Carmakers struck gold when they came up with the idea of the crossover. Combining the convenience of a hatchback with the rugged off-road image of an SUV has proved to be like catnip for family car buyers.

On paper, the Subaru XV is a classic example of the breed. Size-wise it's a little larger than the ubiquitous Nissan Qashqai or the excellent new Seat Ateca, but it's aiming for more-or-less the same slice of this highly lucrative market.

The question is, does it have what it takes to compete with the best in class?

From the outside, the new Subaru XV bears a distinct resemblance to the old model – albeit nipped and tucked in a few places to give it a leaner, sportier appearance. Looks can be deceiving, though, because underneath the skin this is effectively an all-new car. It's the second model to use Subaru's new Global Platform, which also underpins the new Impreza.

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Thanks partly to this new platform, the XV was recently rated best-in-class for small family cars by Euro NCAP, topping the scoresheets for both child and adult safety. This is further helped by a comprehensive suite of driver aids, which make it exceedingly difficult to crash. We know because we've tried. No, really.

The new platform also means it's better to drive than the old car. Torsional rigidity is up by 70 per cent, the suspension mounts are stiffer and there's a new rear stabiliser. The end result is a marked reduction in body roll, so the new car feels tauter without compromising on ride quality. It also helps to improve refinement, by reducing the transmission of noise and vibration through the structure.

So far so good. But as well as what's been added there's the small matter of what's been taken away. The diesel engine from the old car has been dropped, as has the option of a manual gearbox. Instead, all XV models now come with a petrol engine (in either 2-litre 156 PS or 1.6-litre 114 PS form) and a continuously variable transmission (CVT), dubbed Lineartronic in Subaru-speak.

Much like its exterior, the cabin of the XV has been treated to a subtle but effective makeover. Material quality is a marked step up from the old model, with soft-touch plastics and sporty orange stitching on both trim grades. However, the interior is still good rather than excellent when you consider that the top-spec 2.0i SE Premium model is verging on Audi Q3 and BMW X1 territory, at £28,495.

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Where the Subaru fights back is its equipment. There are only two trim grades to consider (SE and SE Premium). Both come with heated front seats, dual zone climate control, Bluetooth, voice recognition and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Subaru's full suite of EyeSight driver aids comes as standard, too, as do LED headlights that are complete with an auto-dip function and a system that tilts the beam to illuminate your way around corners.

The infotainment system isn't the slickest to look at, but it works well enough, with easily navigable menus and a responsive touchscreen that's aided by additional buttons. DAB is standard across the range, but navigation is only available on the SE Premium. The higher-spec model also brings a sunroof, plus leather seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver.

To our eyes, the Subaru's sporty silhouette works well, with its steeply raked nose and coupe-like roofline. The downside to this is that taller adults will find they don't have a huge amount of headroom in the back. Legroom, however, is plentiful – and there's a decent view out for younger passengers.

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Up front there's plenty of room, with enough seat adjustment to get comfortable. The design of the seats themselves is also worthy of a mention, with a good blend of comfort and support.

Boot space is towards the smaller end of the class, at 385 litres, but it still compares favourably to a typical family hatchback and it extends to a generous 1,270 litres with the rear seats down.

Subaru has stuck with the boxer engine configuration that once gave the company's rally cars their distinctive off-beat warble. You won't find anything quite as exciting in the XV, but it is fairly refined.

The exception to this rule is when you put your foot down. Unlike its turbocharged competitors – both petrol and diesel – the naturally aspirated engine in the Subaru needs to be revved, and the CVT gearbox is all too happy to oblige.

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To be fair, you can control the gearbox yourself, with a set of six steps artificially added to the CVT when it's in manual mode. This does a better job of imitating a conventional gearbox than you might expect, but it doesn't really add a great deal to the experience. Overall, it's better to let the CVT do its own thing.

