Expert Reviews

2023 Subaru Solterra First Drive Review

As far as electric vehicles (EVs) go, the 2023 Subaru Solterra is pretty average.

OK, it’s better than average – although only barely. That’s according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which says the average EV can travel a little more than 350 km these days, which isn’t far from the 360 km the Solterra is estimated to offer on a full charge. That also puts it at odds with a 2022 KPMG study that found some 79 per cent of Canadians won’t consider an EV unless it can travel a minimum of 400 km before plugging in.

None of that makes for the good foot Subaru was hoping to get off on with its first-ever EV, which took longer than it should have to make it to market. Making matters worse are fast-charging limitations that do little to assuage range anxiety. But that’s also just about where the trouble ends. The Solterra may not be perfect, but it’s packed with the type of character and charisma fans of this brand have long grown familiar with.

The Good

Instead of feeling like some kind of compliance vehicle – that is, one that’s built simply to meet zero-emissions targets – the Solterra fits into the Subaru lineup quite nicely. Based on its size alone, this EV slots in somewhere between the Forester and Outback, boasting nearly the same overall length of the former and a similarly sleek shape and height as the latter. However, unlike either of those the Solterra is built on a dedicated EV platform that allows the cabin floor to sit lower than it would in a typical crossover this size, with generous cabin dimensions as a result.

That’s made possible by the absence of mechanical components underneath the vehicle like the driveshaft every other Subaru needs to send torque to the rear wheels. The Solterra does, however, have standard all-wheel drive just like every one of the brand’s vehicles with the exception of the BRZ, with a pair of electric motors front and back dedicated to driving those respective wheels. This being a Subaru, the system is full-time in nature, meaning all four wheels are constantly being fed torque for maximum traction. The default split is 50/50, but it can be divided by as much as 70/30 in favour of the front or in a rear-biased 40/60, depending on conditions.

Being a fully automatic system – and an electric one at that – there’s no way to manipulate the torque split, although Subaru’s selectable X-Mode system can optimize it for driving in everything from dirt to deep snow and mud. There’s also a so-called grip control system that acts as a sort of off-road cruise control, with a small toggle on the centre console dictating the speed at which the Solterra will keep moving, allowing the driver to focus on avoiding obstacles on the trail.

Will many Solterra owners take their EVs off-road? It’s unlikely, but that doesn’t take away from the capability this Subaru boasts – although the trail is the one place the weight and stiffness of the battery pack beneath the Solterra is noticeable. Even so, a mild off-road test where the only other vehicle encountered was a lifted Jeep laid bare the Solterra’s ability to go anywhere an Outback or Forester can, crawling across deep ruts and clawing its way up inclines with ease.

The rest of the time, it’s a comfortable and sure-footed crossover that’s smooth and satisfying out on the open road. While the twin 80-kW motors produce what may seem at first glance like a disappointing 215 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, that it’s electric output means throttle response is instantaneous. The Solterra certainly feels quicker than its claimed zero-to-100 km/h sprint time of 6.9 seconds would suggest, with more than adequate abilities when passing and merging on the highway.

Suspension damping is nearly perfect, too, delivering the kind of on-road comfort few EVs – and even fewer mainstream ones – can match. Its closest competitor in that regard is probably the similarly sized Volkswagen ID.4, which comes across as a little sloppier in everyday driving. Likewise, where that all-electric VW’s steering system lacks any semblance of feel and feedback, the Solterra’s was a highlight on a series of winding roads cutting up from the California coast to the desert. While it won’t be mistaken for one of this brand’s sportier entries, the Solterra is certainly poised.

The Bad

Those are all impressive traits regardless of how this crossover is powered, but it’s important not to forget that this is an EV, and that comes with certain expectations. That’s especially true when automakers like Subaru are facing aggressive emissions targets that would, in theory, see their entire lineups electrified by 2035.

While the history of EVs is a short one, and much progress has been made in recent years – the IEA says the average EV range was just 200 km in 2015 – the estimated 360 km the Solterra can travel on a full charge is less than key competitors including the ID.4 and Nissan Ariya. And while those (and others) use slightly bigger batteries to do so, it still puts this Subaru at a disadvantage next to its rivals.

