For old school off-road adventure purists, it’s a little sad to watch truck-based SUVs melt away in this era of high-riding hatchbacks we call “crossovers.” But if the main goal is getting out there, the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek is basically a better SUV than your dad’s straight-axle box-frame big rig ever was.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru flew me to South Dakota and set up an elaborate camp site in the middle of a field where myself and other journalists were treated to very comfortable tents, chef-made food and an open bar to get me to tell you about the new Crosstrek.)
The 2018 Crosstrek—which is a brand new car for 2018, if you can believe it—would be smashed to bits by the Rubicon Trail and be liable to cough up a piston if you hitched it to a horse trailer.
But it’s cheap, it doesn’t suck to sit in for several hours and it’s exactly as off-road capable as it needs to be without sacrificing compact car fuel economy.
If you want school-bus passenger capacity or extreme pulling power, you still need a traditional truckish SUV. But if efficiency, reliability and safety are the capabilities you care about, the Crosstrek starts to look pretty stout.
The Crosstrek is a compact crossover with generous ground clearance, room for four adults (technically five, but come on) plus a decent drop of cargo and suspension that’s surprisingly willing to cope with a fast flogging over bumps.
Subaru’s entire totem pole of vehicles is pretty much dedicated to this idea of “accessible adventure,” and that’s manifested in various degrees of size and performance. The Crosstrek is one of the cheapest all-wheel drive five-door cars on the market, period.
The basic models start at about $22,000 and a fully-loaded Limited can ring up as high as $30,000. But the mid-range $24,000 Premium trim gets you most of the Crosstrek’s most important features for what seems like a decent deal.
That’s proven to be a popular formula– Subaru sold almost 100,000 Crosstreks last year, and company executives say the model’s success was still trending up in the first generation’s final months of production. So as a reward for its big role in boosting Subaru’s bottom line, the Crosstrek’s getting its first real redesign for 2018.
On the outside Subaru clearly knows it has a hit and didn’t want to change much. But the car sits on a new platform, with a new engine, a new interior, and perhaps most importantly, a new rear-hatch opening. More on that later.
Basically, “unless it’s a nut or bolt or fastener, everything’s a new part,” a Subaru engineer introducing the car proclaimed.
The Crosstrek weighs 3,200 pounds, which you’ll feel every ounce of as you try to coax any sort of speed out of the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter boxer engine that quacks out 152 horsepower and 134 lb-ft of torque.
But I’m willing to forgive the engine’s gentle pace of acceleration because it’s paid back with a 33 highway mpg rating. And our CVT-equipped test car’s trip computer claimed even better efficiency after about 100 miles of South Dakota back-roading.
Combine that with the car’s massive 16.6-gallon fuel tank and you’re looking at a 500-plus mile cruising range.
That suffers a bit if you pick the six-speed manual transmission, which is only rated to a max of 29 mpg. The manual cars run a constant 50/50 front/rear power split, while CVTs automatically vary distribution most efficiently. And I’m guessing it also has something to do with the fact that the CVT is smarter and smoother than any human pilot could hope to be.
If you take your Crosstrek off-road, where miles per gallon drop to dismal digits no matter what you’re driving, the numbers you’ll want to know about are: 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 18 degrees of approach angle, 29 degrees of departure angle, and 19.7 degrees of breakover angle.
That makes the Crosstrek higher off the ground than a Chevy Tahoe, and matched up exactly with the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. That Jeep’s climbing angles are a little more aggressive, but it’s also eight inches shorter (and a couple hundred pounds porkier) than the Crosstrek.
Inside, Subaru claims the new Crosstrek has 20.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which expands to 55.3 cubic feet with those seats folded down. Practically speaking, it swallowed my backpack like a baby Aspirin and looked like it had more than enough space for four people’s weekend camping gear.
That rear hatch I mentioned has been widened by about four inches, making it much easier to load mountain bikes into the car’s cargo space than it would have been in the earlier car.
If you’ve got more to lug, the Crosstrek has a 1,500 pound tow rating which is enough to load up a little utility trailer or pull a couple dirt bikes.
It would be possible to sleep in this car, with the front seats pushed all the way up and no cargo inside, but you’d have to put some kind of soft flat thing in place to do it in anything close to comfort. Subaru puts the “max floor length” at 64.2 inches, so anyone much taller than five feet will need to be bent. I’m six-foot scrawny and I think I could sleep straight, solo, by putting my head (or feet) on the center console.
