Whether you like them, believe in them, or even bother to care about them, electric vehicles are here. They’re not coming soon or in the works. They’re not a bullet point in an investor's presentation of some whimsical future-strategy plan. They’re here.
In that regard, automotive development deals have grown in scope and number. Whether out of compliance, budget, laziness, or genuine concern for the one liveable planet we know about, we’re not likely to get an “on the record” comment. For its part, Subaru teamed up with existing partner Toyota.
Already born out of this marriage are the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86 rear-wheel-drive coupe twins. The next set is the complete opposite of those rowdy, raucous little ramblers. The 2023 Subaru Solterra and Toyota bZ4X are small crossovers but in what seems to be the largest-growing segment for EVs. Because these days, even if going green, if you’re not a crossover or SUV, are you even really trying?
For both automakers, the Solterra and bZ4X are first attempts at a global all-electric vehicle. Subaru has been toying with hybrids and PHEVs a la the Crosstrek for the last decade. But Toyota has had 25 years since the Prius hybrid was introduced followed by numerous other “projects” of the hybrid and plug-in hybrid variety to produce an EV. (I’ll hold that judgment for another time.)
According to Subaru, the project was a 50/50-split. Both teams had the same number of personnel and provided equal input and responsibility on development, design, and engineering. However, production will be handled by Toyota’s Motomachi plant, the same facility that produces everything from the Lexus LFA to the Toyota Yaris. And capacity is the very reason Subaru isn’t building the Solterra. Subaru just doesn’t have the room. At least not yet.
Name That Design
Both EVs go on sale this summer but we snagged an early drive with pre-production Subaru Solterra models, testing them on- and off-road routes around Scottsdale, Arizona. We’ll have a Toyota bZ4X drive review later this month, but already in the plus-column for Solterra is that the vehicle has a proper name that you can pronounce and likely remember.
Solterra is a portmanteau of the Latin words for the sun (“sol”) and Earth (“terra”). As the outdoors-for-everyone brand, the name is perfect for a Subaru family lineup that includes Ascent, Crosstrek, Forester, and Outback. As for the bZ4X, it’s apparently the first of many “bZ” products, which is the new Toyota sub-brand for battery-electric vehicles. Good luck!
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But beyond its fitting name and badging, the Solterra doesn’t look like a Subaru at all. Remove the Pleiades-inspired logo and the Solterra’s facial features are reminiscent of what a Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model-anything baby wearing a black mask would look like. Like equal parts familiar and inexplicable.
What can be explained is the Solterra’s overall aggressive look and profile. We’d say the bigger piece of the 50/50 design pie went to Toyota, which isn’t a bad thing. Modern Toyota (and Lexus) designs have been approached with aggressive strokes and Subaru could use more swashbuckling in its character lines.
But beyond its fitting name and badging, the Solterra doesn’t look like a Subaru at all.
The end result is distinctive durability, in large part due to the chunky black plastic cladding around the headlights, fenders, and lower bumpers. Yes, because they add a rugged vibe but also minimize vehicle damage when off-roading. Unless you’re traveling through a heavy thicket, scratches from light brush are less likely to appear on the textured plastic bits than if those pieces were painted metal.
Now, either rear windshield wipers are as expensive as the latest trending NFT, or doing without them is the new cool kid thing, but the Solterra also forgoes the rear blade. In its place is what Subaru calls a “ducktail” spoiler. The split opening is an aerodynamic feature that is meant to aid in clearing rain, snow, and other debris.
And it would work if the vehicle is in motion. But when the vehicle is parked, clearing off accumulated water, snow, or mud would be a hassle. And as we drove through the desert, dust did collect on the rear window so it's not an all-clear all the time feature. I will say that after going through an automated car wash, the rear was drier than a typical hatch/wagon/CUV with a spoiler would be.
For a pre-production vehicle, the fit and finish were fantastic. No misaligned panels or orange peel paint. The seams were snug—except for where the headlights meet the hood. The weatherstripping along the front edge of the hood provides a clean, tight seal but ends where the topside headlight housings begin. Maybe it’s for aerodynamics, simply a design element, or both. Either way, you’d be forgiven if you thought the hood wasn’t completely shut. Not a massive gap, mind you, but once you see it, it’s there.
In the Interest of Safety
The Solterra interior is no less intriguing in terms of design elements and materials. For starters, the instrument cluster is positioned so far forward into the dash that it creates a perplexing perspective if you focus on the length of the steering column. It’s like a visual runway leading up to the IP. That being said, the placement of the cluster does reduce eye fatigue as it's essentially where a head-up display (HUD) would be, and you can read the screen even while wearing polarized lenses. Hooray!
