If you’re thinking about a small crossover wagon and looking for a reason to favor one over another, Subaru’s got something to show you that is hard-bordering-on-impossible to find in any other crossover:
A pedal to the left of the brake pedal.
The 2021 Crosstrek is one of the few remaining new vehicles, not just crossovers that comes standard with a manual transmission.
And for 2021, it comes optional with something else.
What It Is
The Crosstrek is a compact-sized, five-passenger crossover with standard all-wheel-drive and a standard six-speed manual transmission. The former is usually optional in rival crossovers like the Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, and Mazda CX-30, while the latter is unavailable in any of them.
Prices start at $22,495 for the base trim with the stick, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, and AWD. If you prefer to let the car shift for itself, a CVT automatic is available; this bumps the price up to $23,595.
There’s also another thing.
For 2021, Subaru has added a new engine to the mix.
Sport ($26,495) and Limited ($27,995) models come standard with a larger and stronger 2.5-liter engine, paired with standard AWD.
However, these versions of the Crosstrek are CVT automatic-only.
In addition to the new engine, all 2021 Crosstreks get a minor cosmetic refresh, the first change in external appearance since this model made its debut as an all-new model in 2018.
The Sport trim adds new luminous yellow accents for the interior and hunkier fender flares.
• Manual availability infuses this small crossover with personality.
• Manual availability isn’t limited to the base, not-much-other-stuff trim.
• AWD doesn’t cost extra in any trim.
What’s Not So Good
• Manual isn’t available, oddly, with the Sport trim.
• A stronger optional engine is only available with the CVT automatic.
• A more robust engine comes standard for less in rival CX-30; rival Honda HR-V comes standard with much more rear-seat legroom.
Under The Hood
When it first came out back in ’18, some reviewers criticized the Crosstrek for being under-engined. However, its standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which makes 152 horsepower, is stronger than the smaller 1.8-liter, 141 horsepower engine that’s standard in the Honda HR-V, one of the Soobie’s primary rivals.
It’s also more potent than the 2.0-liter, 147 horsepower four standard in the Hyundai Kona. It’s also possible to make more of the power you do have when you down-on-the-floor real clutch.
If you need more power, that’s also available now, and you won’t find it in either the Honda or the Hyundai. Neither of these two Crosstrek rivals offers an optional engine.
The 2021 Crosstrek does.
Its newly available 2.5-liter engine makes 182 horsepower, about 40 more horsepower than is all-you-can-get in the HR-V and the Kona. The one Crosstrek rival that offers more standard power is the Mazda CX-30, which comes with a 2.5-liter four of its own that makes 186 horsepower.
It, however, does not come standard with all-wheel-drive. All of the Soobie’s rivals charge extra for that, and ordering it raises the price significantly.
While the base-trim CX-30 stickers for less than the base-trim Crosstrek ($21,900 vs. $22,245), if you want the Mazda with the optional AWD system, the price rises to $23,300—an upward bump of $1,055.
And no matter how much you spend, you can’t get the Mazda with a clutch. The Soobie’s engines are something else the others aren’t.
They are boxier engines, with the pairs of cylinders laid flat and facing their opposing number instead of lined up in a row and standing upright. There are several advantages to the boxer layout, including compactness as well as lowness. There is more room in the engine compartment, and the engine’s weight is lower to the ground and evenly divided across the centerline—both of them helping improve stability and traction.
Another thing this little Soobie has over its rivals is ground clearance. Every Crosstrek comes standard with 8.7 inches of clearance, substantially more than the HR-V and Kona’s 6.7 inches and the Mazda’s 8.0 inches.
The Subaru’s AWD system also differs from most in that it is set up to route engine power to all four wheels in a 50-50 split rather than the usual mostly-to-the-front wheels until they begin to slip. The advantage here is there’s no after the fact reaction to slippage, which means less slippage.
The Crosstrek also offers driver-selectable modes for conditions, including Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud.
On The Road
The Crosstrek is an exciting mashup of practicality, something every crossover offers, and fun—harder to find in a crossover.
It isn’t super-fast even with its optional 2.5-liter engine, but it feels faster than it is, even with its standard engine, because of the action that attends balancing clutch and throttle and shifting, as opposed to just sitting and steering.
All it needs is a turbo to be a kind of jacked-up WRX, and that would be even more fun.
But you’d better hurry if you want to shift for yourself as the manual Crosstrek is probably on the endangered species list on account of the mileage difference. The EPA says 22 city, 29 highway vs. 28 city, 33 highway with the optional CVT automatic with the stick.
You’ll spend more on gas with the stick, but it’s well worth it.
