Subaru’s fast wagon marries WRX wallop into a more practical format.
For: Looks smart, well-provisioned, great chassis and steering.
Against: Transmission dulls engine’s edge, Outback has better cabin layout and more room.
NON-conformity is a time-honoured Subaru trait and long may it continue.
One of only two brands that produces horizontally-opposed petrol engines (the other of course being Porsche) and the only one to try that format for a diesel – it’s great, by the way – Subaru also sets out to take a different path with bold to quirky styling, four-wheel-drive everything and, more recently, an especially committed allegiance to constantly variable transmission technology.
Some more conservative Japanese brands might think the Fuji Heavy Industries’ boys are a bit touched, but to the fanbase – myself included – those points of difference are a primary reason for buying in.
Producing cars that aren’t quite as they seem is another ace ability.
Take the Outback: It’s clearly a wagon, yet the brand is steadfast in selling it as a sports utility, regardless that it is not half a chunky or as bulky as many SUVs in its competitor set. Is this some kind of snake oil sales pitch? Perhaps there’s a taste of that, yet all that matters is that this flagship edition is a flavour that Kiwis find appealing. Outback has wasted no time in reinstating as one of the class kingpins and has single-handedly made seismic impact on Subaru volume here.
Now there’s the Levorg, a car that shares plenty of oily bits with the iconic WRX … which, if you follow a certain logic train, really makes it a WRX wagon, yes? Again, that’s how see it: An impression formed on the launch drive was cemented by this test cemented sentiment. Difference between the racy sedan and this new five-door really do seem no more than cosmetic.
Yet, as you’ll know, this view is at variance with Subaru’s. Rather than cement or celebrate this obvious link Subaru strives to create distance, suggesting this new model – whose name is an amalgam of the words LEgacy, reVOlution, and touRinG - is more closely-aligned with a past model that shares no obvious DNA link.
Is it twisted logic to push the line about it being the “spiritual successor to the fourth-generation Legacy GT? Actually, there’s no harm in it. The dimensional, performance and role-playing similarities do suggest this isn’t an irrational argument.
Certainly, too, GT fans who have been patiently hanging out for a fresh substitute do not seem unwilling to be cited as the primary audience for a $56,990 GT-S model whose marketing punchline, ‘the sports car you can use for sports’, suggests so much.
Basically, then, you get WRX sizzle with wagon sensibility. It all sounds so promising, doesn’t it?
A touch shorter, a bit wider and higher … but it’s basically just centimetric semantics. Insofar as size and performance go, the Levorg is so close to the Legacy GT as to affirm claims of it being ‘The One’ insofar as notions of spiritual succession goes.
Still need convincing? Out with the tape measure, then. The Levorg measures 4690mm long (versus 4720mm for the fourth-generation Legacy wagon); 1780mm wide (1730mm), and 1490mm high (1470mm). Don’t sweat that it’s physically a bit shorter; Levorg provides more room inside thanks to being wider and higher.
Styling is always subjective but right from the start I like the cut of WRX’s shape and those vaguely origami lines transfer well to the Levorg. And using the ‘t’ word is not inappropriate because, even though the back sections are obviously different, the front ends are wholly shared. There’s also a lineage link with the XV, too, though it’s not so immediately obviously, simply because one is far elevated than the other. The road wagon has a haunched, eager-to-go ambience that suits the buyer profile; it also disproves perception that bonnet scoops are a bit naff in this day and age. The Levorg would lose visual strength without that mid-bonnet air entry point. You might wonder, though, if this kind of thing makes it something of a boys’ car, though.
Subaru interior design has also settled down to a high degree of consistency, though it’s not total: Settle into the Levorg and you’ll find more that’s in tune with the WRX and XV than with the larger Outback, which is a pity.
The biggest wagon Subaru builds delivers ergonomic and quality touches that could have made Levorg a better a place had they transferred. Gotta say that the seven inch touchscreen is almost too small in this day and age. The graphics and operability are also not up to speed with the Outback’s. The chunky rocker switches for the seat warmers look old-hat compared to the touch-type ones that Outback owners enjoy and it’s obvious, too, that the smaller car has harder, lower quality plastics.
