Test Drive: 2016 Subaru Crosstrek

Sometimes, after a few days of driving, it’s a single, stand-out attribute relating to specifications or feature content that stands out and bops your writer square in the schnoz. A super-upscale cabin. A mighty wollop from the engine. A killer stereo system. Laser-beam LED headlights.

It’s just a machine that does everything it’s supposed to, really, really well.

Whatever the standout attribute, it creates a focal point. A discussion topic. A starting line to the story.

I couldn’t find one on a recent test drive of the Subaru Crosstrek, which is a charming little machine, but not for any one smack-you-in-the-face sort of reason. Where specifications and feature content are concerned, Subaru’s smallest utility model doesn’t impress with any single feature or attribute. Instead, it’s just a machine that does everything it’s supposed to, really, really well.

Here’s the setup: provide your Subaru dealer with $26,995 for a Sport Package equipped Crosstrek like the tester (base pricing is $2,000 less), and you get a great AWD system, five-speed stick, reasonable fuel mileage, flexibility galore, room for four adults (five in a pinch), and a feature content list full of must-haves like HID lights, a sunroof, Bluetooth, heated seats and automatic climate control for fuss-free toasting of your tootsies at your favourite temperature.

Styling is cheeky and athletic: with updated styling, an eyeball-snatching blue paint-job, and a great stance and presence that screams Kayaking. Or skiing. Or snowboarding. Or taking the dog for a hike. Or doing things at a lake. Or driving smugly through a blizzard up to the slopes while Mother Nature tries to muck up your weekend travel plans.

On board, updated trim materials and some subtle additional details and accenting move the cabin upscale. Orange contrast stitching and some matte-finish metal trim enables enhanced visual sophistication, and the cabin is less plain than the last Crosstrek I visited in 2012. Functionality is excellent, and throughout the cabin, the tester feels sized and laid out just right for a small family or active couple.

Up front, a commanding driving position is enabled by tall windows, a tall seat, and good outward visibility. Exit and entry are simple, accomplished with a sideways slide-and-plop into the seat of your choice. Rear seating rows offer leg and shoulder room adequate for adults of average size, or slightly above. Ditto the headroom. In back, a wide cargo hold that’s tall from front to rear sees the load floor at knee height for easy loading of gear and canines. Folding seatbacks add flexibility when you’re carrying more skis than occupants, too.

A 2.0L Boxer four-cylinder is mounted low and wide in the engine bay. With direct injection and output of 148 hp, this powerplant targets a shopper concerned primarily with fuel economy, not firepower. Though the engine is smooth and eager to work, performance is adequate and little more. A five-speed manual transmission boasts a thick shift action and moderate bite from the clutch, though the lack of a sixth gear means highway cruising revs land at a relatively high 3,000 rpm or so. The high revs didn’t seem to hurt measured mileage, and actually enhanced responsiveness at cruising speed – though in a world of eight and nine-speed transmissions, the high highway revs will seem foreign to some.

Since Subaru’s handy mini-ute is built on the same platform as a small car, the Impreza, drivers can expect a refreshing experience free of SUV-related clumsiness, difficulty maneuvering and chugging of gasoline. Even the turning circle is delightfully small, helping make Crosstrek easy to park.

Another plus? The ride and handling equation. Engineers worked their magic on the Crosstrek’s suspension, and it delivers characteristics similar to those your writer appreciates in the Impreza and WRX. Specifically, it’s sporty and engaging but not uncomfortable or jarring, and ride quality and a feel of robust and effective damping remains, even on rougher surfaces. The gist? Poorly maintained roads do little to upset the Crosstrek’s nicely-honed ride and handling feel, and even on a badly rutted camp road, Crosstrek doesn’t feel like it’s going to crumble apart beneath you, or cough up a ball joint.

On the highway, wind and road noise levels prove about average for the segment, and though it’s not a sporty, thrilling machine to throw through some winding corners, Crosstrek rarely feels bothered if you get to driving the trousers off of it, either.

Also notable is the Crosstrek’s AWD. From the driver’s seat, the modest power output and fast-acting, precise action of the system means wheelspin is all but kiboshed in most conditions: drive sensibly, and Crosstrek gracefully moves through or over anything slippery that passes beneath, free of wasteful wheel spinning, squirming as power is divvied between the axles, or excessive slip at one axle before the other receives a dose of power. Crosstrek doesn’t dig itself into deep snow before four-wheel traction engages, and as AWD systems go (and I’ve driven them all), this one is one of the best. Largely, that’s because you almost never know it’s there.

 

Interestingly, the AWD system is particularly low-tech. In a manual-transmission equipped Subaru, like the tester, there’s no electronic sensor network sending signals to a coupler for millisecond adjustment to the active power split between the axles. Instead, there’s a viscous coupler – a mechanical device that sort of glues the front and rear drive shafts together when there’s wheelspin at a single axle, and releases them when the wheelspin stops. It’s a simple and low-tech way to do AWD, but Subaru has been perfecting it for decades, and it works like a charm.

Brakes perform similarly: ensuring the Crosstrek stays adhered to the driver’s intended line when they’re called upon, even as traction comes and goes from side to side beneath the tires in a panic stop. The ABS pump is loud, so fast stops come with a generous helping of buzzing and vibration from the far side of the firewall, but Crosstrek stays straight and true. The (highly advised) Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires fitted to the tester deserve credit for the fantastic braking performance, too.

Mileage on my watch landed at 9.9 L/100 km, measured by hand, with the trip computer reporting a figure of 9.4. Given the heavy snow and use in extreme cold, that figure proved appreciable for where and how I drive. Your results may vary.

Gripes? Keeping context in mind, few presented themselves. Heated seat switches are mounted in an awkward and inconvenient location, about 1.2 inches from the driver’s hip on the centre console, and the central command touchscreen lacks the visual polish, responsiveness and colourful, vivid, and intuitive operation that define the best of such units in this segment.

End of the day, when shopper priorities include a compact and highly flexible take on all-weather utility with space to spare, top-notch AWD performance and winter driving confidence, and a pleasant all-around driving experience, the Crosstrek should be considered a priority test drive.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Trax
Honda HR-V
Jeep Renegade
Mazda CX-3
Mini Countryman
Nissan Juke

2016 Subaru Crosstrek
Pricing: 2016 Subaru Crosstrek
Base Price: $26,995
Optional Equipment: None
A/C Tax: $100
Destination Fee: $1,675
Price as Tested: $28,770
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.6
8 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
8 Interior
8 Comfort
8 Fuel Economy