Subaru set to return to form with a new-generation wagon blending performance, luxury and practicality
The 2016 Subaru Levorg aims to plug a sizeable hole in the brand’s Australian line-up. And if our first drive of the flagship versions bound for Oz is anything to go by, both head and heart suggest it’s hit a sweet spot that’ll appeal to all manner of buyers.
We drove Japan’s high-spec 2.0-litre turbocharged GT and GT-S versions. Ostensibly, it’s a WRX wagon, though leaving the description at that sells the Levorg short. Why? Because the aforementioned hole is at the centre of Subaru’s range, and the Levorg is the missing link tying key elements of Subaru’s strongest values into one package.
Nuts- and bolts-wise, the Impreza association is undeniable – its underpinnings and most of the vehicle from the B pillar forward is common with Subaru’s small-car breed, including the WRX. And with it comes small-car appeal.
Its wheelbase, unsurprisingly, is identical to the WRX, though its sheer size, mostly its length, presents a proper mid-sized position in packaging and internal spaciousness.
“Levorg fills the gap left by the fourth-gen Liberty,” admits Subaru Australia managing director Nick Senior, specifically a generation of wagon much loved by traditional Subaru flag-wavers.
“The inspiration was the Liberty GT,” he says, adding the caveat that “it’s not a traditional wagon, nor a WRX wagon.”
Levorg as substitution for WRX and Liberty is quite clever - more so given that, in the current range, there is no conventional wagon offerings outside of the Outback, a model range Subaru cheekily markets as an SUV.
While the WRX-lifted powertrain of turbo boxer four and all-wheel drive raises the pulse of performance fans, the Levorg equally angles a premium pitch the sedan lacks. In style and execution, it neatly sidesteps much of the boy racer-ism of the sedan some buyers find stigmatic in the red-hot rally-themed sedan.
As a wrap-up, the Levorg is about as ‘cross-over’ as you can get.
While the Cycling Sport Centre, in Japan’s regional Izu, might sound like a strange venue to test drive the version available in its native market – they’ve been on sale since June 2014 – it actually houses a twisty and challenging five-kilometre road that could give Mount Panorama a run for challenging, mostly blind curves.
It’s a drifter’s dream, a mainstay test track for cult tuning video series (such as Best Motoring), and a venue fit for demonstrating the Levorg’s dynamic credentials.
Crucially, our test cars are full 221kW ‘JDM’ (Japanese Domestic Market) spec, with engines tuned for 100RON fuel, while, critically, unencumbered by stringent Euro 5 emissions regulation necessary for our ADRs. The penalty will be a 20kW hit, our cleaner-running Aussie Levorgs making do with a more modest 201kW (at 5600rpm).
The Levorg won't launch in Oz until June and there’s little in the way of specification that Subaru Australia will confirm as concrete. What we do know is that it will use a Lineartronic CVT, as it's the only transmission fitted to the Levorg. We’ll get two WRX-powered versions, but their torque outputs – Japan gets 400Nm – are yet to be set in stone. You can order one immediately, though either variant is yet get a name, as GT and GT-S designations might not carry over into local showrooms.
Subaru’s excellent EyeSight safety system, though, will be standard fitment, and Senior promises both Levorg grades will carry “a high level of standard equipment”.
Given the evidence, and the WRX’s low-$40K price point, it’s reasonable to predict a circa-$45K ask for the lower-spec Levorg and around $50K for the line-topper once the Australian version goes on sale in late June or early July in 2016.
Our Japanese test cars both come with LED headlights, 18-inch wheels, the latest high-resolution infotainment just rolled out in Oz, a proprietary sports seat design in both rows and either leather/Alcantara or full-leather trim. Beyond the EyeSight active safety tech – which includes an EyeSight Assist head-up-like display - the Levorg menu includes Subaru Rear Vehicle Detection (including blind-spot monitoring, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert) and, new for Subaru, Side View Monitor, which uses a camera to project a forward kerb-side image into a small screen in the dash top binnacle. Blue trim stitching had run amok in one of the car’s interiors, too.
That WRX-like bird-catcher bonnet scoop, pumped front and rear guards, roof spoiler and generous sideskirts are Levorg’s main concessions to sportiness, appearance wise. In the flesh, it’s muscular without resorting to overtly boy racer-isms. Wheels are 18-inchers, our test cars shod with modest-width 225/45 rubber.
