Every automaker has started to transition its model lineup to electric vehicles. That presents a challenge to smaller companies such as Subaru that build cars with specific characteristics for a narrower audience than the big manufacturers.
The 2023 Subaru Solterra illustrates the difficulty of that task.
A drive of the electric crossover across the dirt trails of California’s Catalina Island and on the highways and mountain roads surrounding Santa Barbara demonstrated that the Solterra is an excellent first effort but is not without compromises.
2023 Solterra’s Subaru DNA
Subaru’s challenge was to replicate the DNA in an excellent crossover lineup that includes the Outback and the Forrester. These rugged vehicles can take their owners far off the beaten path to remote locations for hiking, biking, kayaking and other outdoor adventures.
Much of the Subaru base are people who use their vehicle as part of their outdoor gear. They want a comfortable crossover that drives well for commuting, handles snow and inclement weather confidently and can navigate dirt trails with steep climbs and descents. And they need space for dogs and equipment.
The Solterra does all of that – almost.
The problem arises with the compromises Subaru had to make to get the combinations of utility and driving characteristics a typical Outback or Forrester owner expects. The thinking is that they will sell to a subset of those customers who now also want to reduce their carbon footprint and become better environmental citizens.
Subaru developed the Solterra – the name is a Latin mashup between Sol for sun and terra for earth – jointly with Toyota, which calls its version the oddly named bZ4X. Although the vehicles are primarily twins, Subaru has given the model the rugged stamp one would expect. For example, it is only available with all-wheel-drive and the excellent X-mode off-road driving system. Toyota sells a two-wheel-drive version as its base model.
Gas Or Electric?
The question for all-electric vehicles is what should their comparison set be, other EVs or other cars in the same segment? Increasingly they should be evaluated simply as vehicles regardless of powertrain and, in the Solterra’s case, against other crossovers such as the able Outback and Forrester.
The Solterra drives well. The steering feel is tight. Thanks to the low-mounted battery pack and low center of gravity, it firmly accomplishes turns and has little body roll. The seats and suspension are comfortable.
The powertrain generates 215 horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque. That provides decent acceleration but not the sports car speed of some rival EVs. The all-wheel-drive system uses a single electric motor to power both the front and rear wheels.
It passes the test as a comfortable and engaged daily driver for commuting and road trips.
But here’s the first compromise. The vehicle has a range of 222 to 228 miles, depending on the trim level. That is 10 percent to 15 percent less than many of the latest electric models, such as the Hyundai Ioniq 5. A gasoline Outback can go 500 miles between fueling, depending on the driving conditions. Whether the comparison is another EV or a gasoline crossover, the Solterra falls short.
The next compromise is the odd cockpit. The Subaru and Toyota designers put the driver information panel low and far forward in the dashboard. Their goal was to reduce the distance for the driver’s eyes to focus back and forth from the road. But it makes also makes it hard to see over the information because the driver has to peer over the steering wheel.
Conventional design typically positions the driver information panel or screen to allow the driver to see the information through the gap in the upper half of the steering wheel. But the Solterra’s design forces the driver to look above the top of the steering wheel. It is a departure and not an improvement. Drivers will get used to it, but it is not as comfortable as the usual design.
2023 Subaru Solterra Technology
Subaru has located the infotainment screen horizontally. That makes it easier to scan and less likely that the driver will have to take their eyes off the road to fulfill a function. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. It has both USB C and standard USB ports. The base model comes with an 8-inch screen. It is large enough for most people, but the 12.3-inch screen available in the more expensive Limited and Touring trims is very nice.
The Solterra comes with a full suite of advanced driver assistance systems, which Subaru calls EyeSight Driver Assist Technology. The suite includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitor, lane-keeping assist and rear cross-traffic alert with pedestrian warning. The rear cross-traffic alert is linked to automatic braking in an obstacle is detected while going in reverse.
The Solterra should work for basic adventures. There’s up to 125 cubic feet of passenger and cargo volume, providing flexibility. The liftgate creates a wide opening that makes it easy to slide a bicycle or other gear into the back.
But now, the compromises continue. Subaru sells the Solterra in three trim levels, Premium, Limited and Touring. All can carry 176 pounds of kayaks, bicycles and other gear on their roof. That type of capability is a must for most Subaru owners. Subaru said the two upper trim levels come with roof rails and can support 700 pounds, enough for a rooftop tent, two people and a dog. However, Subaru hasn’t tested the Solterra Premium for a static load rating even though it has the same roof structure as the other trims.
Good Off-Road Manners
Off-road, the Solterra behaves well. The instant low-end torque generated by the electric system makes it easy to climb steep, rough terrain grades. There’s no need to rev the accelerator to generate the momentum to climb. Hill descent control works well also. And there is a Grip Control, which works as a low-speed, off-road cruise control allowing the driver to focus on steering by potential obstacles.
The Solterra has 8.3 inches of ground clearance, about the same as a Toyota RAV4 and slightly more than a Honda CRV.
But the excellent off-road manners are undone by the lack of a spare tire, yet another compromise.
No Spare Tire?
Designers deleted the spare for weight savings and to preserve cargo room. They wanted to hold taller objects in the cargo area and maintain the aerodynamic exterior design.
It makes no sense to equip the vehicle with excellent off-road capability but no flat tire. While a commuter can go decades without a flat, off-roaders experience the mishap with much greater frequency. And they occur in settings where it is difficult to nearly impossible to call the auto club or the local tow truck for help.
Other automakers are making the same mistake. The $110,000 GMC Hummer EV also is an excellent off-road vehicle despite its massive weight. But to preserve electric range, GMC also doesn’t equip the Hummer with a spare. It’s an extra $700 and even more to purchase a tire rack for the Hummer’s truck bed.
Subaru won’t sell a spare, and there isn’t a good place to fit one in the vehicle.
2023 Subaru Solterra Price
The pricing for the 2023 Solterra is in line with other EV crossovers. The premium starts at $46,220, including the delivery fee. Federal tax breaks and other regional incentives can drop by as much as $10,000. A gas-powered Subaru Outback in the premium trim has a price of about $30,520, including the delivery fee.
Solterra pricing rises to $49,720 with the delivery fee but before environmental incentive reductions for the Limited trim. The Touring runs $53,220 with the delivery fee but before environmental incentive reductions for the Limited trim.
For now, Subaru will have no trouble selling the Solterra. It has reservations for 6,500 for the rest of this year, equaling its production schedule. It will jump to 13,000 units next year and the automaker expects those to sell out also.