A roiling surf breaks off the base of the cliff, more than 1,000 feet below. California’s pristine Catalina Island is a scenic wonder and the perfect place to take the new 2023 Subaru Solterra out for a test drive.
With a loyal following among those who crave the outdoors lifestyle, Subaru would seem the perfect brand to be entering the battery-electric vehicle market. But it took some help, the little Japanese automaker teaming up — again — with global giant Toyota, which only weeks ago launched its own version of the new EV, the Toyota bZ4X.
The trip to Catalina, followed by a drive on the California mainland, offered me a chance to check out the Subaru offering to see how the two models compare — and how Solterra stands up against the flood of other new battery-electric vehicles from competitors like Hyundai, Kia, Polestar and Volkswagen.
The launch of the Solterra/bZ4X EVs mark the second major collaboration between the two Japanese automakers. They previously partnered on the development of the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR 86 sports car models. On that project, they divided the product development up, Subaru largely responsible for engineering and manufacturing. This time, “We split almost everything 50/50,” explained Car Line Manager Garrick Goh, before we headed out for our morning drive.
In most aspects, it could prove difficult for passersby — or potential buyers — to differentiate the two new EVs. They share the same dimensions, both inside and out, though Subaru claims to have a slightly higher ground clearance, fitting the demands its buyers will make of it.
Visually, the two models came out looking nearly identical, but there are some notable differences under the skin. The Solterra, for one thing, the Subaru will be offered only with all-wheel-drive, unlike the bZ4X which will have front and AWD options. And Solterra gets a version of Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive technology, including its X-Mode system, modified for use with an electric drivetrain. The benefits of that became obvious quite quickly as I roamed across the back trails on Catalina Island.
The 2023 Subaru Solterra follows the basic design rules that are quickly coming to define the battery-electric vehicle market: to start with, it rides on a skateboard-like platform that places the battery pack, motors and some other key drivetrain components below the load floor.
Solterra is ever-so-slightly larger than the conventionally powered Subaru Forrester, with a total length of 184.6 inches, a width of 73.2 inches and a height of 65.0 inches. But the wheelbase is a full seven inches longer than Forrester’s, the electric drive system allowing the automaker to move the wheels out towards the corners. Meanwhile, the nose is shortened, allowing Subaru to deliver size class-above interior and cargo space.
Some buyers might be disappointed, however, to find that the automaker decided not to offer a frunk, or front trunk, something it claims would’ve required it to stretch the nose again.
The overall look is almost identical to that of the Toyota bZ4X but for the shape of the Subaru hexagonal grille and badging. There’s also an unpainted rear bumper which, Subaru noted, is great for letting pets jump into the cargo bay without causing scratches (as demonstrated by Labradoodle Rosie, Subaru’s “barkmaster, demonstrated for us).
The main grille is non-functional, as there’s no need for air to flow under the hood. But there is a lower grille to help cool the motors and battery pack, and air curtains to reduce turbulence around the front wheels. The entire design puts a heavy emphasis on range-extending aerodynamics, including the steeply raked windshield and backglass, as well as the split upper spoiler offered on all but the base trim package.
The expansive size of the cabin, both front and back, is one of the first things you notice as you climb into the 2023 Solterra. And while there’s a slight roll to the roofline it doesn’t impede rear headroom.
Working together, Subaru and Toyota designers tried to give the cabin a high-tech feel, dominated by a landscape-oriented 12.3-inch touchscreen rising out of the center console. It has become the norm in modern EVs to move almost all controls to the infotainment system.
Much to their credit, the partners bucked that trend. There are four separate power window controllers, and an easy-to-use control for the side mirrors. The Solterra also has a panel for climate control and another for operating features like X-Mode and its own version of Hill Descent Control. It works. Well.
But then there’s the curiously positioned 7.0-inch digital gauge cluster used on both the Subaru and Toyota EVs. It was designed to be seen from above – rather than through – the steering wheel. The idea, one Toyota insider confided, was to obviate the need for a head-up display. As with the same display on the Toyota bZ4x, more than a few colleagues also tested the new Solterra found the steering wheel blocking at least part of their view.
As earlier noted, Subaru opted to go with a single powertrain option, eschewing the front-wheel-drive package offered by Toyota in favor of a twin-motor, all-wheel-drive system. Oddly, it’s rated at a single horsepower and foot-pound more than the Toyota system at 215 hp and 249 lb-ft. Subaru traditionally plays it conservative on performance specs, but expect something on the order of 6.5 seconds to hit 60.
As for range, it gets a modest 228 miles out of its 72.4 kilowatt-hour battery.
The Solterra, like the bZ, lags competitors like the Kia EV6 GT-Line which manages 274 miles and hits 60 in 4.5 seconds, while the Volkswagen ID.4 AWD Pro needs 5.7 seconds to get there, but manages 249 miles per charge.
As for charging times, the shared electrical system can handle up to 100 kilowatts of energy and go from 10% to 80% state-of-charge in about an hour on a mid-power public quick charger. No details for using a Level 2 home system were provided but expect to keep the EV plugged in overnight.
We’re expecting more charging info in the coming days. Stay tuned.
