Subaru’s first electric car is here, a platform Subaru owners have been clamoring for for years. Sorry, it isn’t an Outback. Nope, it’s the Solterra, developed in partnership with Toyota, which will also release essentially the same car in a different skin, called the bZ4X.
Toyota is a twenty-percent stakeholder in Subaru, which benefits Subaru because the costs of being small in the automotive business can be crippling. (I’ve visited Subaru’s HQ in Japan and you’d be astonished how small it is.) Joining with Toyota and its deep knowledge of battery tech used in millions of hybrids, not to mention its buying power, makes sense for a first all-electric car for Subaru. Fortunately for both brands, these forthcoming models will not be identical.
We didn’t learn enough today at the L.A. Auto Show, where the U.S. version of the Solterra was revealed, to predict how the car will drive on dirt. The specs, however, offer some inkling. First, like most EVs, there’s little mechanical exposure beneath the chassis. Ground clearance is 8.3 inches, just a tick less than the 8.7 for the gas-powered Outback, Forester, and Crosstreks that Subaru sells by the truckload. There was no word on other vulnerabilities, specifically fording water, which can drown an internal combustion engine but possibly destroy an EV if its systems aren’t designed for submersion.
Still, the Solterra sits two inches higher off the ground than the bZ4X, and while that Toyota will come both with all wheel drive and front wheel drive, the Subaru will only be sold with the AWD. Both versions will offer X-Mode, which detects wheel slip and adjusts power accordingly. With a pair of 80-kW motors at the front and rear axles, power distribution is monitored constantly, directing torque to whichever wheel has more traction.
Grip Control allows further fine tuning: Paddle shifters on the steering wheel allow virtual downshifting to the continuously variable transmission, increasing drag created by the regenerative braking system. Whether or not this gives you more confidence off road is TBD.
The 184.6-inch Solterra is roughly the length of a 182.1-inch Forester. The five-seater is also about as spacious inside, but with slightly higher knee height for the rear passengers, since the 71.4-kWh battery is sandwiched into the floor (as with all battery electric vehicles). Fast recharge from five percent to eighty percent should take about an hour, according to Toyota. Range? Toyota’s promising about 250 miles from its front-wheel-drive version, but the feds will have the final word on that. Expect those numbers by spring 2022, when both vehicles are available.
Cargo volume of 30.3 cubic feet is about two cubic feet smaller than the Outback, plenty big for two or three folks to haul along camping gear, though once you get to four you’d probably want a cargo box on the roof.
The two brands have made some creative “hacks” that more carmakers could consider matching. While heating or cooling air is always going to drain power and eat into the overall range of an EV, both have heat-pumps, which hels reduce the overall draw of both warming and cooling. Toyota also showed solar panels for the roof of their version, but it’s unknown whether Subaru has this option. Likewise, the bZ4X can be used as a power source for your home, but of course it’s more likely you’ll use it for off-grid power while camping.
Both brands are promising over the air updates, as Tesla and Rivian already do, with the ability to improve safety functions in the future. Both cars have some self-driving measures and cyclist detection even in low light. Ideally, as research into pedestrian detection improves, a few lines of code would get beamed to your car every time it’s linked to your home wifi. Also, Toyota is claiming the battery will retain 90 percent of initial life after a decade.
BZ, by the way, stands for “beyond zero” and is part of a forthcoming wave of EVs from Toyota. While the brand has resisted federal targets for EV sales, they now say they’ll offer 15 dedicated battery electric vehicles, including seven carrying the Beyond Zero label, by 2025. But that’s globally. How many will come to the U.S. hasn’t been revealed.