Beyond the distance the Solterra and its 72.8-kWh battery is capable of covering, its maximum DC fast-charging speed of 100 kW is yet another drawback. In fairness, Subaru says the charging rate is capped in order to preserve the lifespan of the battery pack, which is certainly a worthy cause. (The automaker’s modelling targets a 90 per cent capacity retention after 10 years.) But then the Lexus RZ that’s built on the same platform and uses a slightly smaller battery can charge at a rate of 150 kW, which cuts down considerably on time spent plugged in.

The Solterra’s charging speed means it should take an hour to get to 80 per cent compared to 40 minutes for the Ariya and 30 minutes for the ID.4 with their big batteries. (Likewise, the RZ should take about 30 minutes to hit 80 per cent.) There’s also the issue of how many times a day the Solterra can be hooked up to a fast-charger: twice, in order to pre-empt any overheating issues. Meanwhile, a 240-volt Level 2 home charger should finish a full charge in 11 hours.

One other issue of note is the lack of one-pedal driving whereby an EV can be brought to a full stop by simply easing off the throttle. Even so, the regenerative braking can be cycled through five levels that get progressively more aggressive. Combined with an eco drive mode that softens throttle response in order to consume less energy, it’s possible to make the most of what the battery has to offer.

The Rest

Beyond the fundamentals, this EV manages to feel both futuristic and familiar, which is no small feat. Yes, it’s obvious that the Solterra is all but identical to the Toyota bZ4X, yet it’s still very much in keeping with the identity that Subaru has established for its vehicles over the years. While the touch-sensitive switchgear for the climate control system occasionally requires multiple attempts to complete a task, the interface itself is straightforward. Likewise, the all-digital instrument display is elevated to sit above the steering wheel, which is a novel solution to the all-too-common issue of information being obscured from view.

There’s also a whole host of advanced safety features ranging from forward collision warning to front and rear automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and keeping assistance, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. There’s also adaptive cruise control that seems to work more smoothly than the same system in a gas-powered Subaru, matching speed with preceding traffic and accelerating again in a linear fashion.

All that’s included in the cheapest 2023 Subaru Solterra, which starts at $54,295 plus a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,995. That entry-level version also includes stuff like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto run through an eight-inch touchscreen, heated front seats, and a free trial of a full suite of connected services that allows remote access to the vehicle via a connected smartphone.

In order to keep the Solterra under government rebate price caps, the rest of the lineup is package-based, so the Luxury pack adds another $4,100 and includes a 12.3-inch touchscreen, 11-speaker stereo (up from six), heated steering wheel and outboard back seats, and a self-parking system, among others for $60,390 before tax and rebates. Finally, the Technology pack adds $7,800 to the base price and comes with all that plus extras like ventilated front seats and a fixed panoramic sunroof for $64,090.

Packaging and pricing are the key differentiators between the Solterra and its corporate cousin, the Toyota bZ4X, with the latter featuring two trims that are cheaper than this Subaru’s starting price but don’t offer all-wheel drive. (For what it’s worth, the all-wheel-drive bZ4X and its own rang-topping Technology package is priced at $64,680 before tax compared to the Solterra’s $64,090.)

There is, however, an important distinction between these two electrically identical crossovers: availability. While both are offered in small numbers to begin with, the bZ4X is only available for purchase in the provinces with the biggest tax rebates, Quebec and British Columbia, while the Solterra is sold across the country.

Final Thoughts

More broadly, the 2023 Subaru Solterra is something of a mixed bag. While its driving dynamics, comfort, and capability are unquestioned – and unquestionably on-brand – it comes across as just OK for an EV. That fact wouldn’t have stood out so much a few short years ago, but the mainstream market is a tightly contested one these days, with a growing number of rivals vying for attention with products that do better than the Solterra in key areas like range and charging speeds.

The Volkswagen ID.4 probably presents the stiffest competition for the Solterra, offering more range and faster charging for less money. However, shoppers willing to look past this Subaru’s shortcomings will find a crossover that feels a generation old in terms of EV technology, but is right where it needs to be in terms of amenities and amiability.