Driven: Subaru Levorg

Even now, if you think about Subaru there’s a good chance that you’ll bring to mind images of Colin McRae hurtling through a Welsh forest in a blue and gold Impreza, undoubtedly sideways and seemingly ever only an inch from an enormous accident.

It’s a bit of history that is invaluable to Subaru but, at the same time, it holds the brand back. If your latest model is always being compared to a legendary 25-year-old championship-winning rally car, what hope do you have in convincing people that your latest sensible estate model is the right car?

In fairness, Subaru doesn’t help itself. While the market is definitely moving away from diesel power, it’s a surprise to find it only offers a petrol engine in the Levorg, and then only a new 2.0-litre ‘boxer’ engine rather than a frugal downsized unit. This, like the old rally cars, has pistons laid flat, moving from side to side, with the promised benefit of a lower centre of gravity and better handling. Subaru still perseveres with permanent four-wheel drive too, a nod to its rallying past. It even delivered this car in a deep metallic blue that I felt sure could have got away with some gold wheels and a now-banned ‘555’ logo down the side.

Put aside all the heritage and the Subaru Levorg is something of an oddball. There’s just that one engine producing, with typical Japanese accuracy, a claimed 149.5hp and that, frankly, isn’t enough. There’s 1,564kg of Subaru to shift, and that takes some time when there’s not much oomph and a tedious CVT gearbox; it whines as you demand power, the engine screaming unpleasantly until you reach your desired speed. In fairness, it then calms down to a barely noticeable thrum, the benefit of the CVT gearbox being that you can cruise with the engine almost ticking over. You can’t have the light without a shadow.

As well as squeezing in a new engine, Subaru has also improved the interior with some softer and neater materials around the cabin and some upgrades to the technology. I might need last year’s car alongside to identify every change, as they’re quite subtle, but the Levorg now feels significantly more ‘premium’ than it ever did. It’s attractive in a slightly 80s-digital retro way, but it all works nicely. Even the infotainment system, once a source of complete frustration, has been improved and now works reasonably well. Even better, both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are in place, allowing you to use a more familiar system.

Safety kit has also been boosted by the addition of EyeSight, Subaru’s twin-camera setup that constantly keeps watch through the windscreen. Mounted quite far apart, they allow the car to ‘see’ in 3D and detect pedestrians, cyclists, trucks, wheelie bins and any number of other hazards, hitting the brakes if it’s certain you’re on a collision course. Whilst not faultless, it’s probably the best system out there and provides a significant amount of confidence that it’ll catch the mistakes you, or others on the road, make.

For a family car, that’s reassuring. It does the trick of being a family car reasonably well, too, with a decent set of rear seats and a boot that’s large enough to take a couple of suitcases or a dog. There are more practical options, such as the Skoda Octavia, but the Levorg doesn’t embarrass itself, especially as the rear seats fold down to leave a completely flat floor.

So far, so good. Well, mostly. Certainly, the quirks that exist can be overlooked if you just fancy a Subaru Levorg, but make sure you test drive it first as you might not be able to get past the suspension.

It’s stiff, stiffer than most other family cars, and therefore clunks and crashes its way around the country’s urban roads. Every surface change, every fracture in the tarmac, every ridge, pebble or leaf is felt through the car. This rewards you with some fine handling on the open road, but only so far. The asthmatic engine and gearbox prevent you from having too much fun, but it’s the sudden change in character from the chassis that surprises. While mostly firmly spring, there’s a frequency of undulation that leaves the car wallowing lethargically, failing miserably to cope with a rapid series of bumps. It’s left floundering, even at normal, family-and-dog-in-the-car speeds.

There’s a sensation in the Levorg that Subaru wanted to remind buyers of its glorious rallying past – in fact, you can buy the Levorg in Japan with a fire-breathing 300hp STi specification – but that it lost confidence halfway through development. The result is a mixed bag that’s not overtly sporting, hugely practical, particularly cheap or pleasingly economical.

At times there are glimpses of what could have been (or what Japan already has…) but they’re too few and far between to make an impact. It’s the Beatles without Lennon, Paul Chuckle without Barry Chuckle, Yin without Yang.

Rallying without Colin McRae.

Model Tested: Subaru Levorg 2.0i GT Lineartronic
Price: £30,995
Range: £30,995 – £30,995
Top speed: 121 mph
0-62 mph: 9.5 seconds
Power: 150 PS (147 bhp)
Torque: 198 Nm (146 lb ft)
Monthly PCP*: £423
Official economy: 34.5 mpg
Road test economy: 34.5 mpg
CO2 Emissions: 167 g/km
Car Tax: £145
Insurance group: 17E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.