There are few better ways to make a friend for life than to share an experience steeped in adversity.
That salient truth became evident as soon as the Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid I was piloting plunged nose first into a half-frozen river that snakes through a desolate volcanic valley in one of the coldest and most remote places on earth. In Iceland, a new best friend was made - and it has all-wheel-drive and three hybrid badges.
The polar swim was, in fact, intentional. Our expedition guide, in a Land Rover Defender riding on tires taller than a middle schooler, told us to follow him. The same icy slush that splashed up to our car's windshield had barely grazed the center of his wheels.
Scrabbling to the river's far bank, the XV Crosstrek Hybrids in our group transformed from mere vehicles to beloved sherpas willing to do whatever was asked of them.
Little is predictable about Iceland aside from an unintentionally offensive machismo among its bearded locals: "Mountain climbing is for women. I climb frozen waterfalls," a guide told us.
In one day, we saw nearly every extreme your local weatherman could conjure up: 80 mph wind gusts, hard packed and soft snow, deep rivers, sharp volcanic rock, hail and a mere seven hours of sunlight. We even nearly ran out of snacks; luckily, an Arctic Trucks-prepared support truck was well-stocked.
Those Arctic Trucks Land Cruisers and Defenders are intense beasts riding on 44-inch tires wrapped around special 15-inch wheels. But our caravan of Subarus - 10 in total - plucked along in their wheel tracks, only occasionally needing to be extracted from the kind of extra deep snow that requires a plow with tire chains.
For what's essentially a Subaru hatchback with a lift kit and a so-so hybrid system, that inherent strength and capability should not be understated.
Going where no hybrid has gone
First, let's address the hybrid system. The XV Crosstrek is Subaru's first battery-electric offering in the U.S. and, on the face of things, it's not a ground-breaking effort. Subaru chose a tried-and-true (and cost-effective) nickel metal hydride battery mounted where the spare tire would normally be mated to a 13.4 horsepower electric motor integrated into a continuously variable automatic transmission. That little motor enables the hybrid to move under EV power only up to about 13 mph.
Fuel economy? Up a modest 3 mpg combined, to 31 mpg (28 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway). It's the most fuel-efficient hybrid crossover, but it's also the only one this small.
Other hybrid cars and SUVs often use more advanced batteries and more powerful engines to deliver better EV range and fuel economy, but there's more to the story than the numbers tell.
True, the hybrid system only adds 12 horsepower (to 160) and 18 lb-ft. of torque (to 163 lb-ft.), but the torque curve is now far more accessible, giving the car a more sprightly feel. Sure, you'll need to work your way into the throttle pedal to move with real authority, but the Crosstrek Hybrid is noticeably peppier.
Moreover, it is vastly more refined. Positioned as the flagship of the XV Crosstrek range, the Hybrid adds substantial sound deadening, a laminated windshield and a thicker steel floor. Some of those changes will arrive on the standard gas-only model for 2014 and they'll be welcome; even on snow tires, the increased isolation proved welcome (note: XV Crosstreks arriving in dealers late this month in the U.S. will ride on low rolling resistance all-season tires).
One tire kvetch: The lack of a spare seems at odds with this vehicle's outdoorsy positioning. Maybe dealers should offer a hatch-mounted, swing-away unit like Ford Broncos once had. Or maybe not.
Otherwise, aside from a trio of all-important hybrid badges, the XV Crosstrek Hybrid is much like its siblings. Following a recipe set by the original Subaru Outback, it is essentially an Impreza five-door with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance and a few rugged styling add-ons. Speaking perhaps most to the solidity offered by the standard Impreza, the XV Crosstrek is a remarkably capable mud and snow plugger limited only by a relative lack of suspension flex compared to more traditional SUVs.
Two flavors of Crosstrek Hybrid are on offer: Base and Premium, the latter of which adds leather seats, a moonroof and navigation. At $26,820, the base car is pleasantly equipped and roughly $3,000 more than a non-hybrid (granted, a the hybrid includes a few convenience goodies that make direct comparisons impossible). Stickering for $30,120, however, the Premium strikes us as a questionable value.
Inside, the hybrid gains an LCD display to show off what's going on underneath, plus special silver plastic trim. Crafted more by committees than designers, the car's interior is functional, well-built and generally covered in classy materials, but it lacks real flair. Still, there's plenty of space, even if the cargo area floor sits about an inch higher than before.
Few automakers would consider hosting members of the automotive media in November in Iceland. Fewer still would plan a trip to a cabin accessible only by helicopter in the event of an emergency.
Not Subaru. This is an automaker that prides itself on its cars' durability - even its highest-tech offering, which has far more features itching to fail after each river crossing.
"We will cross this river here," our guide said nonchalantly, his steely gaze stoic beneath a wool hat. "And then we will cross it 25 more times."
With its fresh air intake nestled behind the top portion of its grille, the XV Crosstrek Hybrid was designed for conditions like this. Subaru owners tend to be a hardy type, and while few will encounter anything quite like the cookies and cream-like landscape of Iceland, it's always nice to know that they could if they wanted to.
On road, where most XV Crosstrek Hybrids will venture, the much-needed refinements added a dollop of sophistication to what was once a too-rugged brute in need of a trip to finishing school.
Aside from the decrease in interior decibels, the biggest change is that Subaru tweaked the car's steering to be faster and more responsive. Not quite a corner carver yet - that'll be the upcoming, Impreza-based WRX - the XV Crosstrek Hybrid proved nonetheless more nimble and precise on any surface.
Leftlane's bottom line
Credit Subaru for developing a hybrid system ready to conquer the world. Sure, we could wish for better fuel economy, but simply slapping a hybrid badge and some semblance of EV ability onto one of the automaker's most surprisingly good cars almost ensures it success in places like Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.
How many Toyota Prius owners have been eying their local Subaru dealer waiting for a hybrid to arrive? A lot, we bet.
And the best news is that their new XV Crosstrek Hybrids are ready for anything. You can't say that about a Prius.
2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid base price, $25,995.
Photos by Ian D. Merritt.