As for road performance, the only spec that matters is the Crosstrek’s turning circle, which is an impressively tight 35.4 feet. I’m not going to bother looking up 0 to 60 times because the car’s engineers are probably still counting.
The Crosstrek’s styling reflects is personality perfectly: Just enough notches above anonymous everycar to be interesting without getting in your face. Simple but strong lines outside carry into the interior, which is clean and robust with cool shapes converging where the doors meet the dashboard.
Both cloth and leather seat options are comfortable, but the fanciest Limited spec gets a large infotainment screen and very pretty color displays to match between the gauges and up high on the dashboard.
The top trim’s suite of apps is so comprehensive that users have three in-dash navigation options: TomTom, which is the car’s baked-in default, Magellan, which can be accessed through a separate download, and Google Maps or Apple Maps, depending on which type of phone you connect. So technically four nav systems. I guess maybe more, depending on whatever Android Auto or Apple CarPlay let you port to the car’s screen.
Once you’re underway and following one of those map lines, the Crosstrek’s ride is pleasantly uneventful. Especially if you’re running the CVT.
I enjoyed driving the manual-transmission version of this car for its own sake. The clutch has some healthy weight to it, the shifter throw is medium-length and gear engagement isn’t memorably impressive but it didn’t feel sloppy or slushy.
Since I’m a grumpy old three-pedal evangelist, I’d have to have a six-speed Crosstrek myself. But as much as it pains me to admit, the CVT provides a superior driving experience.
We’ve all heard horror stories about CVTs droning, breaking, and generally sucking the life out of driving. But the Crosstrek’s doesn’t make any annoying noises or helplessly hunt for power. It does exactly what engineers dreamed about when the concept of a continuously variable transmission was cooked up- it smoothly keeps the car in its powerband when you step on the gas, and drops your RPMs as low as possible when you’re trying to save fuel.
And if you do manage to carry excessive speed in the Crosstrek, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well its suspension soaks up the kinds of ruts, rocks and drops that punctuate every forest service road.
We hit as many rough patches and puddles as we could find. Even at a gallop, I couldn’t get the shocks to clap all the way to their limits. Now, with a little more weight in the car, over rougher terrain, I’m sure you could find the end of a Crosstrek’s suspension travel. But it took South Dakota’s rough stuff in stride well enough to impress my sensitive spine.
Regardless of which transmission you pick, how much weight the car is carrying or how steep a hill you find yourself driving down, the Crosstrek is almost comically slow.
Thankfully, Subaru has softened the weirdly aggressive throttle-tip that made its last generation of cars absolutely rocket from 0 to 3 mph before dropping off what felt like a cliff of power. But you can pretty much make yourself comfortable, grab a beverage and catch up with an old friend in the time it takes a Crosstrek to get from a stop to highway speed.
I’m also not totally sure what to make of X-Mode.
If you spring for the $1,000 CVT option, you also get a button on the center console that “optimizes” the Crosstrek’s engine, transmission, AWD system, brakes and traction control for exceptionally slippery surfaces at low speed. X-Mode also calls a cool digital inclinometer to the dash in the more expensive Limited trim cars.
X-Mode has been a Subaru thing for some time, but it’s new for the Crosstrek this year. So Subaru’s henchmen had us drive the car down a steep pile of rocks in a quarry to witness X-Mode hold the vehicle at a low speed on the slope. I mean, it worked, we didn’t die. But it felt like the car was just doing a lot of dragging locked wheels down the hill.
I’m not ready to say it has a significant practical advantage over just, you know, using the brakes normally and steering carefully on a slippery surface.
The “Sport” in “Sport Utility” was always supposed to be about where a vehicle could take you, like a ski hill or a fishing lake, not what feats of strength or speed the machine itself could pull off.
The Crosstrek won’t blow your hair back throw boulders with its tires, but it can pretty much get you to any place your hobbies happen. And the car’s so cheap to own and operate that you’ll be able to splurge on stuff like mountain bikes and BPA-free water bottles to put in it.
This vehicle’s mild off-roading abilities are enough to give it an edge of adventurousness over its non-Jeep rivals, too. But better than that, the Crosstrek’s ergonomics and interior materials make the car a really nice place to be regardless of how deep into the woods you’re taking it.
A truly “ultimate” SUV would be as efficient and easygoing as the Crosstrek with the passenger capacity and pulling power of a V8 Chevy Suburban. But since that’s not physically possible, you’ve got to focus on the capabilities you’re going to lean on the most when you pick your overland machine.
And I think fuel economy and reliability will get more people on more adventures than size and strength.