When you see chunks of ice floating across the hood of the hybrid you’re fording across a frozen river, the typical reaction is to freak out. Water over the hood is never a good thing, and in this case if the car gets stuck your escape is a particularly wet and cold one. Our Icelandic guides assure us that normally the river is much lower in November on account of the country being so dang cold. However, part of the river upstream has frozen, so the water’s backing up and the Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrids simply have to dive into waist-deep moving, freezing water. The river’s not the only way out of Landmannalaugar, but it was supposedly easier than the other two grim and frostbitten roads back to Reykjavik. So say our guides. The same dudes that an hour earlier fed me a pâté made from a sheep’s head, eyeballs and tongue. I figured they were just trying to frighten us a little, with both breakfast and the beginning of the day 3 drive. Thing is, the little hybrid had an easier time going through the icy water than I did with the sheep parts.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Subaru dragged me out to Iceland to illustrate just how green its first ever hybrid is, though that was my thinking going in. Nearly three-quarters of the island country’s power comes from renewable resources, mostly hydro and geothermal with a smattering of wind. But no, Subaru is claiming that the new XV Hybrid is the most capable small hybrid SUV on earth. A big claim for certain. Then again, there really aren’t any other compact CUV hybrids. Subarus have long surprised me in terms of their capability in bad conditions and off pavement. There’s a reason they’re so popular in places like Colorado and Vermont. Still, a bold claim must be backed up. What better place to fully show off how capable Subaru’s first-ever hybrid is than the land of ice and snow? As you’re about to read, nowhere would have been better. First things first, let’s look more closely at the car.

Sitting within the transmission housing between the CVT and the output shaft is a small electric motor that provides an additional 13 horsepower and 48 extra lb-ft of torque, but only until 1500 rpm. Combined with the gas engine the output rises to 160 hp @ 6000 rpm and 163 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm. That may not sound like a ton of juice – it isn’t – but a standard Crosstrek creates just 145 lb-ft of torque at a fairly lofty 4200 rpm. Subaru claims 0-60 mph acceleration isn’t any quicker than the gas car (10 seconds flat, last time we checked), but that passing power is increased. In terms of miles per gallon – the reason people actually buy hybrids -- the XV Hybrid is EPA rated at 29 city, 33 highway and 31 mpg combined, up from 28 mpg combined on the regular car with a CVT. That last number is higher than the combined mileage of any small SUV, even though none directly competes with the Crosstrek Hybrid, says Subaru.

Other changes to the hybrid compared to the normal Crosstrek XV largely consist of items we complained about when we drove the latter at last year’s SUV of the Year competition. Chiefly refinement, as the regular Crosstrek is very boomy and tinny. As you may have heard, we recently named the new Subaru Forester our 2014 SUV of the Year. From the moment I first touched our winner I was amazed that it’s built on the same chassis as the much cheaper-feeling Crosstrek. Subaru it seems has taken note. Upgrades to the Hybrid version include liquid-filled engine mounts to reduce NVH, more sound deadening material and a revised suspension including new dampers, stiffer springs and a thicker rear anti-roll bar. You also have rear subframe braces and the quickest steering rack found on any Subaru, including the BRZ (15.5:1 compared to 14.0:1 for the non-hybrid Crosstrek). Weight is up by 304 pounds up over a CVT-equipped Crosstrek. 197 of those come from the nickel-metal hydride battery. The little electric motor accounts for another 34 pounds, while the sound deadening materials and other assorted changes and improvements make up the rest of the added bulk. Luckily, the normal CVT-equipped Crosstrek only weighs about 3200 pounds, meaning the hybrid version should weigh 3500 pounds. Look for all the non-hybrid changes to trickle down to the lesser Crosstrek for the 2015 model year.

There’s no question that Subaru could have created a more aggressive hybrid with more electric assist and even better MPG. But doing so would have hurt the resulting car’s versatility and increased the price.