However, unlike a HUD which can be adjusted in height, tilt, and brightness, you can’t adjust the height of the IP. This means depending on your driving position, the steering wheel has the potential to partially block the screen. Which it did for me. Boo! My driving partner had no impairment issues but he’s also a half-foot taller than me.
The Solterra interior is no less intriguing in terms of design elements and materials.
The Solterra Premium model is outfitted with fabric upholstery while Limited and Touring get upgraded with StarTex water-repellent leather-like seating surfaces. The cabin is comfortable, features high-quality materials, and is laid out well for five occupants. Total interior volume is listed as 126 cubic feet with passenger volume measuring in at 95.7 cu ft.
With the rear seat up, the cargo area offers 27.7 cu ft of storage capacity or up to 30.3 cu ft with the second row folded flat. Note that the Subaru Solterra is not equipped with a frunk. Instead, what’s under the hood is the front electric motor. Subaru said several factors were considered, most of which revolved around safety.
A frunk increases the hood length, says the automaker, which can affect crash safety ratings. Subaru is expecting top marks when NHTSA and IIHS tests are conducted. Additionally, with a frunk, items stored there can create another layer of liability, particularly in crashes involving pedestrians.
Also missing is a glovebox. That’s not to say the Solterra is without storage. There’s actually plenty of that. There’s a center console storage bin and where a transmission assembly would be are two levels of storage trays and also a nook that fits most smartphones. But what about insurance and registration papers?
The cabin is comfortable, features high-quality materials, and is laid out well for five occupants.
The center bin is not large enough to hold a #10-sized envelope lengthwise and leaving important documents in the door pocket exposes them to damage or loss. The trunk isn’t an ideal location either. How would you explain exiting the vehicle should you be pulled over? Anyway, no frunk and no glovebox apparently mean a safer Solterra since you now have a front passenger knee bag to protect you in a crash rather than an owner’s manual. Just don’t get pulled over.
Other safety adds are standard Safe Exit Assist that warns occupants of approaching vehicles and an available 360-degree view camera. Standard on Limited and Touring trims, the all-around view is a new-to-Subaru safety feature. The Subaru Solterra comes with a slew of other safety technology as part of the EyeSight umbrella of advanced driver assistance systems like high beam assist, automatic rear braking, and even semi-autonomous parking.
The 2023 Subaru Solterra is offered in three trims: Premium, Limited, and Touring. All models feature a powertrain consisting of a high-capacity 72.8-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and two electric motors. Output is 215 horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque with a single-gear automatic like similar EVs.
The power is on the low-end of the EV scale, especially compared to AWD versions of competitors like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 (320 hp, 446 lb-ft), Ford Mustang Mach-E (266 hp, 428 lb-ft), and Volkswagen ID.4 (295 hp, 339 lb-ft). With that in mind, the Solterra didn’t feel underpowered. Its zero-to-60 mph time is clocked at 6.5 seconds. Okay, while not the sub-5 seconds claimed by the Ioniq5 or the 5.2 seconds attached to a similarly equipped Mustang Mach-E, the Solterra is fast enough on freeway on-ramps to match traffic speeds and passing is not an issue. After all, what Subaru owner is looking for an EV hot rod?
Traditionally, drive modes make adjustments to steering feel, gearing, torque bands, etc., based on the road conditions or driver preference. In the Solterra, drive modes merely change accelerator response.
The steering was precise and effortless. I got no sense of over- or understeer. Turn the wheel one way and the vehicle moves toward that direction. Solterra comes with three drive modes (Eco, Normal, and Power). Traditionally, drive modes make adjustments to steering feel, gearing, torque bands, etc., based on the road conditions or driver preference. In the Solterra, drive modes merely change accelerator response.
I felt no change in the handling and performance of the vehicle when switching from Eco to Normal. However, when selecting Power, the Solterra did accelerate just a wee bit quicker. It was noticeable enough that every time I’d hit the throttle in Power mode, I’d exclaim, “Poooweer!” as the Solterra sped up in silence. Yes, it’s the little things that bring me joy (and equally annoy my driving partners).
There is some improvement that needs to be done with the noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH), however. Because as production-ready as my test car looked, its NVH levels are less than ideal. Quiet roads meant a quiet ride, but on surfaces that weren’t smooth pavements, road noise permeated the cabin. In some instances, the outside mirrors, whichappear comically large from the driver’s seat, may have led to wind noise at highway speeds.
