When everyone makes a crossover SUV, how do you make your crossover SUV stand out?
First, you split the difference between compact-sized crossovers like the Mazda CX-3 and mid-sized crossovers like the Honda CR-V.
You give it a roomy back seat — and a roomy cargo area — but a small overall footprint.
Next, make all-wheel-drive standard. It’s generally optional — and costs extra — in other-brand crossovers.
Then give it class-leading ground clearance — almost 9 inches — and make the standard AWD system more capable and performance-oriented than rivals’ available, but less-capable, systems.
Give it a low center of gravity — by fitting it with a flat four engine that’s hunkered down in the chassis — so it’s not tipsy in the curves, despite being able to ford creeks and handle serious snow.
Offer all that with a manual transmission — something that’s becoming as rare in crossovers as smoking lounges at airports.
A crossover that’s not just another one.
WHAT IT IS
The Crosstrek is Subaru’s entry-level crossover SUV.
It effectively takes the place of the Outback wagon (which is full-sized now and also at the top of Subaru’s price roster) as the company’s most affordable back-road Banzai-mobile.
It is larger — and roomier inside than most of its compact-sized competition, including models like the Mazda CX-3. Especially in the second row and behind the second row.
And it offers much more capability than comparably roomy compacts like the Honda HR-V, which has much less ground clearance (6.1 inches) and an optional AWD system that’s not as capable as the Soobie’s — and which isn’t available with a manual transmission.
Crosstrek’s prices start at $21,795 for a base 2.0 trim with AWD and six-speed manual transmission.
A top-of-the-line Limited trim with AWD and continuously variable (CVT) automatic stickers for $26,295.
The 2018 Crosstrek is new from the wheels up.
In addition to an updated exterior/interior — and increased passenger room and cargo space — the underlying chassis/suspension are new and the 2.0 liter engine makes more power — and sooner — than it used to. The manual transmission is a six speed manual now (a five-speed was available last year) and the high-performance torque-vectoring version of Subaru’s highly-regarded AWD system that was first offered in the WRX (and STi) is now standard equipment in the Crosstrek.
Unlike most AWD systems — which kick power front-to-back only — the Subaru system can modulate power delivery side-to-side. This helps balance the Crosstrek during high-speed cornering on dry pavement as well as enhance grip in the wet and snow.
It’s the only crossover in this class that offers a manual transmission and AWD together.
And the manual isn’t limited to the base trim, either.
It’s got more ground clearance than any crossover in this class.
It’s the only crossover SUV in any class that has a flat engine — which serves as a counterbalance to the jacked-up ride height.
It’s priced about the same as smaller or less-capable crossovers like the CX-3 and HR-V.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not as much fun to drive (or as good-looking) as the sexy little Mazda CX-3.
Not as space-efficient as the Honda HR-V.
Not as quick as either of those two; both the Mazda and the Honda get to 60 sooner.
In the case of the Mazda, much sooner.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Crosstrek’s got a 2.0 liter engine — which seems to be the universal engine. Scan the specs of various makes and models and you will find 2.0 liter engines abound.
Do they all come from the same factory?
No. But that displacement is becoming universal — or so it seems — because any larger and the car company gets socked with Save the Planet (C02) fines in Europe, which is a big market for most car companies and also in a round-about way here, too — because any larger and the Feds sock the car company with “gas guzzler” fines.
But any smaller and you begin to have issues with power — which becomes a problem for the people interested in buying the car. This is why almost all the sub-2.0-liter engines on the market have turbochargers bolted to them. Many of the 2.0 liter engines, too.
The Subaru’s 2.0 liter does not have a turbo bolted to it. And it is unlike any of the other 2.0 liter fours on the market because it is a flat 2.0 liter four. All of the others are upright — and in-line fours.
The Subaru’s four cylinders are divided into pairs, with each pair facing the opposite pair across the crankshaft, which serves as the center-line. The opposing pistons within the cylinders “box” one another across the crankshaft — as contrasted with the in-line four’s pistons, which go up and down.
Several advantages to the boxer layout:
One, it’s lighter, because the “boxing” pistons balance naturally — without the need for a heavy external balancer (or crank counterweights) which in-line engines usually have to have.
Two, the weight of the engine is not only lower in the chassis — because it’s flat as opposed to standing upright — it’s also spread out evenly across the centerline of the chassis. Hence “symmetrical.” It is also why Subaru vehicles don’t feel as tipsy as vehicles with similar ground clearance — but with in-line engines and a higher-up center of gravity.
The ’18 Crosstrek’s 2.0 liter four is the same size as the ’17 Crosstrek’s, but it’s been fitted with direct injection (vs. port fuel injection last year) and is slightly stronger now: 152 hp at 6,000 RPM and 145 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,000 RPM.
Last year’s version of the 2.0 liter engine made 148 hp at 6,200 RPM and 145 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,200 RPM.
Also new, as mentioned earlier, is the standard six-speed manual transmission; it replaces the previous five-speed box. A continuously variable (CVT) automatic is optional and if you buy it, you’ll also get driver-selectable X-Mode with Hill Descent Control, to keep the Crosstrek from building excessive speed when going down a slick road. The CVT transmission also comes with a driver-selectable manual mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Gas mileage is up — slightly — to 27 city, 33 highway with the CVT. With the manual, mileage dips slightly to 23 city, 29 highway. Part of this dip may be due to the manual version’s more aggressive final drive ratio — 4.4:1 vs. 3.90 for the CVT-equipped Crosstrek.
