2023 Subaru Solterra First Drive Review: Proficient, But Not Excellent
Subaru’s first attempt at a BEV is competent, but no show-stopper.
As the electric revolution sweeps dealerships across the States, some manufacturers have been eager to electrify their fleets with battery-electric vehicles, while others have preferred to work with hybridization or more efficient ICE drivetrains, choosing to eschew pure EVs altogether. Until recently, Subaru fell strongly into the latter category, so the 2023 Subaru Solterra marks its first entry into the BEV market. Usually, a traditional automaker's first EV is a splashy affair. But because Subaru took its time launching its first EV, the Solterra just feels lackluster in a market now packed with stronger competitors.
Under the skin of the Solterra is another Toyota/Subaru joint project meant to combine the economies of scale offered by Toyota’s might and engineering prowess with the smaller Subaru's off-road character. While Toyota and Subaru's last combined effort, the BRZ/GR86 platform, is a completely different vehicle in ethos—I'm pretty sure Merriam-Webster has "electric crossover" and "sports coupe" listed as antonyms—the teamwork here is similar. Toyota's version of the Solterra, the BZ4X, is the more city-oriented of the new electric twins, with slightly less ground clearance and a base model that offers front-wheel drive (and a steering yoke, if you're into that sort of thing). Otherwise, though, the pair are mostly the same.
2023 Subaru Solterra Specs
- Base price (as tested): $46,220 ($49,720)
- Powertrain: twin 80-kW AC-synchronous electric motors | 1-speed transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 215
- Torque: 249 ft-lb
- Seating capacity: 5
- Cargo volume: 27.7 cubic feet
- Curb weight: 4,365 pounds
- Off-road angles: 17.7° approach, 25.4° departure, 18.2° breakover
- Ground clearance: 8.3 inches
- Range: 228 miles (Premium trim) or 222 miles (Limited/Touring trims)
- Charge time: 9 hours @ L2 240V
- EPA fuel economy: 94 mpge city | 114 highway | 104 combined
- Quick take: Not bad; just not great, either.
- Score: 6.5/10
The Solterra's biggest differentiating feature from its Toyota sibling is that it does offer a Subaru standby right from its base trim, which is standard all-wheel-drive. And it carries through in traditional Subaru fashion, with a full-time 50:50 front/rear motor torque split, just like its ICE cars offer. Subaru also has leaned into the off-roading lifestyle it's renowned for, offering a standard traction-control program known as X-Mode, which allows the crossover's silicon brains to divert power as intensely as 40:60 (for hard launches or steep hills) or 70:30 (for additional traction in slippery terrain). As part of X-Mode, Subaru owners who take their Solterras to more challenging terrain can enjoy a fantastic hill-country cruise control that governs ascent and descent speeds on loose, rocky trails.
The twin AC synchronous motors in the front and rear together put out 215 horsepower and 249 pounds-feet of torque, all propelled by a 72.8-kWh battery unit integrated into the skateboard-style chassis. The Solterra scoots itself to 60 in six and a half seconds. If stoplight pulls in a crossover happen to be your kink, the Solterra’s instant torque is adequate in traditional EV fashion. There are three different trims (Premium, Limited, and Touring), but no matter which Solterra you buy, there’s no chance for more power or capacity. This means that buyers will find themselves with a maximum of 228 miles of range (but the two higher trims shave six miles off that, to 222).
This all works out to a combined city/highway efficiency of 104 mpge, which is consistent with other battery-electric crossovers on the market (but does trail some of the stronger offerings available right now, such as the Tesla Model Y). The range—which, despite that relatively large 72.8-kWh battery pack and the 4,365 pounds the Solterra carries around because of it—is overall quite average. In the $45,000 to $50,000 AWD EV market, there are offerings—such as the Polestar 2—with dozens more miles of range (or nearly a hundred more if AWD isn't a must-have, in the case of the Ford Mustang Mach-E). Subaru's EV also only allows for a maximum charging speed of 100 kW per hour, which is better for battery longevity but falls behind competitors that offer 180-kW-per-hour charging such as the Kia EV6. So don't expect to go from E to cruising again as quickly as other EVs on the market can.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed I’ve not mentioned the Solterra’s exterior styling thus far in my review, and that’s because I have nothing kind to say about it; after seven hours of shooting photos of it in some of the most beautiful vistas of Southern California, I never found a single angle I really liked. It is cladding-bedecked just like the rest of Subaru's lineup is; unfortunately, it wears it worse than its ICE brethren do. True, its front and rear fascias are sharply angled, but they're also overall pretty anonymous and forgettable. And the most major stylistic difference the Solterra bears from the BZ4X—the hexagonal suggestion of a grille tacked onto the front end—makes it even uglier than the already-unlovable Toyota.
Luckily for me, the interior is much milder and a lot lighter on the cladding (although unfortunately still heavy on the piano black), and it feels much more familiarly Subaru as a result. A 12.3-inch center touchscreen with standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto greets drivers; climate control and stereo functionality are managed with a mixture of physical buttons and capacitive-touch ones.
The one difference from ICE-powered Subarus is the driver gauge pod; it's a screen that is intended to be visible above the (very small) steering wheel, although given the relatively strange nature of my height-to-arm-ratio, I never quite found a position where I could read the speedo cleanly without the wheel blocking it. By the end of my day behind the wheel of the Solterra, I finally found a comfortable setup, but it definitely took some adaptation. Moving rearward, the cargo volume is a solid 27.7 cubic feet with the second-row seats up, but the steeply raked fastback profile of the rear hatch makes it feel a lot smaller than competitors with flatter rear profiles, such as the Volkswagen ID.4, when actually loading the Solterra full of gear.