Starting with versatility, even with the large nickel metal hydride battery crammed into what was formerly the spare tire compartment, the hybrid version only loses 0.8 square feet of cargo space with the rear seats up (21.5 versus 22.3 cubic feet). The hybrid version also maintains the standard car’s 8.7-inches of ground clearance. Believe you me, when dealing with places like Iceland that’s a wonderful thing. If you want to identify the Hybrid version of the Crosstrek on the street, look for the clear taillights and CHMSL, turn signal repeater lights on the side mirrors and active shutters in the grille. As for price, the Crosstrek XV Hybrid starts life at $26,820 while the more luxurious Touring model (sunroof, leather seats, navigation) begins at $30,120. The Crosstrek XV Hybrid received a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS and goes on sale at the end of November.

Back to the Icelandic saga: the day before the frosty flooded river crossing our little expedition got caught up in brutal conditions. Too much snow had fallen the day before we left for the Landmannalaugar hot springs and forced us to take a different route in. A route, I should note, that proved much more arduous than Subaru – or any PR department -- ever intended. Gale-force 90-mph wind gusts were whipping into us every five minutes. At times visibility was reduced to zero by a mixture of volcanic ash and sleet. A black-and-white-out, if you will. Worse, we were forced to follow a guide’s “fully grown” Land Rover Defender 110 on 44-inch balloon tires that left 20” deep ruts in the snow, perfect for high-centering the Crosstrek Hybrid with its near 9-inches of ground clearance. The only way forward was for the first car in the pack (hi mom!) to just floor it with near reckless abandon. The best trick I found was to spin the steering wheel as fast as possible to find a purchase in the huge ruts. Once the little hybrid started losing traction, I’d wait for the Crosstrek behind to give me a gentle smack (thanks, Dan!) to keep moving. Once we did get really and truly stuck, the monster trucks (from Reykjavik based Arctic Trucks) were forced to give us a short tow before the Crosstrek Hybrid was able to build up enough speed to make another run at it. A Prius in the same situation would have swallowed a cyanide pill.

Not to be too dramatic, but the words “we’re not making it” crossed my mind once or twice. Not a wintery death or anything like that, but I thought we’d be spending the night in the Subarus. The Crosstreks were caked in black, icy mung and you simply couldn’t see out of the side glass. Rolling down the window momentarily cleared the ice, but it froze the cabin and the clarity lasted only a few moments. The strong, gusting winds were hitting the driver side of the vehicles, the worst possible angle of attack, pushing us into snow banks left by the previous day’s snowplowing. The temperature was just below freezing, but with the wind chill it felt considerably colder. Our hearty Icelandic colleagues kept reminding us that it’s not even winter yet. The going was slow, and pleading moans of, “Do we have any idea how much longer this is supposed to take?” kept coming over the walkie talkies. The schedule said we’d be at the Landmannalaugar cabin by 3:00 pm. By the seventh time we got stuck it was close to 5:00 pm and the sun was nearly down. The radio suddenly crackled, “The plow’s coming.” A huge tractor appeared with a massive snowplow attached to the front. Salvation, I told myself. Then we stopped again, as the going had gotten so treacherous that the tractor needed chains. Press trips aren’t supposed to go like this—that’s Iceland for you. Needless to say we eventually made it, though one car did have “Donner Party 2013” carved into it.

Going in, I thought Subaru’s ploy of using Iceland to showcase its capability claim would turn out to be mostly bogus; marketing hype. Fun, but we could have done the same thing in San Diego. After three days of both pushing the electrified CUV to its limit and living through the most harrowing conditions of my career (I ate horse), I can say the Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid is indeed gifted. Nearly ever one of the Icelandic monster-truck driving support crew expressed some variation of, “I can’t believe this car made it here.” Even Subaru’s own engineers seemed shocked at what their jacked up Impreza was able to traverse. So much so that there’s talk of making Iceland’s frozen wasteland part of the normal Subaru testing regiment. What this expedition taught me is that they don’t need to do that. The XV Crosstrek Hybrid already is capable of the near impossible. Gets pretty decent mileage, too.


2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid
BASE PRICE $26,820 - $30,120
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/148-hp/145-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve flat-4 plus 13-hp/48-lb-ft electric motor; 165 hp/163 lb-ft comb
TRANSMISSION cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 3500 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 103.7 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 175.2 x 70.1 x 63.6 in
0-60 MPH 9.0 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 29/33 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 116 / 102 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.63 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. November, 2013