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By Justin Pritchard
I talk up the first-generation Subaru Crosstrek quite a bit. It’s my most common recommendation when friends and family ask what’s a “good little crossover” these days. It’s a model that I’ve come to appreciate for its honest approach to what it is and isn’t, as well as for its better-than-average ability to maintain a nice ride on roads that aren’t.
Those were my main impressions after about 3,000 kilometres spent test-driving first-generation Crosstreks in 2013 and 2016 — about 1,500 kilometres apiece, in the dead of a Sudbury, Ont. winter.
I repeated my 1,500-kilometre voyage for the third time a few weeks back in the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek, priced at about $30,000 in its Outdoor trim with Eyesight. This was my first drive of a second-generation Crosstrek, and in my books, it had some big shoes to fill.
To be clear, I’ve long considered the Crosstrek’s secret sauce to be how it handled itself on really rough roads — for instance, turning in a wince-free drive over the sort of craggy and crumbling goat paths that pass for roadways in parts of my locale. On roads like this, the Crosstrek always surprised with its lack of the brittle, fragile feel common of many crossovers like it. It feels tough and durable, even on the sort of roads where most small crossovers don’t.
Steps from my driveway is a side road that’s had more corrective surgery than a botched marathon. It’s heaved and sagged, and has been dug up and cold-patched so many times, you’d break an ankle walking on much of it. I love this road, because it’s a great ride quality exercise in a machine like the Crosstrek: useful for separating the machines that crash into the bumps from the ones that actually work at smoothing them out.
A few passes in my tester confirmed my hopes: the DNA of the original machine’s suspension has been successfully transplanted. The new Crosstrek clips nicely along busted-to-hell roads without turning your spinal cord into confetti. If my memory serves me correctly, there’s less noise coming in from beneath, too. And so, thanks in part to its plump tires and nicely tuned shocks, the Crosstrek sails smoothly and quietly over the sort of surfaces that cause competitor suspensions to clatter and clank like a sword battle in Game of Thrones. Unpleasant noises and feedback common of small crossovers on Sudbury sideroads are very nicely managed.
By the way, if you’re cross-shopping the Crosstrek against its competitors, the Toyota CH-R, Jeep Compass and Cherokee, and Nissan Qashqai are similarly above-average on roads like this. Still, I’d say the Crosstrek is the rough-road ride-quality champ in my books. (Worth noting the Toyota CH-R is FWD-only.)
On a light off-road trail, I wasn’t left wanting for suspension travel or clearance. There’s also unpainted cladding to take any abuse directed towards the bumper from trail debris that might pass beneath. Translation? You probably won’t bottom out, you probably won’t scratch your paint, and the Crosstrek’s ride feels like it was made for a bit of off-road adventure. It’s a good setup, if you want to get out exploring.
Out back, there’s 1,565 litres of cargo space, a nice and wide opening for the tailgate, and easy canine jump-in height for a large or mid-sized pooch. Further ahead, rear seats have decent adult space — it’s not stretch-out roomy, though I was able to sit behind my five-foot-10 self without a problem. The front seats draw in the eyes with their smooth, matte texture and neon green stitching and embroidering. The no-gloss, leather-like material gives a slick, soft touch of unique and futuristic flair.
Thing is, you mostly sit on those while looking at the dashboard — and the Crosstrek’s forward scenery isn’t the freshest or most modern-looking in the game. If you’re shopping with interior styling as a high priority, you might find comparable machinery from Mazda, Hyundai, Kia or Buick to look more up to date, cohesive and upscale — especially where display graphics and certain switchgear is concerned.
The Crosstrek’s cabin does create a good atmosphere, though. Full smartphone connectivity and a big, bright screen keeps you connected with voice commands, storage provisions and charging ports within reach are generous, and a handy smartphone app lets drivers check in on their Crosstrek while they’re away, working the locks, lights, or even setting GPS fences and speed limit warnings to help young drivers follow the rules when borrowing the car. Further to the delight of cold-blooded northerners like me hitting the road at 5:30 a.m., the bulk of the Crosstrek’s buttons, controls, and dials are easy to use while wearing thick gloves and shivering vigorously at -37 C. (Or, just use the remote start function from the Smartphone app from somewhere warm).
Steering and handling seem lively enough, and while Crosstrek isn’t opposed to some spirited driving, it doesn’t beg for it, either. It’s a good bit of fun due to its size and the low, wide placement of that flat-four engine under the hood, but really, it’s doing its best work on a more laid-back drive. My tester ran the now-available 2.5-litre Boxer four-cylinder engine — a second and higher-performing engine option with 182 horsepower and a solid shove into your seat when merging and passing. Light-footed drivers will likely find this bigger engine doing less work and making less noise, more of the time, too.
At your right hand is a CVT, which works like an automatic but delivers power on a smooth and endless wave, rather than with gears that shift up and down. If you prefer, some versions of the new Crosstrek can be had with a manual transmission, albeit with the base 2.0-litre, 152-horsepower engine.
Other notables include the Eyesight safety system, which powers a network of advanced safety features that are easily monitored and manipulated as new drivers try them out for the first time. In action, most drivers can expect the Eyesight features to work smoothly and predictably, and to become second nature before long. Another confidence booster is the Crosstrek’s X-Mode selector. If you’ll be encountering some very deep snow, or a slippery off-road trail, tapping the X-Mode button toggles special drive mode settings designed to enhance traction when things get tricky, if you need it.
Gripes? The halogen headlights look more yellow and dated compared to up-level LED headlights you’ll find elsewhere, though they do perform nicely. The on-screen graphics in the various displays are improved but still short of the market’s best, and some rear-seat passengers may find themselves catching their thigh on the slightly-tight rear door opening.
In summation: the Crosstrek isn’t the raciest or most modern-looking machine in its universe, but it’s an improved crossover I’ll continue recommending for its top-notch ride comfort and adventuresome character for years to come.