By Eric Peters
The Subaru Impreza (yes, you’re reading the right article) is a versatile car.
As it sits, it’s basically an economy car. But put into the weeds (4.9 inches of ground clearance) and put a powerful turbocharged engine under its air-scooped hood … and it becomes the high-performance WRX, an asphalt-ripping Rally car.
Now take it back to the garage…
Jack it up, give it almost nine inches of clearance. Tune the standard AWD system for maximum traction in crappy weather. Fit it with tires designed for that, too. Add roof racks and chip-resistant fender flares…
Voila – the Crosstrek!
WHAT IT IS
Subaru’s compact-sized crossover SUV.
It’s actually in between something like the new (and subcompact) Honda HR-V and something fully mid-sized like the Honda CR-V.
And a notch down in price as well as size relative to Subaru’s other crossover, the Legacy-based (and mid-sized) Outback wagon.
The Crosstrek differs from other mid-compact-sized crossovers in its general class in several ways – including standard all-wheel-drive (it’s optional – read, costs extra – in rival models) and is uniquely powered by a flat four/horizontally opposed “boxer” engine (a type of engine no other crossover even offers).
Prices start at $21,595 for a base 2.0 trim Crosstrek with a five-speed manual transmission (another unusual/hard-to-find feature in this class of vehicle).
A top-of-the-line Limited trim with continuously variable (CVT) automatic stickers for $25,095.
All trims come standard with AWD – and are powered by the same flat-four engine.
There is also a hybrid version – which adds an electric motor to boost performance and mileage (though not by much; we’ll get into that shortly). It starts at $26,395 and tops out at $29,995 for a Limited trim.
Possible cross-shops include the slightly larger Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which are similar in terms of emphasizing practicality and value. But neither of these come standard with AWD.
There are also slightly smaller models like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. But the same considerations apply.
The ’16 Crosstrek gets a software update for the in-car Infotainment suite, which now includes Subaru’s Starlink telematics (similar to GM’s OnStar concierge system). It features automatic collision notification (summons EMS if you wreck) and a vehicle monitoring app.
Limited trims get a blind spot monitor, lane change assist and cross-traffic alert.
All trims receive minor exterior/interior cosmetic tweaks.
Word is an updated version of the hybrid will be coming soon.
Very affordable. Hard to find something like it – with AWD – that stickers for less than $22k to start.
Very unique. Impossible to find anything like it that has a boxer engine (a type of engine known to be very hard to hurt, with diesel-like longevity).
Splits the difference – exterior size and interior roominess-wise – between subcompacts like the HR-V and mid-sized models like the CR-V.
Available manual transmission.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Just the one engine – basically, the Impreza’s engine. In a vehicle that’s heavier than the Impreza. Which makes the Crosstrek slower than the Impreza. And the Impreza is already slow.
Hybrid’s acceleration (and real-world mileage) aren’t noticeably better. But the price is much higher.
UNDER THE HOOD
Regardless of trim, all Crosstreks come standard with a 2.0 liter, horizontally-opposed (or “flat”… or “boxer”) engine, characteristic of Subarus. It’s basically the same engine used in the Crosstrek’s sibling, the Impreza, and makes the same 148 hp at 6,200 RPM and the same 145 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,200 RPM.
You can pair it with either a five-speed manual (recommended; details follow) or a continuously variable (CVT) automatic.
Regardless, Subaru’s “symmetric” all-wheel-drive is standard.
What does that mean, exactly?
It ties in to the layout of the boxer/flat-four engine. Picture a vertical line drawn down the Crosstrek’s middle, separating the car into halves. On either half, you’ve got half the engine – two of the four cylinders, laying flat – facing (opposing) the other two. This is symmetric. Things are equally balanced. Fifty-fifty.
This is one of the advantages of the flat/boxer engine layout.
The other is that the weight of the engine is lower down in the chassis, which benefits handling and traction (we’ll get into that shortly).
These characteristics make the Crosstrek unique its class.
If there’s a downside, it’s that the Crosstrek is perhaps a bit too heavy for its engine. Though it’s not a porker – 3,109 lbs is actually pretty light for an AWD-equipped compact crossover (the FWD Toyota RAV4 weighs 3,445 lbs.).