The manual version is also quicker for this reason — low-mid nines to 60 vs. mid-high nines for the CVT version.
Both versions are not as quick as rivals like the Honda HR-V (which is only slightly quicker; zero to 60 in the low nines) and the Mazda CX-3 (which is noticeably quicker; zero to 60 in about 8 seconds flat).
But, the Crosstrek comes standard with AWD. It’s optional in the Mazda and the Honda.
And it’s not just AWD.
The Crosstrek’s torque-vectoring AWD works with the ABS system to balance out the car by applying braking pressure to the inside wheel(s) during high-speed cornering. Similar systems are available in high-end/luxury crossovers like the Acura MDX but none of the Crosstrek’s price-comparable rivals offer anything like it.
ON THE ROAD
The Outback acquired a loyal fan base because it was both capable and fun. Also inexpensive. And not too big.
It’s not so much anymore.
Because the current Outback is based on the Legacy — Subaru’s top-of-the-line and full-sized sedan — rather than the Impreza — Subaru’s entry-level compact sedan.
The Crosstrek’s foundations are — or were — Impreza. The new one rides on Subaru’s Global Platform, which will likely underpin the next-gen Impreza as well.
Either way, the Crosstrek is still Impreza-like in that it’s not too big — and not too small. You will find that it’s easier to maneuver it in busy parking lots than mid-sized crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 because of its more compact dimensions (more on this below) but it doesn’t feel as compact as the HR-V.
And while it’s not as quick as the peppiest-in-the-segment CX-3, the combination of a growly boxer engine, a manual transmission and that notch-above torque vectoring AWD system make it more fun to drive than you might expect — kind of like the girl you ask on a date who isn’t cheerleader material, maybe — but finds ways to make up for that.
The CVT isn’t bad, either.
In fact, it’s pretty good.
You lose a step as far as quickness, but this box is not a noise machine — as some are. To be fair, this problem is usually the result of not enough engine, rather than the CVT itself. These boxes are designed to get the engine into the sweet spot of the powerband — where the engine makes the most power — as quickly as possible and hold the engine there, to maximize acceleration when the driver needs it. But if the engine doesn’t make much power, it feels (and sounds) as though the engine is screaming, which it is.
The Crosstrek’s four isn’t a powerhouse — but there is enough power to work well with the CVT.
The manual, though, makes the Crosstrek more fun.
The main thing, though, is that the Crosstrek is without doubt the most rugged individual in its peer group. You can take it places — like my back field, for instance — that you’d have to be high to attempt in the CX-3 or the HRV, neither of which have the clearance to deal with what’s out there.
That extra measure of capability is the real draw here. I dig the CX-3; it can take corners like a Mazda3 (which is the sport sedan it’s based on). But it can’t take snow — or off-road — like the Crosstrek.
Neither can the HR-V, space-efficient as it is.
More on this part now.
AT THE CURB
The ’18 Crosstrek is marginally shorter overall than last-year’s model — 175.8 inches vs. 175.9 inches — but it rides on a slightly longer wheelbase: 104.9 inches now vs. 103.7 inches. This pushing out of the front and rear axle centerlines made it possible to carve out a bit more room inside.
Especially in the second row.
The backseaters now have 36.5 inches of legroom vs. 35.4 inches before — a gain of more than an inch, which is a noticeable difference.
Cargo space behind the second row is a bit less than before — 20.8 cubic feet vs. 22.3 cubic feet before — but total cargo space (second row folded down) increases to 55.3 cubic feet vs. 51.9 cubic feet previously.
This is a much more balanced use of the available space inside than the gorgeous-looking but much less practical Mazda CX-3, which only has 12.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind its second row (44.5 cubic feet with the second row folded down).
The Honda HR-V is without doubt the most space efficient of the bunch, though. It has an incredible 39.3 inches of second-row legroom and 24.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row and 57.6 cubic feet of total cargo capacity with the second row folded — notwithstanding it’s only 169.1 inches long overall — almost seven inches shorter overall than the Crosstrek.
But, the Honda — like the Mazda — has to put it in Park at the edge of the field — or the edge of the creek — and watch as the Crosstrek goes about its business.
It’s unusual to find that you can get a manual transmission in more than just the base trim; this means you don’t have to choose between the manual (assuming you prefer that) and the nicer trim/optional stuff you can get in higher trims. Subaru lets you have the manual in both the base 2.0i trim and the Premium trim — which gets you leather, heated seats and the option to buy Subaru’s suit of EyeSight safety technology, which includes rear traffic alert ad a blind spot monitor. It’s called EyeSight, incidentally, because the camera system is mounted up high — at eyesight level. It’s part of the rearview mirror assembly.
This, too, is a uniquely Subaru feature.
Another thing about the Crosstrek is that it’s got a larger-than-most gas tank: 16.6 gallons. The Mazda CX-3’s tank holds just 12.7 gallons. That makes the Mazda seem a little thirstier than it actually is, because even though it rates 27 city, 32 highway — effectively the same mileage as the Crosstrek — you have to stop to fill up more often because the thing carries almost 4 gallons less fuel.
If you are averaging say 30 MPG, that means the Subaru can go about 120 miles farther before you have to stop for gas.
Similar issue with the Honda HR-V. Its gas tank is also small — just 13.2 gallons.
It’s odd that both Honda and Mazda would choose to fit their fuel-efficient crossovers with tanks so small it makes them seem a lot gas-hungrier than they are.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you miss the old Outback, you will like the new Crosstrek.
And if you like the CX-3 and HR-V but need more balance — or capability — you will want the new Crosstrek.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.