For sure, the Levorg still presents a modern and attractive ambience, but it could have been better: As is, you’d have to consider it good, but not class-changing.
Specification-wise, only the best will do. Subaru NZ reasoned that, with the factory’s production lines running at full pace and still meeting global SUV demand that reflects in the Outback currently achieving more than half of the brand’s total sales volume here, it was better off going for just one, fulsome spec so that, if extra production does begin, it’d be relatively easier for Japan to provide more if the opportunity arises.
Subaru has yet to join the global rush to enable Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity into its infotainment, though the unit here does offer Siri compatibility and its own apps. Hooking in the phone by Bluetooth is easily done, but tethering requires using an awkwardly sited USB port within the centre console; at least there’s a reasonable-sized cubby to take your phone. There are two other USB outlets for backseat passengers.
The door bins, both front and back, have a holder for a 500ml water bottle, and the pair of cupholders on the centre console are well-dimensioned and deep.
One definite Levorg plus point is provision of Subaru’s excellent active cruise control-associated EyeSight stero camera-operated crash avoidance system but gets the enhanced edition. This level’s functions include blind spot monitoring and a vision assist element that implements includes a row of LEDs forward of the steering wheel which flash within your peripheral vision to indicate the warning, whether its blind spot, to either side of the car, or a forward collision.
It also protects it rear end, with Rear Vehicle Detection, a suite of features. This includes a side view monitor useful for parallel parking, high-beam assist, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert, and blind spot monitoring.
There are seven airbags, traction and stability controls with active torque vectoring and the ability to shuffle torque from front to back as required, ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution, rear vehicle detection plus it also comes with a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Levorg’s status as a driver’s car will be easily established. The front chairs are sporty is shape, low-set and snug and it offers a very good relationship with a thick-rimmed, D-shaped steering wheel which feels good in the hands. Regardless that most people might not even use them, the paddle shifts are placed close enough to the wheel that you can quickly grab ‘another gear’ without losing too much contact with the steering wheel.
Snugness spreads across the cabin as a whole; the second row seat offers decent legroom, but it’s not as outstandingly roomy – for its category – as the Outback is in its segment. That the back seat has enough leg and knee room to be comfortable when the front row is adult-occupied is thanks in part to the concave shape of the front seat backs and there’s enough headroom to accomodate tall passengers. There are levers on the seat to recline the back seat if needed.
The boot offers 522 litres of space with the back seats in place and these can be folded easily via pull-activators in the boot. They don’t fold exactly flat, but they do expand the available space to more than 1400 litres. Under the boot floor is a space saver spare that’s not easily reached; panels and a hard foam cover need to be removed. If you’re tall, watch how you go when accessing the boot. The tail-gate doesn’t lift up quite high enough.
Another curiosity is that there’s keyless entry for the driver side only; also, while the driver’s door opens at a single press of the remote, the others only unlock with a second successive press.
The entire drivetrain lifts from the WRX. So a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder making 197kW at 5600rpm and 350Nm of torque from 2400-5200rpm mated to a constantly variable transmission that has six forward ‘gears’ – or positions – when running in Intelligent and Sport modes and eight when in the racier Sport Plus setting.
So that’s the basics. Now to the big question: CVTs and sports driving usually mix as well as oil and water – can Subaru’s Lineartronic meet, or beat, expectations of delivering a properly involving drive?
The answer is yes, it can, but with a caveat. First, let’s agree that most CVTs are terrible. Let’s also agree that, of all the CVTs around, Lineartronic is the least awful. Or, the put it another way, the best … of a bad bunch. But I like it in my own diesel Outback; the marriage to a powerplant with low-down torque and an easy-going nature seems to suit it’s style particularly well.
Of course, a WRX engine is going to be anything but lazy, so surely the outcome might be the exact opposite. Well, Subaru have thought of that. What makes Lineartronic in the sportier fare a bit different is the Subaru Intelligent Drive system. This offers three driving modes - Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp – and emulates a stepped shifting function well enough to make it feel, in the main, as though it is very much like an automatic.
