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It didn’t take us a journey halfway across the Pacific Ocean to understand that Subaru—and the new 2013 XV Crosstrek, or just ‘Crosstrek,’ as Subaru of America would rather call it (the XV already stands for ‘crossover vehicle’)—is for active, outdoorsy folks.
Here in Portland, Oregon, where a couple of us in the High Gear Media editorial team reside, Subaru is the number-four selling vehicle brand, and it seems we see Subarus, far more often than vehicles of other brands, loaded down with snowboards, skiis, surfboards, small kayaks, or the works for weekend camping.

But according to Subaru itself, you might run into that same 'active lifestyle' buyer in plenty of other U.S. regions. Subaru of America, citing data from NGK Consulting, says that its owners are four times as likely to hike, and about 3.5 times as likely to bike.

And yet to Hawaii we sojourned for a couple of days this past week—to Hawaii’s most populous island of Oahu, where the pace is slower, both personally and behind the wheel.

That slower pace, and the rugged landscape, proved well-suited for finding the Crosstrek’s place in the now-crowded crossover market. In short, we found that the Crosstrek might not be for an impatient, hurried lifestyle; but it does have the chops for the trail, for hauling gear, for keeping you comfortable along the way, and for not breaking the bank in any way. Think of it as a solid multi-purpose tool to have at the ready for all your transportation needs--and oh yes, they can involve lots of mud and snow.

Seriously outdoorsy…with a slower pace

Before we extol the virtues of the Crosstrek’s trail prowess and versatility, we must tell you a bit about what it’s like to drive on roads and highways: In short, the Crosstrek isn’t underpowered, but its performance on pavement is rather ordinary and unspectacular. With 148 horsepower for about 3,200 pounds in a fully loaded Crosstrek Limited, and the engine’s peak 145 pound-feet of torque not reached until 4,200 rpm, sprightly this is not.

The Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) allows the Crosstrek to accelerate lightly or moderately with an ease and nonchalance that might suggest there’s more power on tap; only when you force harder with your right foot, the powertrain loses its composure at a particular point, revving the engine into its upper range, with more noise than additional thrust. Quick launches are a sore point; the CVT simply bogs down for a second or two before letting the revs rise, and it’s counterintuitively just as quick if you ease into a full-throttle takeoff than if you slam the gas to the floor. You can tap into six pre-set ratios with the included steering-wheel paddle-shifters, and that’s a workaround that we were happy with for all but the low-speed dashes.

In any case, we enjoyed the manual version much more; it felt perkier—especially from a standing start, and at lower city speeds when we needed to tap into the power quickly, to squeeze into a gap in traffic, for instance.

To those who expect on-road handling to be compromised, or a little clumsier, in the name of off-road ability: It’s really not. We can’t say we pushed this model near its limits—something that traffic-clogged Hawaiian two-laners just didn’t permit—but even with some body lean it felt comfortable enough being hustled, loading and unloading predictably. Tall and tipsy just isn’t part of this vehicle’s vocabulary. And the electric power steering is light but very nicely weighted.

In fact, aside from feeling that you are a few inches higher because of between three and four extra ground clearance (the Crosstrek gets up to 8.7 inches, plus various suspension and structural reinforcements, improved engine cooling, unique front fenders, and body cladding to make it all feel quite different than the Impreza hatchback on which it’s based), the driving experience is much more like that of a small sedan or hatchback than of one of the taller small crossovers like the Hyundai Tucson or Ford Escape. Think of the Crosstrek’s competitive set as more along the lines of the Mini Countryman, Jeep Compass, and Nissan Juke—along with the Range Rover Evoque—and you’ll be on the right track.
A crossover with less compromise?

And the Crosstrek is quite good at scrambling well off the beaten track. The loop of rocky, gravel, and sand ranch trails, with a few shallow creek crossings, never seriously challenged the Crosstrek’s traction, but it did serve to show off its very impressive ground clearance (more than many unique-design crossovers), and also its good approach and departure angles (of 18 degrees and nearly 28 degrees, respectively). We think it might be one of the best vehicles yet for snowy driveways.

Ride quality, ranging from choppy two-lane roads and some expressways, remained impressive—and seldom pitchy or jarring off-road. The front strut suspension is essentially carried over from the Impreza, while the rear double-wishbone setup comes with pillow-ball bushings, which Subaru says helps ride comfort, stability, and agility.
There’s one exception, and that’s when you step down on the brakes firmly, or even moderately; there’s noticeably more nosedive than you’ll find in nearly all normal cars—and even some other crossovers—and the body tends to ‘whip’ back to center when you reach a full stop, unless the driver has finessed the last few feet. Stops are very confident nevertheless (Subaru installed larger front discs versus the Impreza), and pedal feel is reassuring.

