brand specific. Yet, while the comfortable seating space benefits from flat floor treatment, with plenty of room fore and aft, the boot falls behind the class with a carrying capacity of less than 415-litres, which is unlikely to please the off-roading crowd and their demands for equipment space.
Having highlighted the performance aspects earlier, it is worth noting that the Solterra is not exactly a lightweight machine, tipping the scales at almost 2.5t, which is great for elements of stability but does draw into question basic physics. Quite how Solterra manages its bulk is one of Subaru’s engineering ‘secrets’ that Toyota does not tamper with, as the handling of the car is surprisingly agile, aided by quick, if lifeless steering and a truly compliant ride quality, even on the 18, 20.0-inch and larger diameter alloy wheels of the test cars. However its ace in the hole is remarkable off-road prowess and, while it is certain not be outgunned by a new Defender, a wading depth of 500mm and sensible approach, crossover and departure angles mean that Solterra can tackle the boondocks with almost as much ease as any of its amazing flat-four engined predecessors and with plenty of bottom-end torque on tap to maintain smooth drive characteristics.
Although unconfirmed at this early stage (prices are set to start at around £42,000), the Solterra is not due to make its debut until this summer, its external styling dynamics may either turn off potential buyers, or factor in some new ones. The Toyota influences are strong but the overall style is messy. Toyota got away with it in the youthful C-HR and its latest RAV4 shows how chin-jutting and square-shouldering can work for a mass market but I am yet to find any redeeming qualities in the Lexus crossover/SUV line-up and a lot of that ugliness has been carried onto bz4x and Solterra, enhanced by additional plastic mouldings that add to the overall fussiness.
Naturally, the great appeal of Subaru to its fans has always been the washing-tub grumble from its ‘boxer’ engine, a sound that has been gradually softened and even engineered out of the mix with more recent fossil-fueled variants. Yet, the location of the engine that placed it directly in-line with the rear axle and enabled a simple but hugely effective 4×4 system to be developed that also became its models’ all-year, all-season driveability feature is going to present the brand with a vital missing link. Subaru will need to prove its worth in the worst of adverse conditions, which is a lot easier to say and write than to attain. Subaru models have never been ‘cheap’ and the BEV alternative is only competitive with other BEVs, of which far fewer will find buyers. None of this bodes well for the brand’s future, let alone its ultimate survival, and Toyota’s insouciance towards its charge hints that it has already reached the point of boredom.
If acquiring an automotive rarity, or a product near the end of its natural life has appeal, a Subaru Solterra could make a good option. However, loving its looks and price tag might be useful and tolerating its lesser accommodation may also be deciding factors. Personally, I think that it is sad that Subaru has been changed from oddball to anodyne, neutralised by Toyota, which is a carmaker that really ought to know better, especially as it has been a brand in justified ascendancy for the past decade.