If you want hands’ on play, then only the Sport Sharp mode will do. It alters the transmission massively; the ‘shifts’ are more aggressive, and it will ‘hold’ in a ‘gear’ if you ask it to; and you’re drawn into using the paddles to keep the engine right on song. It does this pretty much as well as any manual or DSG. The car feels fast, there’s minimal running away when downhill and, all in all, there’s a sense that have a firm hold on the reins.
And yet …
Anyone who has never driven the WRX with a manual gearbox will think, with good reason, that the Levorg as it presents is a pretty smart drive.
Unfortunately, I’ve driven a manual WRX, so I have a good idea how good could become even better.
Basically, the three pedal, shift the stick yourself approach allows more involvement, more intoxication. More addiction. It’s not purely the transmission; the engine is a potent force. Subaru barely has a foot in rallysport these days – not at international level – yet the powerplant feels as though it never left those special stages. There’s a real rush about how it operates. Get the revs above 4000rpm and it bangs in a smack-in-the-back surge that’s hard to forget. But the trick is to keep in touch with it. And to do that, you need a manual because,basically, your left hand is never going to be out of work. Unfortunately, a manual is not ever, according to Subaru, going to be part of the Levorg story.
Same goes for a Direct Shift Gearbox, aka an automated manual. That kind of device also seems beyond Subaru’s talents or budget. Again, that’s a pity. This test drive timed rather close to the period I spent with a VW Golf R wagon. There’s a lot about the Wolfsburg edition that doesn’t quite hit the bullseye, but the German’s transmission is hard to criticize. It also enables a more intimate car-driver relationship than Subaru’s system allows. But nothing can be done. A DSG is either beyond Subaru’s talents, budget or marketing ambition. you either have to live with Lineartronic or look elsewhere.
There’s one other sting. The reason why CVT has become so popular, at least with Japan’s car brands, is that they allow potential for excellent economy. Yes, even from a turbo performance mill: Subaru reckons on its performance mill being tamed to drink at just 8.7 litres per 100km, an impressively low return for this notoriously thirsty engine. Unfortunately, that level of parsimony wasn’t achieved on test; the car returned 10.3L/100km.
So there’s all that … but there’s also a really delightful chassis and intuitive steering to keep your interest up. It’s also – again because of the CVT – a very flexible car in its performance output; while Sport Sharp is a touch wham-bam, the more sedate tuning – and giving it automatic control by simply running in Drive – provides a way of keeping control of the fire in this belly.
The ride quality is firm, and while not so outrageous as to spoil the car’s composure or its balance, it does certainly colour its demeanour. Lots of performance Subarus have employed Bilstein dampers to good effect, but there’s always going to a trade-off with these specialist items. It shows on deteriorated surfaces; away from smooth tarmac the car can get a touch busy as the suspension struggles to deal with the compression.
Even so, the body control is excellent. It lives up to the GT ethos by sitting flat through corners and I just love the steering; this car’s wheel feel is quick and accurate with balanced and consistent weighting.
Subaru and symmetrical all-wheel-drive are now synonymous here: That’s brilliant. The all-paw ability enhances this car; laying down power through every corner makes got a more neutral, predictable and confident machine. The Levorg, like the WRX, gets Vehicle Dynamics Control which features Active Torque Vectoring and traction control, which keep it from progressing into understeer because the system is reducing torque to the outside front and allocating it to the outside back wheel (as well applying some brake, limited-slip differential, and engine control) to help turn the car back in towards the corner.
The Levorg is probably Japan’s best foil to those compact, trendy-looking European sports wagons that have achieved a significant following.
It has a strong specification, looks swank and, importantly, has both the performance appeal to win over an enthusiast driver while also delivering enough practicality to allow it to acquit as a family car.
The challenge? The price itself is realistic, but it does position the Levorg at a level where it will be compared to other performance choices with other kinds of transmission. As good as Lineartronic is, it will be difficult for salespeople to argue any particular advantage, on the sporting side of things, over a DSG or a manual.