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Electric Vehicles

Rivian Is Turning Into the Subaru of EVs

Which might make one wonder: Why is Subaru not the Subaru of EVs?

The Rivian R3.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When the Rivian R3 rolled onto the stage in Orange County, car fans saw a flicker of the past. The truncated EV reminded automotive Twitter and Threads of throwback off-road hatchbacks with unusual shapes — the Lancia Delta, AMC Gremlin, Lada Niva, and even the maligned Yugo. It reminded me, in spirit more than silhouette, of the Subaru Outback from a quarter-century ago.

Remember the old Outback? Before it blew up and became just another crossover in a sea of indistinguishable cars, the Outback was a two-tone granola wagon with lesbian cred and font stylings borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was a cobbled-together quirky legend built for specific tribes, particularly those who wanted to traverse the craggy roads and highways of America’s backcountry. Its sluggish acceleration couldn’t compare with a futuristic torque monster like the R3 will be, yet it inspired a cult following among the road atlas generation of adventurers that Rivian hopes to duplicate in the age of massive touchscreens.

Even as its cars became more generic and ordinary in the 21st century, Subie kept its marketing efforts aimed at the outdoorsy, dog-loving folks who had become loyal to the brand. However, while its fans are the kind of people with a clear, vested interest in addressing climate change, the world’s “we love the parks” car company has dragged its toes on joining the electric vehicle revolution that hopes to slash the car industry’s carbon emissions. Subaru’s electric aversion left a giant hole in the market for an adventure EV, one that Rivian seeks to fill.

We’ve been hard on Toyota for coasting on the sustainability reputation of the Prius. The world’s largest automaker has been content to tout its “electrified” lineup of mostly hybrids and plug-in hybrids, waiting for EV technology and infrastructure to mature before it jumps in. Subaru, for all its exercises in Earth mother branding, has done the same.

To its credit, Subie made most of its cars follow “partial zero emissions” standards reflected by the PZEV badge you see on the back of a modern Forester. This means the engine burns normal gasoline, but is built with characteristics that reduce smog-forming air pollutants. PZEV tech does nothing to reduce a car’s greenhouse emissions, but it’s about the best a non-hybrid, plain-old combustion car can do.

But Subaru never bothered to build even a Prius-esque MPG-maximizer. And it has been even more reluctant than its partner, Toyota, to join the battery revolution. Subaru’s only entry, the now-canceled plug-in hybrid variant of the Crosstrek, posted a paltry 17 miles of electric range before reverting to gas. According to Green Car Reports, the hybrid Crosstrek was effectively a “compliance car” — something automakers build to satisfy stringent regulations like the state of California’s, not because they believe in the vehicle.

The Crosstrek PHEV can die because Subaru finally has an EV: the Solterra, built on the tech platform Subaru developed in cahoots with Toyota. It is the same car as Toyota’s debut EV, the bZ4x, but with Subaru badges. The Solterra’s angular looks surely will appeal to somebody, and the car will satisfy superfans’ desire for any fully electric Subaru. But the Solterra is an uninspired crossover with a 228-mile range that can’t compare with the current state of the art. It certainly hasn’t generated the reaction of the R3.

For those willing to ignore the climate crisis, the naked business case for ignoring zero-emission technology in the present is clear. Even as the EV age bubbles up around them, the least-electric car brands are selling lots and lots of cars. Americans bought more than 15 million vehicles in 2023, and 632,000 of them were Subarus, a 14% increase from the year before. Subaru didn’t lose money on EVs like Ford has as it tries to establish its battery business. With EVs now stuck between early adopters and the mainstream, it’s possible to make the case that the holdouts are cynical, but smart.

It’s also not easy to build an electric car that does what a Subaru is supposed to do. I’ve driven across the empty expanses of the American West in a two-wheel-drive Tesla Model 3 that started its life with an EPA-rated 240 miles per charge. It was challenging. Subzero temperatures at Bryce Canyon punished the battery. The craggy, icy road into Canyonlands National Park pushed the iffy ground clearance to its limit. The range was barely enough for us to tempt fate by leaving the interstate and crossing the rugged interior of Utah, a decision that saw me end up borrowing — you guessed it — a friendly stranger’s old Subaru Outback while my Tesla charged.

You’d want an small electric vehicle built for adventure to ride taller and go farther. Well, they built one. It’s a Rivian. The rally car-inspired R3 promises to pair fat tires and promising ground clearance with outdoorsy-minded details such as fold-flat seats, a movie-projecting rooftop tent, and a rear-mounted cargo box. The new Rivians should come with at least 300 miles of range, which ought to be enough to reach most far-flung locales as the map of fast-charging stations continues to fill in.

This isn’t to say Subie doomed itself by dithering. For all the excitement over Rivian’s new offerings, the R2 remains at least two years away from realization, and the little R3 even longer. Besides, Rivian’s biggest obstacle isn’t Subaru, but survival. The startup burns through billions of dollars each year and needs to persist on sales of its large, expensive R1 SUVs and trucks until the mass-market models go on sale.

In the meantime, Subaru could trot out a battery-powered Crosstrek and sell a bunch of them to people who’ve been buying fossil fuel Subies for decades. That looks like the plan: The brand now says it will launch a quartet of EV crossovers (possibly the current Crosstrek-Outback-Forester-Ascent lineup, but electric) by 2026, just in time to compete with the R2 and R3, and build 400,000 EVs per year by 2028.

Yet something has been lost. Every time Subaru trots out a new gas-burning vehicle on a stage meant to mimic the high desert or advertises its corporate contributions to the National Park system, it tries to reinforce its status as the car for the Earth-conscious. Stalling on EVs may have been the easy business decision, but the brand has given away excitement that it could have owned, if only they’d trotted out an EV with the spirit of that quirky old Outback.

Or do an Impreza hot hatch EV. As the response to the R3 demonstrated, we’re ready.


Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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