Around these parts, no one would be surprised to open the dictionary to the word "winter" and find a picture of a Subaru next to it. An overstatement? Perhaps, but not as much as you may think. For Canadians, Subaru and winter go hand in hand. Over the years, the Japanese brand has slowly but surely built a rock solid reputation for its products’ winter capabilities. That’s the Subaru way.
First and foremost, Subarus have a reputation for being able to go anywhere thanks to the all-wheel drive the brand has offered on all models for nearly 20 years. The sole exception is the svelte BRZ sports car with rear-wheel drive that was launched in 2013. It was crowned Car of the Year by The Car Guide, in a dead heat with its near-twin, the Scion FR-S. These two can certainly be driven in winter if fitted with proper tires, but that’s another story.
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The excellent implementation of Subaru’s all-wheel drive would be worthless if these machines weren’t also reliable, solidly constructed and superbly suited to winter. These qualities can only be discovered and appreciate by driving in the worst conditions. You know, like those we’re experiencing right now in Quebec with temperatures of -25, -30 or worse and with lots of lingering snow and ice.
A solid, tightly knit trio
All of these qualities apply to Subaru’s line-up of utility vehicles: the Forester, Outback and XV Crosstrek. With 220 mm of ground clearance (more than all crossovers and most current sport utility vehicles), these three can easily take on urban minefields and icy country roads. Or even joyfully frolic on a bumpy, snowy trail in the middle of the woods.
And that’s exactly what we did a few days ago on some highways and forest roads north of Montebello, Quebec (minus the minefields, of course). Subaru had rounded up two identical units of each of the previously mentioned utility vehicles for a dozen automobile journalists from across the country.
The idea, as I understand it, was to allow us to do a direct comparison of the three interrelated vehicles. Although they differ in size, character and purpose, they are surprisingly complementary when it comes to performance, comfort and handling.
We had access to a pair of XV Crosstreks with the 2.0-litre, 148-horsepower four-cylinder, two Foresters equipped with the venerable 2.5-litre 170-horsepower four-cylinder and finally two Outback 3.6Rs powered by the 3.6-litre 256-horsepower six-cylinder. The first of these engines is modern and very recent. The other two, in all fairness, have undergone numerous modifications for 2015—because they’re used in the Legacy and Outback series that were completely redesigned this year. The 2.5-litre engine comes factory standard in the Outback.
This being Subaru, it goes without saying that they are all boxer engines with horizontal cylinders. Although the test vehicles all featured a continuously variable transmission (CVT), all three are available with a manual gearbox, which is a very rare choice nowadays for this type of vehicle. A five-speed manual transmission is offered for the Crosstrek, while the Forester and Outback (only with the 2.5-litre engine) get a six-speed.
Good news and big moves
Before hitting the road, our hosts listed a few interesting numbers that are worth repeating. Subaru has a lot to smile about, with 42,035 units sold in Canada last year, which represents a third straight record for them on the Canadian market. To put things in perspective, Subaru sold 4,200 vehicles across the country in 1995, meaning that sales have increased more than tenfold in less than 20 years.
Sales of Subaru’s three utility vehicles all increased last year and now represent two-thirds (66%) of total sales. History is likely to repeat itself since 66.4% more Crosstreks were purchased in Canada in January compared to last year and Outback sales increased 47.8% in the same period.
After about 100 kilometres on narrow, icy roads, followed by lunch in Namur, our caravan headed for a huge snowy field. There were two large loops before us, chosen from among the all-terrain driving tracks that manufacturers often use for this kind of program.
The first loop was more undulating than the other, and a large hill confirmed that these three Subarus can stop mid-climb, despite a good slope, and start again without any wheel skidding. The X-Mode system, included on the Forester and Outback with CVT, makes this easier by softening things like the response of the electronic accelerator.
By doing the loop in the other direction, we checked the X-Mode’s efficiency in descent control. The Forester and Outback descended the same hill at extremely slow speed without us having to touch the pedals. We only had to graze the brakes to do essentially the same thing in the XV Crosstrek.
The Forester set itself apart with the best cushioned suspension on the long and short bumps of the second loop. Reactions were firmer and more abrupt in the Crosstrek and Outback. All three stubbornly resisted further attempts to make all four wheels skid on the longer, snowy curves – even when we played with the hand brake in the Crosstrek and Forester.
That’s what happens with an electronic central differential that normally transmits 60% of the torque to the front wheels and never goes below an even 50/50 distribution between the two axles. Thus, our three utility vehicles leave the skidding to Subarus like the WRX sedan and definitely the STI, with its central differential whose torque distribution can be greatly modified.
We saw the logic behind this technical choice once we hit the icy, narrow and hazardous roads in Kenauk Nature Park and meandered through Rivière Rouge. Despite the size and weight differences, the Crosstrek, Forester and Outback all reacted the exact same way.
They began the icy, tight turns with just a hint of an understeer and quickly started to pivot in the desired direction without the slightest jerk. We accelerated gently once we reach the apex of the turn and headed toward the next one. It was just that easy and confidence-inspiring. A reputation is built one icy turn at a time.
Obviously, with best-in-class handling on any surface, the Crosstrek is the most agile of the three. Conversely, the Outback’s weight and size was all the more obvious in a direct comparison with its two siblings—especially on these roads. Buyers choose it for its large rear bench and spacious baggage hold or because its towing capacity is clearly superior to that of the others to the tune of 1,224 kilos versus 680, with trailer brakes.
The Forester, however, turned out to be the most complete, balanced and ultimately the most fun to drive of the trio. Its cargo hold is a little bigger than that of the Outback (2,115 versus 2,075 litres) when the seatbacks of the rear bench are folded down. However, it deserves a nicer silhouette than its current steel box. The superb VIZIV 2 concept that Subaru presented at the last Montreal Auto Show gives us hope that a revamped exterior is on its way.
In short, it was a great day of laughing in the face of the cold, in the middle of the woods, in a beautiful area, at the wheel of three Subarus that were designed for this very thing. Now I’m eager to drive the Forester XT with its 250-hp turbo engine as soon as possible, and definitely before this very icy winter is over.