You may also spend less overall as CVTs, in general, have a historically higher-than-average failure rate vs. conventional automatics that shift themselves as opposed to varying the ratio themselves, which is probably due to the CVT’s weak point. The metal band that stretches and contracts to vary the ratio; metal fatigue is the likely culprit there.
Manuals are the usually-safer bet on this score because they’re simpler and rarely wear out. The clutch eventually does, of course, but thanks to modern automatically-adjusting clutch take-up, it is typical for a new clutch to last almost as long as the car. When it needs to be replaced, the cost of a clutch job is generally a few hundred bucks instead of a few thousand for a new automatic (CVT or conventional).
Besides which, how do you put a price on fun?
The Crosstrek is also practical, which makes it more than just fun. That almost nine inches of ground clearance and the tenacity of Subaru’s standard AWD (for less than others charge) make the Crosstrek the best thing to be in during a blizzard since a BRAT, even if it hasn’t got rear-facing jump seats, which was also a lot of fun.
Something else that can be fun and also practical is the Crosstrek’s pull-it-up hand brake, which you engage by manually pulling up the lever on the center console, enabling you to modulate how much braking force is applied. You can use the hand brake to slow the car down, gradually. Or you can use it to lock up the rear brakes, suddenly, which is absolutely necessary for the proper performance of a bootleg turn.
And how very much fun it is!
And the practical? The pull-it-up hand brake is a manual device. It can be manually adjusted, and if it ever brakes, the fix is usually a new cable, which you can install. The automatic electric brake, the one almost all new cars come standard with, is an electronic device that cannot be adjusted, and when it breaks, you may have to pay a technician to replace it.
At the Curb
Like all crossovers, the Crosstrek has a lot of room for its size.
The hatchback layout, which connects the passenger area with the cargo area, lets you overlap the cargo area into the passenger area. Drop the rear seatbacks, and you more than double the 20.8 cubic feet behind the back seats to 55.3 cubic feet, which is about three times as much space for cargo as you’d have in the roughly 16 cubic foot trunk of the typical full-size sedan.
One reason sales have collapsed for sedans, no doubt.
The Crosstrek comes up a little short in the back seat legroom category, where it has 36.5 inches versus the HR-V’s class-roomiest 39.3 inches. However, 36.5 inches isn’t cramped; for reference, it’s only slightly less legroom than you’d find in the back of the mid-sized Toyota Camry sedan (38 inches), and the Camry hasn’t got almost 9 inches of ground clearance or an available manual transmission.
This is a fun-looking little wagon, too.
Subaru, which is a bit reserved in the style department, offers an Easter Egg palette of colors to liven up the Crosstrek’s visual presence, including pastel orange, plasma yellow, frog green, and the same bright neon blue hue made famous by the WRX.
The base trim is also perfectly equipped.
It comes standard with climate control AC, 17-inch wheels, power windows, locks, and a decent stereo. It does not have Lane Keep Assist and Automated Emergency Braking, which you can get if you want but avoid if you want, too.
That’s another thing that’s different about the Crosstrek. It is tough to find a new anything that doesn’t come standard with a plethora of driver “assistance” technology.
Oh, one more thing.
The Crosstrek’s stereo includes a CD slot! These are even harder to find than a clutch pedal or a pull-up hand brake.
It’s nice to be able to play your CDs directly instead of using Bluetooth with your iPod. It’s also nice to turn up the fan or adjust the temp by feel, which is easy to do because the Crosstrek’s controls for these functions are rotary dials, not can’t-tell-by-feel icons on a flatscreen display.
Subaru also lets you upgrade to a better stereo with six speakers and get heated seats — without giving up the clutch. This is no small thing, either.
Most of the few new cars you can still get with a manual transmission limit the manual’s availability to the marginally equipped base trim only, forcing you to choose between the clutch and amenities like heated seats and a better stereo.
Another perk—if you buy the stick-equipped Crosstrek—is that you won’t get the otherwise standard automated stop/start system (aka, ASS) that is becoming as hard not to get in any new car as it is to get one with a clutch. Without ASS, the engine remains on until you turn it off. With ASS, it will automatically shut itself off at practically every red light and momentary stop in the ebb and flow of traffic.
The only deficit, it’s more an oddity, is that the Sport trim isn’t available with the stick, which is kind of like a cheeseburger without the cheese. But you do get sportier looks, including unique-to-this-model simulated leather seat covers with contrast-yellow stitching and snarky fender flares.
And the more powerful 2.5-liter engine is part of the deal.
The Bottom Line
The Crosstrek injects some much-needed fun into a class of vehicle that is so practical it practically puts you to sleep.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.