Climb into the first row and the look owes much to WRX. There’s plenty of shiny hard plastic, soft touch points, a semi-flat-bottom, chunky-rimmed paddleshift steering wheel and – count them – four separate display screens: a driver’s screen (between the analogue instrument dials), one for infotainment and two ancillary screens, one for air-con and addenda, the other for aforementioned kerb camera. There’s a lot to look at, so thankfully there’s cohesion in the screens’ display designs and graphic fonts.
Compared to the Forester, there’s a much lower-slung seat positioning, though all-round visibility from behind the wheel is excellent. The Levorg foregoes WRX-style race bucket for a more relaxed electric front seat design both purposeful and comfortable – one sample car in mixed leather/Alcantara, another in attractive looking cream-coloured full leather. That said, the front row ambience will be familiar to current Impreza/WRX owners.
The second row is the departure point. In terms of depth and legroom, the Levorg is longer (by 25mm) than a fourth-gen Liberty wagon and shorter (by 30mm) than a fifth-gen version. The outboard positions, too, are lightly bolstered to match the look of the front buckets, and include Isofix mounting points in front and conventional tether point in back. The rear 60/40 split-fold seatback has rake adjustment, at least in as-tested spec, though we noted that a base Japanese 1.6L GT on display has a fixed back with a strange, uncomfortably laid-back angle.
While only marginally larger outside than the fourth-gen Liberty wagon Levorg hopes to substitute for, the luggage space is, at 486 litres, some 50 litres up in useable volume. The cargo area also features grocery hooks, netted oddment pockets and remote switches for the split-fold seats.
The 2.0 DIT turbo boxer - the same direct-injected unit fitted to WRX – has, like today’s ‘Rex’, none of that old sonic throb of WRX’s bygone days.
On the march, acceleration is firm rather than ferocious, though with SI-Drive drive mode set to its wickedest Sport Sharp setting the Sport Lineartronic auto mimics quick shortly-stacked ‘eight-speed’ gear changes.
It’s been re-engineered and is certainly more faithful than other Lineartronic units, though it can be reluctant with paddle-shift instruction and lacks the focus of a well-tuned conventional sports auto or dual-clutch system. And this characteristically unsport nature might prove a deal-breaker for some buyers chasing a bona-fide performance experience.
While a mere 10 kilometres of red-hot track work is hardly conclusive assessment, the Levorg displays positive dynamic signs. With its brake-actuating Active Torque Vectoring a key weapon in its dynamic armory, it’s keen to point into corners, it changes direction with gusto, and feels a little keener to load up onto its outside rear tyre and track under power without understeer. It sits flat, is reasonably responsive and playful, and the gut feel is that, just maybe, Levorg might meet or perhaps even surpass WRX standards of driver enjoyment and pace.
It’s friendly rather than ferocious, it responds to guidance rather than manhandling, but in a succession of tight curves the Levorg leverages its cracking pace more so through handling talent than it does using power or transmission precision (or lack thereof). The steering, too, is faithful and responsive, and it’s easy to place the car accurately on the road.
Tone the pace down and what quickly emerges are noticeable thuds and abrupt shocks through the chassis across even small imperfections and joins along the road circuit’s mostly smooth surfaces. In JDM form at least, Levorg's ride-handling balance feels a touch compromised.
In terms of track friendliness, it’s not an STI-grade machine. The single slide-type brakes didn’t fade through track work, though judging by the smell after a handful of laps, durability might be questionable. Also, both test cars displayed CVT oil overheating warnings, though Subaru’s engineers promised that Aussie-spec Levorgs will get transmission coolers not fitted to the JDM version.
Porting an STI hardware package into the Levorg would be a very enticing prospect, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves - and any confirmation from Subaru on whether such a beast will ever be produced. Here’s hoping, though.
It’s even doubtful if the budget 1.6-litre Levorg will make it Down Under. Nick Senior explains that Subaru Australia will “assess the market” to decide if these base versions will follow the 2.0 across the pond.
Levorg’s promises of sportiness, Euro-flavoured design, upmarket feel, driving pleasure and all-round versatility are mostly met, though in areas not generously so. But its flexible appeal casts a wide net to many different buyers and you sense it’ll be a smashing success for Subaru Australia.
A more definitive appraisal, though, with have to wait until June next year.