CARS.COM — We liked the original Subaru Crosstrek — the Impreza-based, butched-up soft-roader hatchback — enough that it won our Subcompact SUV Challenge in 2015. A second-generation Crosstrek has arrived, and while outwardly it may look similar to the outgoing one, it is indeed an all-new car — more than 95 percent new, sitting on the new Subaru Global Platform that will form the basis for nearly all of Subaru's cars going forward. The 2018 Crosstrek is again based on the Impreza, a compact hatchback with exceptional interior room and standard all-wheel drive.
The changes from Impreza to Crosstrek start with the parts you can see. The sheet metal shares some panels with the Impreza, but gray plastic wheel arches, bumper covers and rocker panels add some durability to the look. It sits visibly higher than the Impreza, with 8.7 inches of total ground clearance. But all the changes somehow, like them or not, really do set it apart from the Impreza — it looks like a very different animal, and this is part of what its customers find appealing, according to Subaru.
Fun, But Not Fast
Along with the new platform comes a new engine, although its specs will be familiar. Like the last Crosstrek, the new one comes with a 2.0-liter flat-four engine, this one making 152 horsepower and 145 pounds-feet of torque, up slightly in the horsepower department from the past model. Though not turbocharged, it does now feature direct injection. It's mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission (one gear more than last year's five-speed) or a continuously variable automatic with a stepped-gear function to make it feel and sound more like a traditional geared automatic. All-wheel drive is standard for both transmissions.
I sampled both transmissions and have come to the rare conclusion that the CVT-equipped model is the one to have. This is odd given my penchant for enjoying doing the shifting duty myself, but the problem here is the engine, not the transmission. My biggest beef with the old Crosstrek was that it couldn't get out of its own way — it was woefully underpowered with either the manual or automatic. This has not been solved with the new vehicle, as the 2.0-liter engine is still anemic, although I do also wonder if this might have to do with the altitude at which I tested it — in Deadwood, S.D., elevation 4,300 feet, at Subaru's national media introduction. Calculations that adjust for altitude suggest the Crosstrek was producing closer to 132 hp instead of its rated 152 hp.
From a standing start, it feels like acceleration can be measured with a calendar. If you've already got some momentum built, it's not quite so bad; the Crosstrek responds quickly when you power through a corner. The CVT is very well matched to the engine, always keeping it on boil if you're driving it aggressively, but you'll need to be prepared for it to be revving its heart out as it tries to deliver what little power it has. There's little oomph below 2,500 rpm, and it seems to run out a little after 4,000 rpm. If you opted for the manual transmission, you'll be shifting it like mad to try and keep your speed up on even slight grades. Save yourself the angst and go for the CVT, a much more pleasant experience.
The upside of that lack of overwhelming speed is fuel economy that's top of the pack. The Crosstrek is rated at 27/33/29 mpg for the CVT model, 23/29/25 for the manual. Its highway rating of 33 mpg is tops for the segment and even bests competitors' front-wheel-drive models. I question whether anyone will get these numbers in practice, however, as you're likely to be driving with a heavier foot than normal just to keep up with traffic.
The engine performance is the only blemish on what has become a polished, quiet and surprisingly refined vehicle. The base and Premium trims come with 17-inch wheels, and if you plan on doing any rough-road driving or off-road exploring, this is the combination to have (skip the larger 18-inch wheels, whose lower-profile tires aren't nearly as bump-absorbing off-road). It is remarkably compliant on two-track rough roads, soaking up bumps and not transmitting any unpleasant vibrations through the steering wheel. Credit the dramatically stiffer structure of the Subaru Global Platform, which has allowed Subaru to get more creative with its suspension and steering tuning.
On-road or off-road, the Crosstrek's steering is excellent. It uses a quick 13:1 ratio, much more sporty than most vehicles in its class and closer to the BRZ sports car than anything else in Subaru's lineup. This gives the Crosstrek entertaining handling: eager to turn into curves, communicative when it's in them and easy to control when you get a little over-eager on dirt roads. So just like the BRZ, it's slow — but once you build some speed, the car's handling characteristics make it highly entertaining. Maintain momentum in spirited driving, and it's actually fun.
Maybe You Don't Really Need a Jeep?
It's also surprisingly capable off-road. Subaru has now included its X-Mode low-speed off-road feature to the Crosstrek for the first time, joining the Outback and Forester. When activated at speeds below 13 mph, X-Mode changes throttle, stability control, traction control and all-wheel-drive settings to let you get out of sticky off-road situations or descend slippery slopes with electronic hill descent control. I was able to climb some steep quarry slopes and descend them again with the computer controlling much of the car's powertrain and braking actions, an impressive performance for a vehicle that's not really an off-road machine. It has no underbody skid-plate protection, no true creeper gear, no locking axles and wears all-season on-road tires — but if your activities involve some rough terrain to get to your favorite trailhead or kayaking river entry, the Crosstrek will be perfectly capable of getting you there.
Bigger and Better Inside
The Crosstrek's cabin is bigger than the last one, with increases in every dimension, and while it looks familiar, it's all-new and much improved. The traditional benefits of Subaru interiors remain, however: The Crosstrek has a very low beltline and slim pillars, meaning outward visibility is outstanding in every direction. This is helpful on the highway but also useful off-road, as it allows you to see over the hood easily when negotiating tricky terrain. It's also exceptionally roomy up front or in back compared with competitors like the Mazda CX-3 or Honda HR-V. It's far more comfortable for backseat passengers.
New Tech, But Missing Some Details
Like the Impreza, the new Crosstrek receives Subaru's next-generation multimedia system. The 6.5-inch touchscreen display is standard, and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as Subaru's Starlink suite of apps. Upgrade to higher trims and you can get the 8-inch display, or add in navigation by TomTom as well. It's finally a fully modern system, too; it no longer looks like it's behind the times — but for a brand that's going after millennial buyers, it's curious that there isn't more tech in this interior. There's no 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot for passengers' personal electronics, and there's only one USB port in the whole car, both of which seem like curious oversights in an all-new vehicle targeted specifically at younger buyers.
Prices Remain Appealing
The Crosstrek is sized like a compact SUV but priced like a subcompact SUV. Starting price is just $22,710 including destination fee for a base 2.0i model with a manual transmission; opting for the automatic transmission adds $1,000. The mid-level Premium trim starts at $23,510, while the top Limited begins at $27,210 and is available only with a CVT. Add all the options, and you're topping out at $30,655 for a loaded Crosstrek Limited with EyeSight and navigation.
As small SUVs go, this is a pretty good deal for a well-equipped, fun-to-drive, highly useful little machine. The fact that it's painfully slow just isn't important to the hundreds of thousands of buyers who've snapped them up in the past five years. All of the other attributes that have made the Crosstrek so popular have only been improved.