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Christie Schweinsberg | Jun 07, 2022
SANTA BARBARA, CA – When Toyota raised its stake in Subaru to 20% in fall 2019, the worry was the small-but-hot Japanese automaker would become an offshoot of Toyota, with similar and maybe duller, less quirky vehicles.
But so far there haven’t been many vehicle collaborations between the two, and Subarus have kept their unique character. Until now, that is.
We first drove the Toyota bZ4X battery-electric vehicle, a co-development of Toyota and Subaru that rides on Toyota’s e-TNGA platform. Now we’ve gotten behind the wheel of Subaru’s version of that vehicle, the Solterra, on a related Subaru e-SGP architecture.
The CUVs, launching this spring, are the first real stab at a BEV from each automaker – which up to now have embraced gas-electric hybrids more so than full electric propulsion – and they are nearly identical, the fraternal twins of the BEV sector if you will.
Their technical specifications, exteriors and interiors are nearly carbon copies – save for the more grille-like grille on the Subie, the Subaru badge on the steering wheel and a blue-gray faux leather on seats in one of our Solterra test vehicles. Most interior materials are shared, as are design elements such as the square graphics on the translucent lid on a center console bin and the kiddie-car-sized steering wheel. Even the infotainment system uses the same fonts as in the bZ4X.
But the Solterra has one big difference from the bZ4X and – no surprise for a Subaru – that is off-roading ability. The bZ4X, while available with AWD, has a slightly lower ride height and lacks the X-Mode traction-management technology of the Solterra.
The Solterra’s standard AWD has a full-time 50/50 torque split between the front and rear motors, but with X-Mode’s dirt and snow setting activated, torque can be split 40/60 or 70/30, with the former helping us easily tackle deeply rutted, steep inclines and the latter providing improved traction on slippery surfaces. X-Mode also features hill ascent and descent assist and a low-speed cruise control (Grip Control) to help Solterra drivers carefully go up and down loose-gravel hillsides with restrained acceleration.
After a morning of traversing rugged ground on hilly Santa Catalina Island, a short flight away from Santa Barbara, we come away highly impressed by the Solterra’s off-road prowess, finding it as capable as other Subies we’ve tested off-road. It may even be better, given its quiet ride, with no annoying engine or mechanical axle noise masking sounds of nature. It probably will do well in slightly more extreme topography, but for the moderate terrain we experience here the new Subaru BEV is perfectly suited.
During an on-road drive in Santa Barbara, the Solterra impresses on the highway, with a not-too-bouncy or swaying ride, due to the vehicle’s low center of gravity aided by its large, 72.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack located underneath the floor. Acceleration and braking are normal. The Solterra has S Pedal, essentially a one-pedal drive button, but many here found hitting the brake pedal still is required to bring the Solterra to a complete stop. There also are paddle shifters featuring four regenerative braking settings not found in the bZ4X.
Stated range from the pack is 222 or 228 miles (357 or 367 km) depending on trim level, and this is where we find fault with both vehicles. This is good, not great, range, as competitors for about the same money top it, including the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Ford Mustang Mach-E. The Ioniq 5’s range is 256 miles (412 km) in AWD dress and the Mach-E’s is 270-305 miles (435-491 km).
A gentler driving style and moderate ambient temperature resulted in better than stated range in our Subie test vehicles – and as we saw with the bZ4X, turning off HVAC can add up to 50 more miles (80 km), pushing travel distance to near 240 miles (387 km). But that still puts the vehicle behind the pack as it enters the market.
At least in real-world driving, our Solterras retain range well, doing a bit better than a mile of range lost per mile traveled. We drive 69 miles (111 km) in Santa Barbara, but we lose only 65 miles (105 km) off the pack, good for 3.1 miles/kWh efficiency.
The Solterra also falls behind the Ioniq 5 and Mach-E on output, with its dual 80-kW AC synchronous motors making 215 hp and 249 lb.-ft. (338 Nm) of torque. Paltry, compared to the Ioniq 5 AWD’s neck-snapping 446 lb.-ft. (605 Nm) of torque and 320 hp; the AWD Ford Mustang Mach-E makes a maximum 428 lb.-ft. (580 Nm) and 346 hp.
We test both a top-end Touring grade and the base model, which in Subaru parlance is Premium. Again, on the inside, this is incredibly similar to the bZ4X in design and materials, with lots of black and gray and no pops of intense color. The Solterra at least has the blue-toned faux leather, but it’s muted blue, not helping much to alleviate the cave-like feel of this interior.
We have the rare experience of using Android Auto and not Apple CarPlay in our Premium tester, although CarPlay is standard in this, too. Subaru paired an Android phone to the head unit in each vehicle here to enable navigation (onboard navigation in these vehicles is available via subscription to Subaru’s cloud services). It does OK in getting us where we need to go, but the roughly 6-in. (15-cm) display rendered on the Solterra Premium’s 8-in. (20-cm) infotainment screen is silly-small.
When Android Auto is not in use, Toyota’s new-generation multimedia system is running. We’ve given high marks to its airier layout and simplified menu structure, but it seems like an oversight to not at least Subaru-ize its graphics.
We feel badly having griped about the abundant, 80s-throwback hard buttons in the bZ4X cockpit, only to learn it was all Subaru’s idea. Sorry, Toyota. Also Subaru’s idea? The lack of a frunk in either vehicle, due to needing a shorter nose for off-roading prowess. Doubly sorry, Toyota.
Like the bZ4X, we score the Solterra high on comfort, with adjustable lumbar for the driver and a gigantic backseat for rear passengers to stretch out.
We also like – despite it being labeled as having Subaru’s EyeSight suite of ADAS technology – the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with Lane Tracing, which is Toyota technology and radar, not camera-based, as is EyeSight. We use cruise control and lane keeping extensively and experience long stretches of the vehicle steering itself up U.S. 101. We also appreciate being brought to a complete stop on a fast approach at a red light behind waiting traffic, something not all adaptive cruise control systems are able to do.
Overall, we find the Solterra much like the bZ4X: good, but not great, lacking the specifications of many competitors and the design flair and higher-quality interior materials of them, too, at a price point that can stretch north of $50,000.
At least with the Solterra, buyers get the off-roading ability, which is not a feature of any other BEV CUV in the market at the moment and should give Subaru a leg up in the market over the bZ4X.
Buyers also can still enjoy the $7,500 federal tax credit available in the U.S. to offset the cost of a new BEV, something Toyota BEV buyers won’t be able to get much longer as the automaker has nearly hit the 200,000-unit quota for the credit.
Hopefully the government will soon extend or remove the quota. With the BEV CUV sector getting crowded as of late, the U.S. market needs all the carrots it can offer to motivate buyers to purchase battery-electrics, which still are pricier than same-size internal-combustion-engine models.
The ’23 Subaru Solterra, assembled by Toyota in Motomachi, Japan, is on sale now at Subaru’s U.S. dealers.
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The 2023 Subaru Solterra: We Meet Again? – Ward's Auto
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