Depending on whether you choose the CVT or the manual transmission, you still get a relatively different version of all-wheel drive. Automatic versions come with an electronically managed continuously variable transfer-clutch system, while manual Crosstreks come with a viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system with locking center diff. As we’ve experienced in the past, both systems simply get the power to the surface—whatever that might be—but the system with manual-transmission models does tend to enforce the more direct, responsive driving feel.

Just as in the Impreza, gas mileage is better with the CVT (rated at 25/33 mpg) than if you choose the manual gearbox (23/30). We spent the most time in a CVT model—the highest-mileage all-wheel-drive crossover, Subaru points out—and saw an average in the upper 20s with no attempt to follow the advice of the fuel economy gauge, which advises you on your current driving style with a simple plus or minus sweep.

The Crosstrek’s towing ability is impressive—in the sense that many vehicles in this class (like the Countryman and Juke) don’t have a tow rating at all, while the Subaru is rated at 1,500 pounds.

Great for gear

Subaru claims that the cargo space wasn’t designed for numerical claims but rather to be able to fit the kinds of larger pieces of gear that users might have—and after crawling around and folding the seats, we agree. The cargo space is surprisingly box-like, with a flat, straight-across cargo floor, and no confining strut towers, and for the main cargo area there’s a removable rubberized tray that would clean up (and hose off) very easily.

It’s easy to get comfortable in the Crosstrek, whether that’s the front or back seat. The driver’s seat ratchets up and down for height, and this very tall driver found no problem getting into a comfortable position. Oddly, I felt like I fit better as a passenger in the back seat than in the front passenger seat, which is not height/tilt-adjustable and feels more scooped-forward than the driver’s seat. The rear bench is contoured nicely for adults, and it’s split 60/40, so with a lift of a small knob next to the outboard headrests you can flip the seatback forward; unless the front seats are at their farthest-back travel, you can do that with one arm.

If you’re okay—perhaps even happier—with a vehicle that’s more spartan and utilitarian than lavish, the feel of the Crosstrek’s interior will fit you well. The down side, however, is that the cabin appointments never really feel greater than the Crosstrek’s price tag. With the Crosstrek’s LCD trip meter and base audio readouts, and its generally pleasant but very basic-feeling interior trims and surfaces, the Crosstrek cabin simply feels done on a budget, and the materials themselves aren’t all that much different than those that Subaru was using a decade or more ago. Its dash is topped with soft-touch surfaces, however, which helps bring better first impressions.
As a nod to the Crosstrek’s taller stance, Subaru added rollover sensors for the side-curtain bags (a feature the Impreza doesn’t get). Outward visibility is far better than in most other crossover vehicles, thanks to a reasonably low beltline, relatively thin front pillars, and enough rear glass to give you a good wrap-around view.

Priced to move—on road or off

Subaru hasn’t yet announced pricing details for the Crosstrek, which goes on sale in September, but it has pegged the base 2013 XV Crosstrek Premium at just $21,995. And that includes keyless entry, air conditioning, power accessories, cruise control, and the removable rear cargo tray. The base audio system in the Premium comes with Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, as well as a USB port and iPod connectivity, but its limited-character display makes scrolling through media-player contents a crapshoot.

Step up to the Limited model and you get leather upholstery, leather shift-knob and steering-wheel trim, automatic climate control, a fold-down rear-seat armrest with cupholders. Limited models also get a step-up display audio system with 4.3-inch screen, rear camera and HD Radio. On either the Premium or Limited you can option up to a navigation system with 6.1-inch screen, voice control, text-messaging capability, satellite radio, and XM NavTraffic.

The system includes an SD slot prominently on the face, so we tried inputting a 16-GB SD card with music and it simply failed to read. A Subaru representative said that the slot is for map data only, and using an external USB/SD adapter we were able to access all the music.

From our first brief drive, we can’t help but have quite a bit of admiration for the Crosstrek, which feels deft in many ways that some alternatives don’t. And its smooth, refined ride is a step above rival models like the Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and Mini Countryman. Like that multi-purpose tool, or a good cross-training shoe, the Crosstrek sacrifices just a little bit of leanness in favor of a wide, one-fits-all attitude toward pretty much anything you might encounter on the commute or on the weekend. If you don’t have the space for a garage full of specialized vehicles, the Crosstrek is a solid, economical, and very capable way to get wherever you want to be.
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