Refined Levorg is Subaru’s anti-fashion estate car

Costly and no diesel option but car has secret weapon: its role in British racing series

So, here is Subaru’s plan. At a time when 75 per cent of Irish car buyers are going for diesel engines, it’s going to launch an expensive new model (€44,995 with just the one, well-equipped trim level) with no diesel option.

Instead, the new Levorg estate comes with a new 1.6-litre, turbocharged “Boxer” flat-four petrol engine, strapped to an automatic CVT transmission and permanent all-wheel drive. It has, for the record, Co2 emissions of 164g/km. Fashionable, it ain’t.

Almost impossibly, this car has been introduced to Ireland as a result of customer demand, having been on sale in the United Kingdom for some time already. Presumably, those letters from customers numbered in the single figures, but Subaru Ireland was sufficiently reactive to bring the car to them, with one spokesperson telling The Irish Times "it's going to be a halo car, so realistically we're probably talking in the region of 10 sales a year. Mind you, we've sold six or seven already this year, and some of those have gone to former owners of WRX and STI models, who maybe have gotten a bit older and now want something sporty, but a little more refined and comfortable."

Refined and comfortable the Levorg most certainly is. It seems almost alien these days to sit in a large-ish family car, thumb the ignition button and not hear a diesel clatter and blare. The Levorg’s engine offers 170hp and 250Nm of torque, so it’s hardly going to be a bullet in terms of straight-line performance, but it certainly has silence on its side. Space? Not so much. In spite of the estate bodywork, there’s a mere 522-litres of boot volume – decent, but not a patch on what you can get from a Skoda.



The Levorg seems to drive rather nicely though. I say seems as we were restricted, for this test, to the smooth and snaking tarmac of the track at Rally School Ireland, just adjacent to Scottstown, Co Monaghan. Subaru is now the official vehicle supplier to the school, and a liveried last-gen Impreza STI was snarling its way around the course as we drove the Levorg.

What limited impressions I can convey are of light, quick steering, good balance, decent acceleration but a tendency to lapse into early oversteer. More than that will have to wait for a spin on the public road.

At least it has a decent cabin. Subaru is legendary for selling you a car and then throwing in the interior for free, with the result being cheap plastics and a sense of tinny-ness. The Levorg avoids that – the inside looks a little old-fashioned in places but the plastics and surfaces are both pleasant and rugged, the seats excellent and there’s adequate space in the back.

Nigh on €45,000 though? That's going to be a tough sell, even with decent standard equipment in the one and only GT trim. Subaru does have a secret weapon in that regard though – Portadown-born racing driver Colin Turkington. Turkington, who made his racing debut in he Ulster Karting Series in 1993 is team-mate to British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) star Jason Plato in the BMR Racing squad, which is running Subaru Levorgs in the still-reviving racing series.

According to Subaru Ireland, even though it’s a UK-centric series with TV coverage only on digital channel ITV4, the Levorg’s appearances in the BTCC have triggered inquiries here. How does Colin feel, being part racing driver, part proxy salesman? “That’s always been the thing with touring cars” he said.

“The results on a Sunday generated sales on a Monday. And it’s such a good way of showcasing the car and generating sales for the brand, relative to the costs. The race car looks really well and this is the first time that Subaru has really been involved in touring cars, but already the following we have is incredible. At the race tracks, one bank will just be covered with Subaru cars and flags and so on.”

Colin McRae

Clearly, racing drivers tend to make level-headed decisions about for whom to drive, but Turkington says that the storied motorsports history of Subaru was a massive draw. “Whenever I heard that Subaru was going to be involved, I just jumped at the chance, purely because of the history and the whole Colin McRae era, not to mention Petter Solberg and so on. I was a rally fan as a kid. My dad rallied, an MkII Escort, mostly here in Ireland, but also the Manx and some of the WRC events. But those McRae days, those were the days.

“The profile of the BTCC is growing again every year, so we have all the races live on ITV4, and of course that 90s peak was built from prime time TV – Saturday afternoon Grandstand, and Murray Walker, and the drivers became household names. And that’s what it’s trying to get back to. The series did dip in the early 2000s, but now we get 30,000-40,000 people through the gate and 21 million viewers over a season on TV.”

That makes two Irish drivers what has long been the Premier League of tin-top racing, as Turkington is current rival and former team-mate to Dublin-born Árón Smith, who’s racing a Volkswagen CC for BKR Racing this year. Thus far, it’s Turkington in the ascendancy this year, with three race wins in 2016 to Smith’s none, but he says the pair remain good friends.

“Rivalry? Not really no. North-South thing? No, not that, not really. You just sort of see everyone as a competitor but I’ve been team-mates with Árón but there’s no extra rivalry with him. Actually, he’s one of the ones I’d get on best with,” says Turkington.

That said, there must be some satisfaction in being in such good competitive trim in a brand new car. “The Levorg has been really strong so far this season, and it’s our first season. We had a very short time frame to get ready. They built four cars in 87 days. The button was pushed on the project just before Christmas and the first race was at Easter.

Championship contention

“So they put the seat into my car on the Friday evening of the Brands Hatch opener. So those first three events came at us so quickly, and then on the fourth we took pole and a race win, and got ourselves into championship contention.

“It doesn’t feel like a big car, actually the wheelbase is very similar as the BMW 1 Series I was racing previously, but the handling has been our saviour, it’s been excellent. And part of that is the Boxer engine which sits so low. Four of these road cars drove into BMR, they were stripped out, back to the shell, and it starts as a fully functional road car and then becomes a race car.”

The fact that Subaru has made a return to racing, in any form, is something of a touchstone for car nuts. The glory days of McRae, Burns, gold wheels, blue paint and PlayStation games is long in the past, and with it the appeal of paying to run and insure a rocket-fast Japanese saloon with carbon emissions that look like horsepower readouts.

In that sense, perhaps the Levorg represents something of a bridge between Subaru’s past and future. The piping-hot rally specials that it once built a reputation upon are basically unsellable now, but the Levorg shows that some enthusiasm and some fun can still be mixed with at least reasonable Co2 emissions. Barely so, but it does.

Will that, combined with strong results in a new field of motor sport endeavour be enough? Will the world's car enthusiasts beat a new path to Subaru's door? Possibly so – although hamstrung by high prices brought on by a strong Japanese Yen, Subaru still makes some appealing vehicles and their reliability is not in doubt. The Levorg is going to be a tough sell, though, no matter how many trophies it picks up.