If ever any car brand should have offered a hybrid before now, it would be Subaru.
Now we've driven the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, its very first hybrid offering.
It's a much better car than the Crosstrek on which it's based, but little of that improvement has anything to do with the hybrid powertrain.
While the hybrid Crosstrek gets better gas mileage in EPA ratings, the increase isn't huge--and we didn't see an increase in real-world testing against the non-hybrid Crosstrek we tested in December 2012.
Fuel economy: Call it a draw?
The 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid is rated at 31 mpg combined (29 mpg city, 33 mpg highway), against 28 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) for the non-hybrid Crosstrek with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The five-speed manual Crosstrek is lower, at 26 mpg combined.
Over a 445-mile four-day test drive, we achieved 29.1 mpg from our hybrid Crosstrek as shown on its fuel-economy display--12 percent lower than the combined rating, but within an expected margin of variability, given the cold winter weather.
By comparison, we achieved 30.3 mpg over 700 miles of testing a conventional gasoline Crosstrek in slightly warmer winter weather. While that's marginally higher than what the hybrid gave us, we'd call it a draw given the variabilities of our test cycles and the weather.
(We also noted that lifetime fuel economy for the car's 1,023 miles to date was 27.6 mpg, perhaps reflecting a lot of short moves and shuttling to and fro.)
As with many cars, we'd be curious to repeat our test of the Crosstrek Hybrid in warmer summer weather to see if there's much difference in recorded fuel economy.
Hybrids are a natural for Subaru because many of its all-wheel-drive cars and crossovers are bought by outdoorsy, environmentally-focused "active" consumers who hike, kayak, spelunk, and rock-climb.
In fact, according to statistics from several years ago, Subaru owners are more likely to vote for progressive causes than those of almost any other brand.
But Subaru is small, and stubborn, so it's taken them more than a decade of design, engineering, and testing before introducing their own hybrid.
Contrary to expectations, it's not based on the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system used in about 5 million hybrids globally--even though Toyota owns a significant minority share in Subaru.
Going its own way
Instead, Subaru's hybrid is a single-motor system that sandwiches a small 10-kilowatt (13-horsepower) electric motor between the Crosstrek's 2.0-liter flat-four engine and the company's LinearTronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).
2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid at 2013 New York Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
The motor can propel the car away from a stop, under very gentle acceleration, making this a full hybrid system--but only barely.
Its main function is to recapture energy through regenerative braking that would otherwise be wasted, store it in a 0.6-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack located under the rear cargo bay, and use that energy both to supplement engine output and to restart the engine when it switches off at stops.
While this is a very similar design to Honda's soon-to-be-obsolete Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, which has been around since 2000, the Subaru system delivers at least some all-electric running--which the Honda system really doesn't in any meaningful way.
'EV' acceleration: light foot required
That said, we only attempted to move away under electric power when there was no one behind us--because it took a light foot on the pedal and patience to get from 0 to 20 or 25 mph under electric power and keep the "EV" dashboard light glowing.
On the other hand, the Crosstrek Hybrid dropped into "EV" mode on deceleration at speeds up to 40 mph, which regained energy on downhill roads--and it managed to provide idle creep all-electrically as well.