The problem is the Crosstrek’s 2.0 engine isn’t enough engine for even 3,109 lbs.
Acceleration is below par for the segment as a result. It takes the Crosstrek about 10 seconds to get to 60.
The payoff, though, is excellent fuel efficiency. The AWD Crosstrek with the CVT automatic (best choice for economy) rates 26 city, 34 highway. This is better than the FWD RAV4 (23 city, 30 highway) and much better than the AWD-equipped RAV4 22 city, 29 highway).
The Honda CR-V gets closer (26 city, 33 highway) but that’s with FWD, too. The AWD-equipped CR-V slides back down to 25 city, 31 highway and while that’s not a huge difference, mileage-wise, there is a pretty big difference price-wise. The AWD-equipped CR-V’s base price is $25,045 – a $3,450 jump up from the base price of the AWD-equipped Crosstrek.
The hybrid Crosstrek, on the other hand, reverses the math.
Its mileage is only slightly better than the regular Crosstrek (30 city, 34 highway; note that the highway number is exactly the same) but it costs almost $5k more than the base/non-hybrid Crosstek (and more than either the RAV4 or the CR-V).
Also, despite getting a horsepower assist from an electric motor (which brings the hybrid’s powertrain up to 160 hp, total) the acceleration doesn’t improve much. The extra weight of the hybrid gear (electric motor and battery pack) offsets the power infusion.
It’s hard to see any reason to buy this version of the Crosstrek. The high up-front cost is not compensated for by a big enough uptick in fuel economy – and the thing is still slow, on top of that.
ON THE ROAD
Speaking of slow… .
This is the Crosstrek’s major and perhaps only deficit. It’s hard to fault it otherwise. You get all-wheel-drive, standard, for significantly less than most rival crossovers charge for the front-wheel-drive versions of their machines.
So long as you’re not much in a hurry.
And – to be fair – the Crosstrek is only slow relative to how quick cars (and crossovers) in general have become.
For instance, most current-year four-cylinder-powered economy cars can get to 60 in under eight seconds. Almost anything with a V6 (or a turbocharged four) can do the same run in about six seconds.
But, as a general rule, people aren’t drag racing. The chief problem you may have with the Crosstrek is needing right-now acceleration. As when you are stopped at a T intersection and want to make a right turn but traffic is moving fast and tight – and pulling in front of someone without being able to light the proverbial afterburners can be dicey.
What’s necessary is forethought.
Driving a slow car in fast traffic requires this. Anticipating light changes, for instance. So that you are ready to roll as soon as the light does go green – which will give you the drop on other drivers, most of whom are too busy texting or just not paying attention or simply conditioned by the Safety Cult to never accelerate at more than a walking pace. This renders their potentially quicker rides an irrelevance.
And there’s no problem maintaining speed.
The Crosstrek, like any modern car (except maybe the not-so-Smart car) has no problem maintaining 80-plus MPH, which is all you ‘ll ever need to be highway-viable. There’s not a lot of reserve on tap for passing, but it’s sufficient – given enough time – to deal with slower-moving semis and such.
I’d personally go with the five-speed manual.
You will lose a few MPGs vs. the CVT but you pay less up front (which makes up for that) and as anyone knows who’s owned an under-engined vehicle, a manual helps. It makes it feel quicker and it usually is quicker – because you can better exploit what power you do have. Note that the 2.0 liter four’s power peak does not occur until 6,200 RPM – way up there. And peak torque does not flower until 4,200 RPM – also up there.
The CVT is a good box as such (and chiefly responsible for the Soobie’s much-improved mileage relative to previous models) but automatics – CVT or otherwise – don’t do their best work with low-power/high-RPM engines. With a stick, you can feather the clutch, rev the engine up to where it makes power – and let fly. With an automatic, all you can do is floor it… and wait for the transmission to let the engine rev to where it makes some power.
Of course, the manual gives you – the driver – more control. Another argument for going that way.
The Crosstrek has significantly more ground clearance (8.7 inches) than crossovers like the RAV4 (6.3) inches and the Honda CR-V (6.7 inches) and that gives it an edge in the snow (especially unplowed snow) as well as when tackling muddy/rutted unpaved roads.
Surprisingly, the Soobie’s higher ride height doesn’t render it tipsy-feeling in the corners. It probably helps that the boxer engine’s weight lays flat and low.