Even in 2-litre form the XV never feels especially brisk. Subaru quotes 10.4 seconds for the 0-62mph sprint and a top speed of 120mph, while the 1.6-litre concedes a further 3.5 seconds and tops out at 109mph. We didn't have a chance to sample the smaller engine model, but based on our experience we'd suggest going for the 2-litre. A 10 g/km improvement in CO2 rating (145 plays 155 g/km) and an extra 3.2mpg (44.1 on the combined cycle as opposed to 40.9) are unlikely to sway anyone, and the difference in purchase price is relative modest at £1,500.

According to Subaru, one of the benefits of the boxer engine configuration is its lower centre of gravity, and the XV is impressively stable. It's not exactly sporty, mind, but it does feel agile and well-balanced.

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The ride is generally good and body roll is pretty well contained. You do get a certain amount of wind and road noise, plus the occasional thump transmitted through the suspension, but it's a fairly relaxing experience on the whole. Throw in reasonably responsive steering and XV makes a decent case for itself on road.

Where it really shines, however, is off the beaten track. Unlike most cars in its class, the XV comes with permanent all-wheel drive. This means there's no delay in shuffling the power to the other wheels if you push the car to spin. Combined with Hill Descent Control – which regulates the car's speed on tricky descents – and Subaru's X-Mode – which improves traction and stability in slippery conditions – it makes the XV genuinely capable off-road. Even on regular road tyres it sails over the sort of bumpy, muddy tracks that would leave most crossovers wishing they'd stuck to the school run.

The Subaru EyeSight system is a package of six different technologies: Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Braking, Pre-Collision Throttle Management, Lane Sway and Departure Warning, Lane Keep Assist and Lead Vehicle Start Alert. On top of this, the XV also features Blind Spot Monitoring, Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.

As the name implies, Pre-Collision Braking will attempt to stop the car if it senses an impending accident. It starts with an audible warning, but it will then apply the brakes if the driver doesn't react or doesn't brake hard enough.

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During the launch we were invited to put this to the test using a collapsible target. At speeds of around 20mph it brought the car to a complete standstill several feet clear of the obstacle. Whether or not it would still avoid an accident completely at higher speeds remains to be seen, but it would certainly reduce the severity of any impact. Just as importantly, we didn't encounter any false alerts while driving the car on the road (although you can disable the EyeSight system if you wish).

Pre-Collision Throttle Management dramatically limits the car's acceleration from a standing start if it detects an obstacle. The idea is that it gives you time to react if, for example, you accidentally select forwards rather than reverse in a car park or if the car in front stops as you go to pull away in traffic.

The Rear Cross Traffic Alert system lets you know if it senses traffic moving across the car's path as it reverses. The system works over an impressive range and picks up approaching cars that you can't necessarily see from the driver's seat.

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Admittedly, none of these functions are unique to Subaru, but they do combine to make a comprehensive and very effective driver assistance package that's standard across the XV range.

Verdict

The Subaru XV is generally a good car to drive. However, occasional chinks in its refinement and that somewhat quirky CVT transmission prevent it from troubling the class leaders when on the road. The lack of a diesel engine option will also limit its appeal to some buyers, as will its pricing.

The prices are, to a certain extent, offset by the fact the XV comes with four-wheel drive and automatic transmission as standard. Excellent passive and active safety features also help to strengthen its case (although admittedly most of its rivals fare pretty well here too).

Where the XV really scores high is with its impressive off-road performance and Subaru's famously rugged construction. As such it remains a niche proposition, but one with plenty to recommend it.

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The phenomenally successful Nissan Qashqai really marked the start of the crossover as we know it today. Now in its second-generation guise, it continues to offer a compelling blend of practicality, economy and value for money. Not as well equipped as the XV, nor as capable off-road, but it's all the crossover that most people will ever need.

Read the full article: Nissan Qashqai review

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The Seat Ateca is one of the latest additions to the mid-size crossover market. It's good to drive, impressively practical (with a massive 510-litre boot) and loaded with a reassuring sense of VW Group quality. A great all-rounder.

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Although it's arguably a size bigger than the XV, the Mazda CX-5 overlaps the Subaru on price. Sharp styling, engaging dynamics and a spacious interior make it a strong contender. Its smaller CX-3 sibling follows a similar recipe, although it can't match the XV for space.

Read the full article: Mazda CX-5 review