With my familiarity established with the Solterra's innards, Subaru tossed me the keys and pointed me at the smooth blacktop of Santa Barbara. The standout feature for me immediately was how comfortable the ride felt. Despite Subaru's focus on proving its first BEV can off-road like the rest of its lineup (more on that later), the Solterra is remarkably well-sprung for pavement, with its 112.2-inch wheelbase and gentle shock valving making it feel much more placid than many competing crossovers, such as the more swift-footed Kia EV6. Subaru's Eyesight suite of driving assists—which includes lane-keep assistance, adaptive cruise control for both traffic and cornering, and pre-collision braking—made short work of the 101, although on some of the curvier, 55-mph roads through the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, I found it a bit harsh on deceleration into corners and the lane-keep assist a bit less confident than some competitors.
The Solterra does offer one concession to sport-inspired driving despite this relaxed nature: Its regenerative braking strength is controlled by a set of paddle shifters behind the steering wheel (also a feature unique to the Subaru; Toyota's BZ4X doesn't feature paddles). At minimum strength, it coasts; at full strength, it offers a form of mild one-pedal driving, but not the aggressive regeneration of most electric cars that allow user-configurable deceleration. It is likely enough for first-time EV buyers who need to get used to one-pedal driving, but for long-time electric car buyers, it will likely feel weak even at its harshest settings.
Back to more calm driving, the Solterra performed proficiently. Once I finally acclimated to the Little Tykes Cozy-Coupe-sized steering wheel, the steering feel was pleasant; cabin noise is low thanks to the all-season tires and better-than-Subaru-average sound insulation. The Solterra's ethos leans far more towards being a solid crossover than relying on any shock-and-awe, new-tech tricks that EV manufacturers are so keen to play up, so with the exception of the lack of boxer rumble, it would be mistakable for a traditional ICE crossover. For the right buyer, this is a welcome bonus and not a downside.
After exploring the Solterra on the paved paradise of Santa Barbara, Subaru jetted us to Catalina Island, an unpaved (and mostly off-limits to cars) rural island 29 miles off the coasts of Long Beach. Here, on the dirt stretches and steep hills, the electric crossover offered the same flavor of unpaved competency that you can expect from the rest of the Subaru lineup. With a strong 8.3 inches of ground clearance, 18.2 degrees of breakover, and an approach angle of 17.7 degrees, it's not quite an Outback Wilderness, but those stats are more impressive and offer more capability than any BEV I can find data on, too—save for pickup trucks like the GMC Hummer EV and Rivian R1T. The X Mode offroad package was smart about allocating power to the wheels that still had traction, and allowed the Solterra to climb uneven terrain in a most Subaru-like manner. Most of the trails were relatively straightforward, hard-packed dirt paths that would be typical campsite fare; if you're shopping to silently rock-crawl, you'll want to look at a more rugged—and expensive—EV, such as the R1T. And even then, on the dry, dusty fire roads of Catalina Island, the lack of a spare tire and 20-inch wheels (standard on trims above the base) kept the Solterra from feeling completely oriented towards traditional Subaru-esque off-roading.
The base Premium model starts at $46,220, but Subaru gave me a Limited-trim Solterra, the mid-grade variant, to test. It sells for $49,720 after destination fees and gets you 20-inch wheels, fog lights, standard roof rails, heated seats, a 360-degree view backup camera paired with the nicer 12.3-inch infotainment screen, and a better Harman Kardon audio system. I would argue it's well worth paying extra for the Limited for those heated seats alone, especially in climates colder than Santa Barbara. Regardless of pricing, however, even if you did want a true jack-of-all-trades like the Solterra, you're out of luck. Subaru has already sold all 6,500 examples for the coming model year, and orders are closed. Availability for 2024 is still hazy.
Overall, the Solterra was a competent offroader. And, really, that exemplifies my experience with the car overall: It is competent. It's a solid all-rounder that traverses highways in comfort, offers acceptable range, and can drive trails in a way that gave me confidence. But it does all of this at the expense of feeling truly superb in any aspect.
For any off-roading in an electrified crossover, I'd still prefer Subaru's Crosstrek PHEV, despite its gas-sipping proclivities, because it eliminates my range concerns in the vast wilds of my normal stomping grounds of the Toiyabe National Forest. For on-road cruising, I prefer the higher range, better driver assists, and more future-forward (and comfortable!) interior of Kia's EV6. If I wanted to experience the gut-wrenching joy of electrified torque, I would head to Ford's Mach-E Mustang, which accelerates nearly a second and a half quicker to 60 in its AWD trim. In the styling department... well, that cladding hasn't grown on me, let's put it like that. The Solterra does have a solid strength over its twin-brother BZ4X, however, because Subaru still has plenty of federal $7,500 EV tax credits left and Toyota is almost plum out. Just make sure you read the fine print before you let it factor into your decision-making.
All told, as an EV, the Solterra is inoffensive. It's not egregiously lacking in any department (except possibly styling); it performs its duties with enough proficiency to justify its existence. It's just not noteworthy in an ever-expanding EV market packed full of superlatives at the same price point. And Subaru's own baseline for off-roading duties is so high that the Solterra's capabilities feel lackluster in comparison. In short, If you're going camping and want the Pleiades on your car, I'd stick with the gasoline pumps for a little while longer.
Got a tip or question for the author? Contact her directly: email@example.com.