Safety and Technology
One benefit of the partnership with Toyota is that the Solterra shares the bigger automaker’s new infotainment system. It features an Amazon Alexa-style personal voice assistant. Say, “Hey, Subaru,” and it will respond to a far broader range of commands than conventional in-car voice controls — and in much more familiar language. That said, it did glitch a few times, something Subaru officials promised to address before production begins.
There are now-requisite features, including wireless charging, as well as wireless versions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And the Solterra features smartphone-style over-the-air updates which will allow the automaker to send to the vehicle a variety of software updates — and even new features — remotely.
That two-way system permits an expanded list of functions for Subaru’s interactive app. Among other things, you’ll be able to remotely monitor the vehicle’s state of charge and control when it does charge up. That’s particularly useful if you have a home utility package that provides lower-cost energy overnight.
The new EV gets the latest version of Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced driver assistance technologies, including blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and more. The Limited model adds niceties like a surround-view 360-degree monitor.
One area where the Solterra stands out — among others, over the Toyota bZ4X — is its use of Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive technology. It’s a modified version of what’s used in gas-powered models like the Forrester. Add the X-Mode system, which operates at speeds up to 25 mph, and you get a vehicle that has some reasonably solid chops on rough pavement and moderate off-road conditions like I experienced on Catalina Island.
A big plus with electric motors is the fact that they offer instant torque, no waiting for a gas engine to rev up. The challenge is moderating that power and directing it to the wheel, or wheels, that most need it. Solterra does this with aplomb.
While we didn’t have the chance to do any boulder crawling on the island we faced conditions that relatively few drivers will run into, including deeply rutted trails and severe climbs and descents. My Solterra never missed a beat, intuitively responding to whatever I threw at it with barely a moment’s hesitation or wheel spin.
The brand’s take on hill descent control, meanwhile, let me dial in a desirable speed, up to 6 mph, for downgrades, avoiding the need to get on and off the throttle and brake.
Unfortunately, one feature I’d have loved on the new EV is missing from both Subaru Solterra and the Toyota bZ: 1-Pedal mode. For those not familiar with the concept: EVs use “blended” braking, recapturing as much energy as possible normally lost during braking and coasting in order to maximize range. You can adjust the level of regen, on some vehicles so much so that you can come to a complete stop simply by backing off on the throttle.
The EV6, for one, can be switched into 1-Pedal mode which feels almost like you’ve downshifted several gears in a gas vehicle. Under most conditions, you can adjust to traffic simply by modulating the throttle. Subaru offers a less aggressive S-Pedal which does work more aggressively than regular regen mode but it’s a halfway compromise. The automaker insists it will be more user-friendly for first-time EV buyers not familiar with “1-Pedaling.” I’m pushing to have both options available at a touch of a button.
As for driving on regular pavement, I logged about 150 more miles running from Santa Barbara up to Solvang and back, both on freeways and local roads that included some moderately aggressive turns and altitude changes. The 2023 Subaru Solterra handled all with ease. On pavement, it’s nearly tomb quiet and proved stable even when passing through a section of U.S. 101 known for high crosswinds.
The electric crossover is no sports car, but it showed surprisingly little body roll on the backroads, with reasonably good road feedback and predictable steering.
Subaru aimed for creating a driving experience that would be transparent to its traditional owners and largely achieved that goal.
2023 Subaru Solterra specifications
|Dimension||L: 184.6 inches/W: 73.2 inches/H: 65 inches/Wheelbase: 112.2 inches|
|Powertrain||Twin-electric motors; all-wheel drive|
|Performance Specs||215 horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque|
Subaru owners are a unique bunch, with an unusually high number putting off-roading and back road adventures high on their list of where to spend time. They’ve also been pressing Subaru hard to add a zero-emission vehicle to its line-up.
Indeed, the automaker claims it took just days to completely fill up its order bank for the 2022 calendar year once it opened up its online process. While there may be a handful of dealers who will have an extra Solterra in stock, pretty much all of the 6,500 EVs available for this year are accounted for. Like Toyota, Subaru aims to boost production next year and appears to have the confidence that demand will rise along with availability.
There’s good reason for that confidence. No, the 2023 Subaru Solterra isn’t the fastest EV in its class, nor does it come close to delivering the best range. It would be nice to get a frunk and 1-Pedal mode. But it has plenty of other pluses, including its all-wheel-drive system, interior roominess and overall driving comfort. And for those who want to be able to jump from a gas model like Forrester into an EV with a minimal learning curve, Solterra fits the bill.
Pricing has yet to be released but you can get a general sense of where it will come in at by checking out the Toyota bZ4X. TheDetroitBureau.com will be adding more on pricing, charging and other details as soon as it’s available.
2023 Subaru Solterra – Frequently Asked Questions
Where is the new Subaru Solterra built?
Subaru’s all-electric offering is a joint effort with Toyota and will be built alongside the new bZ4X at a Toyota plant in Japan.
Can I order a Solterra now?
The period for securing a reservation for one of the 6,500 Solterra’s for the new model is year is over. However, you may get lucky and find a stray Solterra on a dealer lot somewhere in the near future.
How much horsepower does the Subaru Solterra have?
Oddly, it’s rated at a single horsepower and foot-pound more than the Toyota system at 215 hp and 249 lb-ft.