Unlike the WRX, the Crosstrek’s AWD system does not have driver selectable modes for different surfaces and conditions. Similarly, the CVT automatic doesn’t have Sport or Normal settings. It does have a “manual” mode that can be engaged by moving the shifter from Drive over to the left, toward the driver – and then bumping it up or down to hold the transmission in a lower range – or bump it up to a higher one.
AT THE CURB
The Crosstrek reminds me of my turtle – tortoise, actually. It, like him, is round and squat and though not fast, looks determined to get there.
In addition to the increased ground clearance, visual separation from the Impreza (and WRX) is achieved by molded rubber fender flares that are better for warding off stone chips than painted metal panels.
Size-wise, it is about the length overall (175.2 inches) and slightly wider (70.1 inches) than the Impreza (174 and 68.5 inches, respectively) it shares a platform with … and a bit larger than the new micro-sized crossovers like the 2016 Honda HR-V (169.1 inches) and Mazda CX-3 (168 inches) and a bit stubbier than fully mid-sized crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 (181.1 inches) and Honda CR-V (179.4 inches).
So, it’s a good choice for someone interested in smaller – but not too small.
Driver/front seat passenger legroom is 43.5 inches (more than the physically larger RAV4’s 42.6 inches) and second row legroom stands at a decent 35.4 inches. This is only slightly more legroom than the smaller on the outside Mazda CX-3 (35 inches) but the Subaru offers much more room behind its second row – 22.3 cubic feet vs. 12.4 for the Mazda.
With its second row folded, the Subaru’s total cargo capacity opens put to 51.9 cubic feet. This is actually less than the smaller-on-the-outside Honda HR-V (58.8 cubes) and – not surprisingly – a lot less than the larger-on-the outside CR-V (70.9 cubic feet) and RAV4 (73.4 cubic feet). But Subaru aimed to split the difference in terms of size while offer more in the way of other forms of utility (e.g., the standard all-wheel-drive) and value (e.g., the lower price point).
The LCD touchscreen’s (6.2 inches is standard; higher trims get a sightly larger 7 inch screen) buttons are large and so not hard to accurately select while you’re driving. Underneath the LCD screen are three oversized rotary knobs for the temperature/fan/outlet settings – which you can adjust by hand without looking and even if you’re wearing a glove.
If only Subaru had seen fit to offer the turbo’d version of the flat four that’s available in the WRX…
268 hp would fun.
200 hp would be enough.
148 hp (what you get) is… a little disappointing.
But then, what do I know? The thing sells. Subaru is appealing to its market – not to speed freaks like me. And one thing’s for certain. Not having a turbo (and an intercooler and all the rest of the specialized plumbing) not only keeps the price down and the gas mileage up – it also greatly improves the odds in your favor that the Crosstrek will still be running well (if not strong) 200,000-plus miles from now.
Remember: The Tortoise beat the hare.
The optional seat heaters are top drawer. They heat rather than merely warm.
Surprisingly, the available “safety” technologies – the Blind Spot Monitor, Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross Traffic Alert – are not overly in-your-face and (even better) do not emit excessive radar/laser clutter and so don’t screw up the usefulness of your radar detector.
The optional EyeSight package (so-called because the sensors are mounted up high, near the rearview mirror but facing forward… like your own eyes) includes some neat stuff, such as fog lights that illuminate in tune with the curves, as you steer.
I am not enthused about the Forward Collision Mitigation system. Many new cars have this or offer this and the government is probably going to mandate it, like they have back-up cameras and air bags and other such. If you’re paying attention to your driving, you should never need this technology – and then it’s just an expense (up front and potentially down the road, when something stops working and you have to pay to get it fixed) as well as an annoyance.
And if you do need it, you are not paying attention to your driving – in which case the easier solution is to… pay attention to your driving.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For me, the thing that sells this car is simplicity (for a modern car) and value. It’s hard to find a direct cross-shop. There are similar models such as the ones mentioned already, but which of them offer AWD in a package this sized for just over $21k?
You can go larger – or smaller. More expensive – and faster. But who offers what the Crosstrek does at this price point, in this size package?
I can’t name one.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website at ericpetersautos.com.
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Southern Arizona News-Examiner