The biggest issue was the buffeting sound and vibration. Usually, this happens when both rear windows are down but in the Solterra, we experienced it with the windows up. It wasn’t a frequent sensation but it was persistent enough. Winds were calm, too, so I can’t say it was merely strong crosswinds.
Off-Road Adds an X Factor
The Subaru Solterra also gets standard Dual-Function X-Mode, which is found on Forester and Outback Wilderness models, and a new low-speed cruise control feature called Grip Control. With Low, Medium, and High settings, the fastest you can actually travel with Grip Control enabled is 6 mph. At least during our test. And 6 mph is fast enough as some parts of our off-road trails required more slow-and-go than fast and furious.
As expected in a Subaru, the system worked great, making adjustments to speed and spin as we moved along. All I did was steer. Even on a steep, hilly section where the Premium model’s 235/60 R18 all-season tires found themselves in a bit of a merry-go-round, I kept my foot off the pedals. I just turned the wheel a little in either direction until X-Mode-plus-Grip found its way. There was never a lack of confidence from the driver’s seat. Oh, and you also have 8.3 inches of ground clearance to work with, which no other car in the class can match.
The Solterra does everything a Subaru is supposed to do but as an EV, it’s still too green in the segment to be green enough. EPA estimates became available this week and the Solterra Premium is rated at 228 miles of range on a full charge with Limited and Touring models expected to see 222 miles. A similarly spec’d Ioniq5 AWD Extended Range is rated at 256, ID.4 Pro AWD at 241 miles, and a Mustang Mach-E Select eAWD Standard Range at 224 miles.
Without an extended range option that’s close to the coveted 300-mile marker, Solterra is not likely to bring in customers not already fans of the brand. But I will give Subaru credit in that the Solterra’s range isn’t as far apart from competitors as its powertrain numbers.
Solterra’s paddle shifters offer four levels of regen. However, even at the highest setting, when lifting your foot off the gas pedal, regeneration wasn’t as aggressive as in similar vehicles. Which I actually prefer as some EVs go so hard with the regen that you experience mild whiplash. And then there’s S-Pedal drive, which gives you one-pedal driving and regen. It can be easily activated by hitting a button near the gear selector knob. Offering both driving styles is a thoughtful benefit, especially for customers new to EVs.
When connected to a DC fast charger, the Solterra can achieve an 80-percent battery capacity in 56 minutes. On a Level 2 charger, you’re looking at about 9 hours of charging time for full battery life. As of yet, Subaru does not have a free charging program but is working on a partnership with EVgo. The automaker couldn’t divulge details of what the charging offer would be or its timing. Last month, Toyota announced one year of unlimited complimentary charging at EVgo stations for bZ4X customers. It’s a safe bet Subaru will offer at least that for Solterra buyers.
Powered by Toyota (Tech)
The Solterra’s infotainment is a new cloud-based system powered by Toyota. Premium models feature an 8.0-inch multimedia touchscreen with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Connectivity is easy and intuitive. Move up to the Solterra Limited and the system is upgraded to a 12.3-inch display. Cloud-based navigation is available for both Premium and Limited. Voice commands are simple to activate just by asking, “Hey, Subaru?” For navigation, in some cases, you don’t even need a full address, just the name of the location.
Subaru is entering an EV arena that isn’t just crowded but also cutthroat competitive. Thankfully, its first offering isn’t as dumbfounding as the underpowered and no-range Mazda MX-30. But the compact EV crossovers from Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen have, not just better range, but more choices in power, trim, and drive configurations. Against its Toyota twin, however, and the Solterra has a stronger case.
Current Subaru owners looking to make the switch to an EV will stay with the brand because the Solterra is exactly what they’re looking for: an all-electric Subaru.
Subaru is more approachable (i.e., an actual name) and, from a savings standpoint, has more available tax credits than behemoth Toyota. And its design isn’t unappealing. In fact, a sheriff did a U-turn and approached me while I was parked to ask about the vehicle (and made no mention of my “Poooweer!” test).
Current Subaru owners looking to make the switch to an EV will stay with the brand because the Solterra is exactly what they’re looking for: an all-electric Subaru. It’s where the conquest buyers come from that will be interesting, and that will be a matter of where the vehicle is priced.
No pricing is available on the Solterra until closer to its on-sale date, but the automaker says the MSRP will be within its competitors’ wheelhouse. Not including destination, entry AWD versions of the Ioniq 5, Mustang Mach-E, and ID.4 are $47,150, $46,595, and $44,440, respectively. If the Subaru Solterra starts in the low-mid $40,000 range, it might just get a second look from first-time EV buyers.
Gallery: 2023 Subaru Solterra: First Drive
2023 Subaru Solterra Premium